"SBB means rail – today and in ten years' time"

Vincent Ducrot became CEO of SBB on 1 April 2020 – in the middle of the coronavirus crisis. Thanks to the commitment of its employees, SBB has so far managed to overcome the challenges the crisis posed to its operations. Nevertheless, SBB faces losses in the hundreds of millions. Company finances will therefore be a point of focus in the near future. And while combatting the crisis, it was up to the new CEO to plan for the future as well. Switzerland’s rail system must be made more robust and more stable. SBB’s core business must be strengthened and stabilised with customers in mind. There will be a marked increase in investments in the train fleet. Ducrot hopes to meet and where possible exceed the high expectations placed upon SBB, and says all 33,000 employees will have a part to play. He stresses: "SBB means rail – today and in ten years’ time."

In his first 100 days as CEO, Ducrot has got to know SBB afresh, he says, sharing his thoughts on the company in front of the media for the first time on 3 July: “I have talked to many employees, and met committed people throughout, from those on the ground to those in management teams.” Many of those meetings took place virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic. Tackling the crisis was his priority right from the off: “So far, we’ve managed the crisis well, but it was certainly a challenge. We owe our employees a great deal of gratitude for their commitment to their company.” 

And all the while, it was up to Ducrot to prepare for the future: “SBB has a solid foundation, but faces plenty of challenges.” SBB’s financial situation is serious, he says, with potential losses in the hundreds of millions. “Thanks to the support of the its holder, the Swiss Confederation, liquidity is guaranteed for the moment.” SBB will work with the Confederation to develop a medium-term plan to stabilise the debt coverage ratio. SBB will also take part in the political process concerning financial support for regional services and infrastructure. “The loss of income from long-distance services and real estate will have to be covered by SBB itself.” 

The new CEO sees a lot of room for improvement from an operational standpoint: “Our rail system is not robust enough and is reaching its limits.” Ducrot’s assessment: SBB has too few trains in reserve; there has not been enough investment in fleet maintenance; the timetable sometimes lacks stability; construction work was not coordinated or planned sufficiently over the past year; there are gaps and insufficient resources in staffing, especially in core railway jobs such as engine drivers; the pool of specialist craftspeople, engineers and IT personnel is particularly low – all of which means that rail operations are currently too unreliable: “Too often at the moment, things do not work out for our customers.” 

Strengthening core business for customers.

Vincent Ducrot wants to put SBB’s core business back at the core of its business.“You have to place everything you need for rail travel at the centre: trains, stations, rail infrastructure and good, motivated employees who are fully committed to their work.” Ducrot’s interaction with politicians and public-transport partners has shown him that there is a great deal of goodwill towards SBB, but also high expectations. SBB’s role is to serve Switzerland as a public-service company: “We want to meet and, as far as possible, exceed the expectations placed upon us.” Ducrot is aware that customer satisfaction will be key to achieving that. 

Despite the sizeable challenges, Ducrot is optimistic: “It is a fascinating and intense task that gives me a great deal of satisfaction.” But he is conscious that there is far more to a railway than its CEO. “We” is an important word for him: “We are 33,000 people, and we are one SBB.” And with an eye to the future, he says: “SBB means rail – today and in ten years’ time”. 

Details of the new focus on core business: 

  • Creating two new group-level units: the Customers unit will coordinate all things relating to customers – both for passengers and customers in stations (e.g. in shops). Having previously worked in consumer protection, head of unit Mathieu Fleury knows everything there is to know about customers’ concerns and needs. The Safety and Production unit will have general control of production, with an emphasis on safety, punctuality and quality.  
  • Strengthening the train fleet: the reliability of the FV-Dosto and Giruno trains is improving. The FV-Dosto will be put to increased use on the IC1 route. SBB currently invests one billion francs each year in new trains and the maintenance of the existing fleet. This will rise to 1.3 billion francs in the near future. The new CEO wants to expand the existing fleet and improve fleet maintenance. In line with its strategy for rolling stock, SBB is committed to minimising variation in vehicle type during procurement and when replacing single-deck S-Bahn trainsets. 
  • Stabilising timetables: the 2022 and 2025 timetables will be examined by internal and external timetable experts to test their resilience. Any potential measures that arise from testing will be agreed upon with the Confederation and the Cantons. The aim is to create a markedly more stable timetable that leads to increased punctuality. The focus will be on train punctuality and connections.  
  • Better planning of construction: construction and engineering works will be organised and planned in such a way as to allow more stable rail operations. What that means is: works will be distributed more evenly over the year, more construction will take place at night, at weekends and in holiday times. SBB will make full use of available finances. 
  • Supporting staff: the availability of engine drivers will remain strained over the course of the summer. In autumn, 340 engine drivers will be in training, representing 10 per cent of drivers in total. In future, engine drivers will be trained for a greater number of routes and vehicle types, and be deployed more flexibly. Thanks to training courses and the re-assignment of long-distance routes, SBB will once again have sufficient engine drivers at its disposal over the course of the coming year. Other job categories are also being targeted by new training programmes (e.g. the part-time training programme for train crew) or return-to-work initiatives (e.g. IT).  
  • Intelligent innovations for customers: SBB wants to make use of technical innovations to make rail even better for customers. For example: real-time, coach-specific occupancy displays and push notifications for specific routes in the SBB Mobile app will be introduced from mid-July 2020.  As for multimodal mobility, SBB hopes to create added value for customers by means of digitalisation projects: new and tried-and-tested partnerships, as well as online platforms for third-party products, are set to make it much easier to combine public transport with personal means of transport. 
  • Expanding international passenger services: SBB hopes to make use of the momentum of the coronavirus crisis and the possible shift from air to rail travel: long-distance international services are to be expanded in the mid- and long-term. There are to be more daytime connections to Germany. SBB is working with ÖBB to greatly expand night-train services.  
  • Real estate serving a strong railway: stations should be safe, clean and attractive: going forward, SBB hopes to provide high-quality station services itself, from toilet facilities to Park&Rail. SBB plans to offer more affordable housing in future: up until now, the target has been for a third of SBB housing to lie within the affordable band. It is now set at around 50 per cent for the period up to 2037.   
  • Making SBB Cargo the backbone of national supply: the coronavirus crisis has shown unequivocally: with its enormous transport capacity, SBB Cargo plays a vital role in supplying Switzerland with goods and is able to rapidly react to changes in the market. Nevertheless, the crisis has left its mark financially. SBB is doing everything it can to move forwards on its own two feet. SBB Cargo aims to function as an independent company. But because of the crisis, there will have to be a political discussion about possible financial support for rail-freight services. International freight traffic remains key to integrating international goods flows and to SBB’s support for the policy of transferring freight from road to rail.

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