From December onwards, Westbahn will run from Vienna to Munich

Hans Peter Haselsteiner

The Strabag founder is one of Austria’s best-known entrepreneurs.

(Photo: imago images / Eibner Europe)

Vienna If you want to visit the heavily advertised Vienna Christmas markets from Germany in December, you will have a new travel alternative until then: From December 12th, the private Westbahn will travel from Vienna to Munich Central Station. For the first time in the company’s history, its trains will cross a border – and will commute between the two cities six times a day.

Behind the Westbahn stands the Austrian Hans Peter Haselsteiner. He holds 49.9 percent of Rail Holding, which operates the trains, through a private foundation. As the founder of the construction company Strabag, the 77-year-old Haselsteiner is one of Austria’s best-known entrepreneurs. It left its mark not only in the economy, but also in politics – and even in the culture of the Alpine republic.

When the Baumax hardware store chain owned by Karlheinz Essl ran into financial problems ten years ago, Haselsteiner took over the majority of his art collection. Today it is in the Albertina in Vienna. In addition, Haselsteiner is one of the main supporters of Neos: The liberal party is an alternative, especially for those Austrians for whom the FPÖ is socially too conservative and the rhetoric it cultivates is too crude.

Haselsteiner also lives out his liberal outlook in the rail business, although his ambitions extend beyond Munich. He dreams of one day having his trains run even further west: the Westbahn is to run from Munich via Bregenz to the Swiss economic metropolis of Zurich. “In this case, we would fully live up to the name of our company,” he says.

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The Westbahn started operating almost exactly ten years ago. At that time Haselsteiner relied on the rapid liberalization of rail traffic in the EU. In theory, rail access is now free, but certain state railways did some things to make life difficult for the newcomers.

To compete with the monopoly ÖBB

That is why the liberalization of long-distance routes has really picked up speed in only a few countries. Above all, Haselsteiner’s dream of connecting Vienna to Zurich via Munich is unlikely to come true for the time being. The Westbahn is not allowed to travel independently to Switzerland, which is not part of the EU. It would be a big surprise if that changed in the years to come.

The monopoly had already made life difficult for the railway company Haselsteiner in Austria. When the Westbahn started operating, the ÖBB countered and threw tickets on the market at very low prices. The railroad investors had underestimated the monopoly’s willingness to fight. The ÖBB obviously wanted to push the Westbahn out of the market as quickly as possible.

No wonder it has accumulated immense losses in recent years. The company was only in the black for a very short time. This forced Haselsteiner and his colleagues repeatedly to inject fresh capital into the company.

The Westbahn is an investment with a horizon of 25 years, says the entrepreneur today – and it sounds a little like he had come up with this argument afterwards. In order to raise capital, the Westbahn recently sold all trains to Deutsche Bahn. The latest sets, which, like the previous ones, come from the Swiss manufacturer Stadler Rail and are currently going into operation, are only leased. This relieves the balance sheet of the Westbahn.

Westbahn buys trains from the Chinese CRRC

More than the state railroad companies, this one has to pay attention to the costs. A sensational transaction that became known recently also serves this goal: The Westbahn intends to rent four electric multiple units from the state-owned Chinese railway manufacturer CRRC. The offer from the Chinese was allegedly a lot cheaper than the usual offers.

Although the order from the Westbahn is a relatively small order, it has the character of a signal. So far, the CRRC had only managed to sell passenger trains in Eastern Europe. With the order from the Western Railway, the Chinese advance into the west of the continent for the first time.

Haselsteiner does not say whether CRRC trains will one day also travel to Munich. In this case, however, you would travel to the doorstep of the German CRRC competitor Siemens Mobility, so to speak.

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