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Marriage of convenience

30 Nov 2000

SWITZERLAND: Swiss Federal Railways and the Mittelthurgau Railway announced a surprise tie-up on November 3 with the formation of the East Switzerland Regional Railway (Regionalbahn Ostschweiz, RBO).

MThB took over passenger services on the Schaffhausen - Kreuzlingen - Romanshorn route in May 1998, taking delivery in September that year of the first of a fleet of Stadler-built GTW2/6 twin-unit electric railcars with which it began to upgrade services. At the time, MThB's action was seen as the first move in a game that might end up in privatisation of a large number of SBB's regional routes, hence the surprise when the joint venture was announced. MThB remains a competitor in the freight business (RG 7.00 p439), and there was some suggestion that the smaller railway might be in financial trouble.

It turned out that MThB had suffered a liquidity problem because of an unforeseen need to spend SFr53m on infrastructure improvements, but this will be refunded by the state.

RBO is being set up as a small, flexible organisation able to bid for passenger services in Switzerland and south Germany that are likely to put out to tender in the near future. The next phase of liberalisation of the Swiss transport market is due by the end of 2002, and it is already clear that serious attempts to gain a foothold in Switzerland are being made by Connex, VIA-GTI and others.

According to MThB chief Peter Joss, one route being targeted for operation by RBO is Konstanz to Offenburg and Karlsruhe. MThB already has approval to run in Germany, but it needs the financial might of SBB to compete against other bidders. SBB holds a majority share in the new company, which is expected to have an annual turnover of around SFr100m after it gets off the ground in 2002. Considerable investment in new rolling stock is envisaged to allow more frequent services to be operated and to attract new business.

RBO also has its eyes on parts of Austria, where several branch lines are being tendered out as an alternative to closure following Austrian Federal Railways' decision to discontinue passenger services. RBO could find itself competing against the Graz-Köflacher Eisenbahn, which is understood to be in discussion with Vivendi-owned Deutsche Eisenbahn Gesellschaft which has experience of running several regional routes in Germany. GKE has submitted a bid to run services on the 26 km line between Friedberg and Oberwart and has expressed interest in the 18 km from Leoben to Vordernberg, both routes being close to GKE's existing routes based in Graz.

  • On November 11 a train carrying skiers up the Kitzsteinhorn funicular from the Austrian resort of Kaprun was destroyed in a fire as it passed through a tunnel; 155 people died in the worst disaster on a mountain railway.