INTRO: Director General of SJ Daniel Johannesson described to Andrew Hellawell his plans to strengthen the railway’s role as the driving force of reform among Europe’s railways, to expand beyond its existing domestic market, and to exploit changes which have wiped out track access charges

IT’S JUST five months since Daniel Johannesson took over from Stig Larsson as Director General of Swedish State Railways. What are his first impressions of the business? ’It’s a job with a high profile, because railways matter to people in a way you don’t appreciate from the outside.’

Johannesson brings with him experience of the strong competition in the telecommunications sector. Is what he has found at SJ a pleasant surprise, or does one of Europe’s more radical railways need to make further changes? ’It’s important to feel on the move - in all jobs there is danger in staying the same. But there’s a natural trend in the direction we are going, and so I think change will both continue and accelerate in certain areas.’

But herein lies a problem in relation to mainland European railways. ’We hope they never catch us up - we must stay ahead. But it is essential for our customers to reach markets efficiently, and that’s not happening at the moment.’

SJ is making great strides in achieving that efficiency, and continued rationalisation will see the workforce cut by 10% over the next three years. Johannesson hopes that SJ can share its experiences. ’We hope that we will be an attractive partner, and that we could play a role in achieving change on the continent. There are many things we can learn from the process of demonopolisation in the telecommunications industry. Many of the companies exploiting the new opportunities were completely new to the sector, rather than established businesses in the field.’ He would like to see other railways within Europe taking part in the transformation - rather than an invasion from other transport sectors. ’Existing operators must realise that they have an active part to play in the demonopolisation process. They shouldn’t just sit on their hands.’

Charging revolution

’You should never allow the search for a perfect solution to prevent a good solution’ is how Johannesson explains SJ’s reaction to proposals to eliminate track access charges. If that seems rather muted, then it’s because ’it’s the second best solution. The best is to have proper charging for all modes, but it’s not politically possible.’

Sweden is years ahead of most countries in attempting to level the playing field between road and rail. Since the creation of Banverket 10 years ago, there has been a systematic attempt to encourage road traffic to switch to rail by increasing fuel taxes, and reducing rail access charges. But the 60 tonne limit on Sweden’s lorries and remaining rail costs have failed to have the desired effect. Tougher measures were needed, and these have come in the form of the government’s plans to revise charges.

The Swedish parliament approved legislation at the end of May which will further deregulate the transport market from January 1 next year. Long-distance buses will be allowed to compete directly against rail corridors, and to increase rail freight competition the control of industry tracks will be transferred from SJ to Banverket.

The effects are already being felt by SJ’s customers, with charges being reduced in areas which will maximise the railway’s competitiveness. For example, to head off bus competition, SJ is offering lower fares for target markets such as old people and students.

’The value of the lower infrastructure charges will be given away’, says Johannesson. ’They will be translated into a range of benefits for customers, through targeted price offers, better services, and introduction of new trains’, and these will be guided by market conditions and competition.

New lines - new business

SJ has benefited considerably from the commissioning of new infrastructure, with a number of schemes begun by Banverket now opening for traffic. These include the reconstructed Svealandsbanan, opened on June 9 1997. This has seen much higher traffic than expected, and property values have soared along the south shore of the Mälaren, as commuters realise the potential of a fast, comfortable trip into Stockholm.

Work is progressing well on the Mälarbanan route along the north shore from Stockholm to Västerås and Örebro (photos p529), and on the upgrading of the West Coast main line from Malm