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All-clear for new railway tunnel

Decision-makers have defended the construction of the Semmering tunnel.

Social Democratic (SPÖ) Traffic Minister Doris Bures praised the agreement between the provinces of Lower Austria and Styria, Federal Railways (ÖBB) and the state as an "important signal for future generations". ÖBB boss Christian Kern pointed out that a train journey from Vienna to Graz would take one hour and 50 minutes instead of two and a half hours when the tunnel becomes part of the Austrian railway network.

Styrian SPÖ Governor Franz Voves claimed yesterday – when the fist sod was turned in Gloggnitz at the Semmering Mountain – that the building activities would create and protect 15,000 jobs. The first major part of the construction will start in around two years’ time. Building companies first have to set up temporary offices and access roads.

Lower Austrian Governor Erwin Pröll of the People’s Party (ÖVP) denied that he had to be persuaded to have a change of mind regarding the 3.1-billion-Euro project. Pröll said his government rejected plans to set up a tunnel in the area in the past due to environmental and safety concerns. He claimed the new version of the project fulfilled all of the Lower Austrian government’s criteria.

First plans to create a rail tunnel at the Semmering Mountain were made around 30 years ago. Various environment reports and local residents’ protest initiatives delayed the project throughout the decades. While the current and former governments of the province of Styria generally welcomed the idea to build the 27.3-kilometre tunnel, decision-makers in Lower Austria fought such plans. The Kronen Zeitung, Austria’s most popular newspaper, famously backed the project in its Styrian edition – but launched aggressive campaigns against the construction in its Lower Austrian version.

The cut of the spade in Gloggnitz occurred only a few days after the federal SPÖ-ÖVP coalition decided to amass 33 billion Euros of new debts to ensure ÖBB’s capitalisation in the coming years. Government officials said the move would help ÖBB to reduce its debts from 27 to 18 billion Euros within the next five years.

Already in February, Social Democrats and ÖVP announced that ÖBB must slash its investments by 920 million Euros between 2012 and 2017. The government explained that none of the three major tunnel projects – the Koralm, the Semmering and the Brenner basis tunnel – would be at risk. But the coalition made clear that ÖBB would have to economise also as far as spending on these multi-billion-Euro projects were concerned.

ÖBB has 41,000 employees. Kern said the company planned to reduce its workforce level by 1,000 until 2015. He signalised optimism regarding passenger figures because of the constant car fuel price increase – and the public debate about the development. The ÖBB chief said that especially the company’s regional connections had more passengers in the first three months of 2012. Kern claimed that around two thirds of new ÖBB customers were former drivers who were now taking the train because of the climbing petrol prices.

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