Andreas Meyer leaves SBB on Tuesday March 31 after having led the group for thirteen years. He turns the page in a very particular context, that of the coronavirus. He delivers his feelings.
Le Temps: You imagined giving your successor a healthy business. You’re handing it over to a company that has almost stopped. What do you feel at the end of this mandate?
Andreas Meyer: It’s quite special. However, SBB has an important responsibility in a crisis situation. It’s about assuming it. They are the backbone of the transport network and, as such, must manage and coordinate supply. On Sunday March 15, we realized that we would have to adapt it because we were going to run out of staff. With the industry as a whole, we made the biggest schedule change ever undertaken in such a short time. We reduced the supply by about 25% in three stages. The decrease in the number of travelers reaches up to 90%, the financial losses cannot yet be quantified. But the company is well prepared to deal with this crisis, even if it still worsens. What will be harder will be to restart once it is finished. It will take time.
We had to interrupt some sites to focus on priority maintenance work. This will have an impact on the calendar. When the schedule changed in December, it was planned to commission the Ceneri base tunnel as well as Bombardier’s double-decker trains, whose reliability is not yet sufficient. Can the calendar be maintained? It will be a great challenge. There are uncertainties. We do not know how the economy and public life will restart.
Do you think this crisis will change the mobility habits of the Swiss?
It’s very possible. Once the crisis is over, there will be a great need to catch up. People will want to go out and travel again, especially in Switzerland. But citizens, companies and training centers will also have tested telework. This will have accelerated the digitization of the economy and the school. It is not excluded – and I hope – that lasting traces remain. This could, for example, be beneficial for a better distribution of trips between peak and off-peak hours.
The SBB has crisis scenarios, in the event of a power failure like the one in 2005 or serious accidents, for example. Did you have a scenario for a pandemic?
Yes. One of the scenarios we envisioned was the outbreak of an epidemic. But the crisis we are experiencing goes further than we imagined. It affects not only the company and its customers, but also stations, tenants, suppliers, the whole economy and society all over the world. We hadn’t imagined such a magnitude. We are living in a phase of solidarity throughout the country. For everyone’s health, people are asked to stay at home. Then, there will probably be a phase of solidarity between companies, employees and the state in order to limit job losses and revive the economy. The state itself will not be able to finance all of the collateral damage from the crisis.
We have voted tens of billions of francs in investments for new infrastructure. Isn’t this crisis likely to make this approach obsolete?
During my thirteen years at SBB, we received around 50 billion francs for the operation, maintenance and extension of the network as well as for orders in regional traffic. It gave us a very big responsibility. These investments are still necessary. But the production schedule will undoubtedly be slowed down. I would like to take this opportunity to send a big thank you to our customers. We asked them for a lot of patience: there were many projects, in particular the work on the Léman 2030 program, which makes it possible to make up for the delay perceived in French-speaking Switzerland. I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate our collaborators in the field, who do an exceptional job, especially in these days of crisis.
The report of the Federal Council on the 2019 objectives of SBB is critical, especially for punctuality. What did you do wrong?
These reviews overlap with our own assessments. We admitted having made planning errors in the training of mechanics. We have underestimated the needs for the major events of 2019 such as the Fête des Vignerons and the Federal Wrestling Festival. We were also somehow victims of our success. We obtained considerable resources for the maintenance of the network, but the multiplication of works made it difficult to respect the schedule in the fourth quarter. We have received a serious warning. These problems have been clearly identified and solutions are being implemented.
The delivery of Bombardier trains has been considerably delayed. In retrospect, what would you do differently to make this order run better?
This is a difficult question. The expectations of the various players have contributed to the complexity of these trains. These are designed for the particularities of our network. We can certainly say that we have set the bar very high. But we are not alone in deciding. We must abide by the law on people with disabilities as well as international safety standards. What I can say is that the Giruno trains, which we ordered from Stadler for the north-south axis, use more of the existing components. This eliminates a problem.
“For SBB, it’s a good time to change the CEO”
What goals do you think you have achieved during these thirteen years?
We have achieved a number of important things. Passenger traffic increased by 50%, which is considerable. We have developed the real estate sector. This helped to clean up the pension fund. We have cleaned up SBB Cargo and found partners for our freight subsidiary. We have maintained an integrated rail business, which brings rolling stock and infrastructure under one roof. We were able to finance the maintenance of the network. We were able to keep the mainline traffic concession.
It is true that you are not a big fan of the competition …
When I was at Deutsche Bahn, I saw how complex and absolutely ineffective the tendering procedures were. They have more disadvantages than advantages, and often the legal aspects take precedence over other factors. They relegate security and customer satisfaction to the background. This experience marked me. I am convinced that the railways must cooperate rather than compete. It’s in the interest of the customers. It is only by joining forces around a natural monopoly that we can create more attractive offers, harmonize and digitize international tickets and thus highlight the ecological advantages of rail.
You are happy to mention that the prices have not increased. Did you really fight for this?
Yes, I attach great importance to the tariffs: they have not increased in five years and have even decreased in certain categories. Public transport must remain attractive. For this, we have also made them more accessible and modernized ticket sales. In 2007, schedules were still heavy printed books and tickets were paper. Everything is now digital and available as smartphone apps.
Unions and staff feel that you have lost touch with them over the years. What do you think?
I think those feelings are related to the digitalization of the business. We have established a new dynamic and developed new technologies. This trend will further accelerate. But we were not always able to explain to our staff what we were doing. And not all projects have been successful. The social partners may have sometimes personalized their criticisms. But that’s part of the game. At the same time, we’ve done a lot for the staff, like cleaning up the pension fund. Today, SBB is a very attractive employer.
What are you going to do from April 1?
I intended to travel. As you can imagine, I had to cancel them. But this is only part postponed. And I am in discussion with companies and NGOs to see to what extent I could put my experience at their disposal. I will be less publicized…