Westbahn: A Rough Start on Austria's Privatised Rails

The new private rail company Westbahn quickly learns that the ride is not always smooth in the arena of competition

Top Stories | Christopher Anderson | March 2012

When its first sky blue and olive green trains set off on the route between Vienna and Salzburg in December 2011, Westbahn founder Stefan Wehinger and his team knew the climb would be steep, and that the details would make the difference.

The main draw is the €23.80 fare between the two cities, roughly half the standard Austrian Rail (ÖBB) fare, and equal to that for holders of ÖBB Advantage Cards (Vorteilskarte). At the Westbahn's launch, the ÖBB also offered comparable tickets to the general public, although with a limited number available before returning to the original fare. Advantage: Westbahn.

In addition, it offers free WiFi on all of its trains, a step ÖBB is now implementing on only some of its Railjets. Advantage: Westbahn.

The newcomer also tried to capitalise on Austria’s smokers by offering them a lounge for satisfying their urge. However, a court injunction on 16 Jan. forced Westbahn to remain smoke-free, pending a legal investigation of their rights. You win some, you lose some.

Riders notice the details that make Westbahn competitive. On a snowy Sunday afternoon in February, the six railcars of the Vienna-bound train were packed with passengers taking advantage of the €9 fare for adults and 1€ for children offered on weekends for the entire network until 1 Apr. A mother was relaxing on the bench, while her two children lay in the aisle in fits of giggles, repeatedly saying "Ready, steady, go", followed by a sound of flatulence from their lips. An attendant in a sleek grey vest and azure cap passed through with a smile, sold them the three tickets for €11, and picked up a nearby empty cup, demonstrating the type of service usually offered by a stewardess on an airplane.

"I’m ticket saleswoman, ticket-taker, waitress, and sometimes I have to be a psychologist," she commented. She related an interaction she had with a passenger whose relative had just passed away, resulting in a heart-to-heart chat one wouldn’t expect from a train attendant. Her informal style was clearly popular with passengers, as some riders recognised her and had intentionally sat in her car.

"But for now, I’m the cleaning lady," she said, reaching down to pick up a napkin.

Not expecting this kind of service, many riders were bewildered by the lack of rubbish bins, which are located near the steward's station. There, one finds vending machines with drinks, and a meagre selection of edibles, like croissants, salads, and sandwiches. Riders can also place their order with the steward. Other minor details stand out, such as the small overhead compartments, since luggage can be stowed beneath the leg-less seats. All trains are wheelchair accessible, and passengers can buy the ticket on board without an extra charge.

However, not everyone is excited about the privatisation of Austria's rail network, once ruled by the red trains seen as the "national rail". For some, the "P-word" is a curse, especially given the disastrous privatisation of British Rail in the 1990s. But unlike the British model of "unbundling and franchising", in which the entire network was sold off to private companies to run specific lines, the European Union's approach is one of open access, in which multiple firms operate on the same network.

Westbahn is one among many such firms emerging throughout the privatised rail network of Europe. Sweden's Veolia Transport is perhaps the most successful, with its service between Malmö and Stockholm. Thello is a Franco-Italian venture with service between Paris and Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome. The Czech Republic’s RegioJet covers the main routes in the country with slightly less expensive fares than the national České Dráhy, and even offers direct connections to London and Oslo.

Many turn to Westbahn's Facebook page to voice grievances and praise. Like the stewards and stewardesses, Westbahn is engaging, with Wehinger himself chiming into the conversation. Yet, the firm’s accessibility has resulted in a few eyebrow-raising actions: it publicly asked a fervent critic to moderate his comments on their page, and responded to fresh graffiti on one of their fleet with: "Someone made a big mistake".

One user accused Westbahn of allowing the distribution of flyers in post boxes clearly marked Keine Werbung (no adverts). Another posted a photograph "catching" the conductor smoking out the window, although neither the cigarette nor the smoke is visible.

Some have only accolades. Siegfried Allacher writes, "finally a wheelchair rider can spontaneously roll into a train without a reservation. From now on, always Westbahn!" Lisa Ammersdorfer remarks, "I simply love riding on this train.

Being a Westbahn stewardess is and always will be my dream job."

Meanwhile, the harsh realities of capitalist competition loom. Westbahn's competitor ÖBB, also its landlord, recently announced a increase in the rail toll (Infrastrukturbenützungsentgelt, or Schienenmaut), with a 9.6% spike for 2012 followed by a 10% jump for 2013, instead of the average 2.5% raise. Speaking to Die Presse, the firm called the move "an anti-competitive distortion at the expense of taxpayers."

So, while Westbahn finds a way to climb the even steeper hill, it will need to stay focused on the details that make the difference, like addressing the concerns of the Austrian woman alighting from the train in Salzburg, remarking: "I like Westbahn. If only I could find a rubbish bin."

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