DECEMBER 2011 witnessed an important event in the history of Austria's railways, with the launch of the country's first open-access inter-city services. Westbahn operates 13 return services a day on the Vienna - Linz - Salzburg - Freilassing route, providing a two-hourly service in competition with Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB).
And the competition is intense. Westbahn entered the market with ticket prices set at 50% of ÖBB's full fare, equivalent to the maximum discount offered to holders of ÖBB's Vorteilscard, across all of its services.
Naturally ÖBB was eager to ensure that the new entrant did not deplete revenues on its most lucrative route, on which it has enjoyed a monopoly for so long. It responded by discounting fares, heavily in some cases, which has hit Westbahn revenues hard. ÖBB offered a limited number of Vienna - Salzburg tickets at just €19, and Vienna - Linz at €9. This undercut Westbahn, which in turn was forced to discount its own fares to compete.
Westbahn also alleges ÖBB attempted to prevent it from accessing station facilities. The Austrian rail regulator is currently adjudicating on a case brought by Westbahn, which claims ÖBB banned Westbahn promotional staff from working at stations. Another issue is the display of real-time passenger information on connecting ÖBB services on Westbahn trains. This case is now at the European Court of Justice.
Nonetheless, tumbling prices have been greeted enthusiastically by passengers. Westbahn trains are well loaded, with around 7500 passengers on a typical weekday and 12,000 during weekends. ÖBB also reports improved loadings on many of its services, and overall long-distance ticket sales rose by 3% in the first half of this year, compared with the corresponding period in 2011, although the extent of discounting on the Vienna - Salzburg route meant this was not accompanied by revenue growth.
Indeed, the price war has forced both sides to look at how they can protect their revenue. As a result, Westbahn accepts season tickets on certain sections of the route, such as Vienna - St Pölten, which draws in plenty of passengers but only limited revenue from the integrated ticketing organisation issuing these tickets.
The ambitious business plan by CEO Dr Stefan Wehinger, co-founder of the company and a former CEO of ÖBB's passenger division, had foreseen positive results after just one year of operation, but this target will not be met. This was one of the reasons behind his sudden resignation from the company in June.
Wehinger subsequently sold his shares in Rail Holding, Westbahn's parent company, to the other shareholders. Co-founder Mr Hans-Peter Haselsteiner (CEO of construction company Strabag), and SNCF Voyages each hold 35%, while Swiss investment company Augusta Holding owns 30%.
With no ticketing facilities at stations, all Westbahn tickets are sold either onboard the train or via the internet. Some discount tickets are also available at tobacco shops. Westbahn says it sells 80% of its tickets on board, which is challenging for stewards, even with four to six on each train. Tickets can also be purchased at machines situated in the vestibules of each coach.
Westbahn operates a fleet of 13 purpose-built Kiss double-deck emus supplied by Stadler. The 200km/h six-car trains were approved just a few days before the start of services, but nevertheless have operated extremely reliably from the outset with very few failures. They are being maintained by Stadler at a new depot situated on the site of the Voestalpine steelworks in Linz. Stadler employs staff from Voestalpine's open-access railfreight subsidiary Logserv, which also operates a depot nearby. Maintenance is usually carried out during layover at night as all seven sets are required to cover the intensive timetable. If a set requires daytime maintenance, a slightly reduced timetable can be operated which requires just six trains in service.
Westbahn employs its own traincrews, although some drivers are provided by other operators. Westbahn is reducing its requirement for hired-in drivers by training its own.
At present Westbahn trains stop at Vienna Hütteldorf, St Pölten, Linz, Wels, and Attnang-Puchheim with a journey time of 2h 59min for the 308km trip between Vienna and Salzburg. This compares favourably with 3h 4min for ÖBB Inter-City trains and 2h 45min for the fastest ÖBB Railjet services, which have fewer stops.
With the opening of the new Vienna - St Pölten high-speed line in December, both ÖBB and Westbahn will benefit from a 25-minute reduction in journey time, a development that will doubtless help to make rail a more attractive option for long-distance journeys.
There will be further changes in December 2014 when the new main station in Vienna becomes fully operational. By this date ÖBB will divert all of its Railjet services to the new station together with most, if not all of its Inter-City trains. However Westbahn services will continue to operate out of Vienna West.
Through the challenges of its early months, Westbahn has proved that it was able to start its new service on schedule and is now one of the few European open-access operators to offer frequent long-distance services. Although revenue is somewhat behind expectations, Westbahn is confident it can achieve positive results during 2013.