STRIKES THAT brought services on the Austrian Federal network to a halt during November in protest at the government’s plans to reform the national railway proved to be of no avail. Legislation that will force through a complete restructuring of ÖBB was passed by parliament on December 4, and railway management and trade unions must now come to terms with radical change.

It is a major shake-up that will inject fresh thinking into one of Europe’s more conservative railways. An umbrella holding company with a strategic brief will be set up to oversee four main subsidiaries structured as commercial businesses. These will be responsible for passenger traffic, freight traffic, infrastructure maintenance and day-to-day running of the infrastructure. Other companies will handle the provision of traction, technical services and property management, while a service company will be established to allow staff to be retrained or transferred to private contractors and off the national railway’s payroll.

Legislation to permit changes to the rights and conditions of employment from April 2004 was also envisaged, but this was withdrawn pending an agreement being thrashed out between ÖBB management and the trade unions. If no deal is reached, the planned legislation will be reinstated.

While State Secretary for Transport Helmut Kukacka rejoiced that ’the last shackles of the state railway will be thrown off’, opposition politicians were less charitable. Head of the Social Democratic Party Dr Alfred Gusenbauer accused the government of behaving as if it were reorganising ’a hot-dog stand’, while transport spokesman Kurt Eder said the government was bent on destroying the railway and did not care about the real questions of transport policy.

Austria’s politicians have had plenty of opportunity to understand the lessons so painfully learnt elsewhere in Europe. Whether the structure they have chosen for ÖBB will generate the desired cost savings and service improvements remains to be seen.