Switzerland is known to have a comprehensive and dense rail network which, despite some difficult terrain, remains efficient, popular and affordable. Recently, however, the railways have become a victim of their own success. Passenger figures have outstripped even the most optimistic estimates in the last two years, especially on commuter routes, creating a number of problematic bottlenecks. With this trend predicted to continue, officials agree that action is required.
Mr Max Friedli, director of the Swiss Federal Office of Transport (BAV), said it is up to his office to take the lead on rail development up to 2030. And with concrete plans - not just a vision - already in place, clearly BAV is committed to meeting this challenge.
BAV's Rail 2030 will be implemented from 2011, to complement an existing programme to develop Swiss railway infrastructure. At a cost of SFr 5.4 billion ($US 5.5 billion), the programme is designed to maximise the potential of existing infrastructure, to increase capacity and improve connections. Under Rail 2030, BAV will evaluate all the most urgent projects for expanding the network, although Friedli is well aware that it will be impossible to fulfil everybody's wishes; expensive plans for underground stations, for example, are unlikely to go ahead.
Mr Andreas Meyer, CEO of Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) is similarly optimistic about meeting the network's challenges. He hopes that the delivery of additional double-deck trains in June will go some way to easing the problematic bottlenecks, but also emphasised the importance of maintaining the existing heavily-used network, which is going to cost even more in the years to come as newly constructed elements come on line.
In order for these measures to be successful, sufficient financing of the railways is critical, because as Mr Moritz Leuenberger, Swiss minister of transport pointed out, the extent of the railway's achievements in the next 20 years will depend on how much can be spent.
With the fixed costs of rail transport extremely high - especially in a mountainous country like Switzerland - traditional funding sources such as users' revenue, the FinöV truck toll fund which finances infrastructure projects for public transport, and a contribution from sales and mineral oil taxes, are no longer sufficient. In order to meet the challenges raised during the symposium, Leuenberger believes that new sources of finance must be found, pointing to the use of taxpayers' money as a legitimate solution to future funding shortfalls.
Mobility pricing was also suggested by Leuenberger, Meyer, and Mr Ralf Jahncke, president and CEO of the consultancy company TransCare, as a further potential revenue source. Such a system encourages car pooling and use of park-and-ride services while providing incentives for avoiding peak times. Officials agreed that the scheme holds great potential for the healthy development of transport in general and should be implemented soon.
Inevitably the question of liberalisation dominated much of the discussion. While the international railfreight sector in Switzerland is already liberalised, Mr Bernard Guillemon, chairman of train operator BLS, emphasised the need to tread carefully in liberalising the passenger sector.
Mr Andreas Hämmerle, Swiss National Council member and president of the Transport and Communications Commission offered a similar view. He pointed out that without liberalisation public transport in Switzerland is a success story unequalled anywhere in Europe. Like Meyer, he argued that it is a great deal easier to run an efficient system if one company is in charge of both operations and the network. However, Mr Georg Jarzembowski, a member of the European Parliament spoke in favour of liberalising the network because it would encourage competition and create a choice of optimal services.
The symposium's last word was left to Mr Mathias Tromp, a former chairman of BLS and the panel's moderator. Summing up the consensus reached during the session, Tromp said it was clear that by 2030 Switzerland's public transport sector would like to see expanded rail infrastructure with improvements in reliability, punctuality and passenger comfort at an affordable price - for the public transport sector is the glue that sticks the country together. As for liberalisation, the EU may have called for liberalisation in the rail sector, he said, but how much EU legislation can Switzerland - not an EU member - stand? A good question - and one that needs very careful thought.