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Swiss trains struggle to stick to the timetable

Benedikt Weibel takes the train

(Keystone)

Delays have tarnished Swiss Federal Railways' image this year, but CEO Benedikt Weibel tells swissinfo that the problems are well in hand.

A year ago, to much fanfare, the Railways rolled out an ambitious revamp of its services, with shorter journey times and many more trains.

But passengers relishing the prospect of faster commutes, and less time spent in stations, were soon hearing apologetic announcements about delays and cancellations.

Then, on a sweltering day in June, the unthinkable happened: the entire network collapsed, leaving hundreds of thousands stranded in stations and tunnels across the country.

Since then a blackout has been avoided but the delays have persisted, further undermining the Railways' world-class reputation.

Compounding Weibel's problems are a pension shortfall at the Railways and red ink at the cargo division.

swissinfo: It's been a difficult year for the Railways – in particular a power blackout in June tarnished your image and brought you negative headlines. What lessons have you learned?

Benedikt Weibel: The Railways is not immune from breakdowns and poor performance. There's nothing new about that, except that in the past year hundreds of thousands of passengers have experienced these problems.

I regret that very much, and extend my apologies [as I did before]. The incidents in question have demonstrated how important it is to be well prepared and to think the unthinkable. We must become better at anticipating problems.

swissinfo: The Swiss network is dense and you offered more trains from December 12 last year. At the beginning everything seemed to go fairly smoothly but there have increasingly been delays. What's the problem and how are you trying to solve it?

B.W.: The problem is not the new timetable, which was introduced a year ago. This has proved to be extremely stable.

What has affected us are events such as bad weather, a computer failure in Zurich at the start of the year, and flooding in August. The problems associated with these events have made our customers question the quality of our services.

We have had problems with delays, although on average the trains do run on time. We are working hard to further improve the quality of our services for passengers.

swissinfo: The transport minister, Moritz Leuenberger, said that this year the management really did not deserve full bonuses. Do you agree?

B.W.: A bonus is part of my salary, and each year the amount is determined according to a prescribed range. Because 2004 was an excellent year for the Railways, it is not surprising that my bonus this year is smaller, given the difficulties and the financial pressures.

That is the nature of bonuses – they are flexible.

swissinfo: There were calls for you as the CEO to go. What was your reaction? Did you ever think of throwing in the towel?

B.W.: Yes, I thought about resigning, but that was in 1994. That was a bad year with several serious accidents.

The discussion last summer [after the blackout] was driven by parts of the media. It was never an issue in serious discussions, and I see no grounds for such a move.

swissinfo: How far away is the positive bottom line at the Railways' cargo division?

B.W.: We were close in 2004 and we expected to break even this year. But the weight limit for lorries [on Swiss roads] was increased to 40 tons [from 28] in 2005, which meant less freight on trains. So we will stay in the red this year.

In the meantime, we've implemented the necessary cost savings, and our aim is to be out of deficit in 2007.

swissinfo: How much of a problem is your obligation to the pension fund of the Swiss Federal Railways? This will weigh on your balance sheet for years?

B.W.: The problem with the pension fund is my biggest headache. The provisions are still substantial, but without help from the government the problem can't be solved. I'm pleased that a working group set up by the government is now looking for a solution.

But even if the government takes over responsibility for those already drawing a pension – which account for more than half of those in the scheme - we would still be left with a shortfall of more than SFr1 billion for employees who have yet to retire.

This is a problem we have to solve ourselves, together with our employees. Until it is resolved, the shortfall will continue to have a massive impact on our bottom line.

swissinfo: On December 11, smoking on trains will finally be banned. What took you so long?

B.W.: It was never our intention to proceed alone. The acceptance of smoke-free areas has grown considerably in recent years, and so it was possible for all the organisations involved in public transport to come to a common position.

For us, the priority is to protect non-smokers from passive smoking.

swissinfo: Is the Swiss Federal Railways the best in the world?

B.W.: The European Union recently released a ranking of railways worldwide. It concluded that the Swiss Federal Railways, with its tight network structure, number of trains and combination of services (for passengers and goods in trains travelling at different speeds), was the most comprehensive in the world.

When we consider the extensive scale of our Railways in relation to the quality of service, there is no doubt that we have an outstanding railway system.

swissinfo-interview: Robert Brookes

Key facts

The Federal Railways transports about 253 million passengers and 58 million metric tons of freight each year.
In the 12 months since the timetable was revamped in December 2004, the Federal Railways transported 7.5 per cent more passengers.
During the period from January to November 2005, 95.64% of all trains reached their destination on time or less than five minutes behind schedule.
Almost 800 stations across the country have hourly or half-hourly train services.

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In brief

In 2004 the Federal Railways had a workforce of more than 28,300, down 1.2% on 2003.

The state-run company posted half-year losses of SFr36.6 million ($28.6 million).

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