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SBB fights new low-cost bus lines with saver fares

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SBB fights new low-cost bus lines with saver fares
Photo: VÖV
11:49 CET+01:00
Switzerland's national rail company, the SBB, has reportedly responded to the government's decision to greenlight three new, private long-distance bus lines by ramping up supply of its so-called “supersaver” tickets.

The new low-cost Swiss Express bus lines – a first for Switzerland – connect most of the country's major cities. They will be launched on March 25 and will initially be licensed to run for three years. Tickets are already on sale.

Officially, the SBB has responded to the news in a relaxed manner. Initially the services run by Zurich-based Domo will transport just 800 passengers daily – hardly a major source of competition at present given that 1.2 million people travel by train in Switzerland every day.

But behind the scenes the railway operator is already hard at work, looking at ways to tackle the possible longer-term impact of the bus services on their business, Swiss daily the Tages-Anzeiger has reported, citing sources within the SBB.

While the rail operator cannot reduce overall prices because these are subject to Swiss industry accords, it is studying options including a possible increase in the discounts available on its so-called ‘supersaver' tickets to beyond the current cap of a minimum of 50 percent of normal fares, the daily said.

More supersaver fares

The transport operator has also taken preventive action by “considerably” ramping up supply of its supersaver tickets in February, those sources told the Zurich-based daily.

These cheaper tickets are available until March 27 and can also be purchased by passengers who don't hold the Swiss halb-tax/demi-tarif card, which, for an annual fee of 185 francs, allows the holder to buy half-price train and bus tickets.

Among the SBB offers on March 25 – the day the long-distance bus lines begin operations – are Zurich–Bern for 12.80 francs (with a half-price card), against the 11.50 francs for the slower bus service.

For Zurich–Basel, the cheapest SBB price on March 25 actually comes in lower than the bus service: 8.60 francs against 8.80 francs. The normal SBB ticket price for halb-tax/demi-tarif card holders is 17 francs.

“Long-distance buses have effects on the perceived price level. Our prices are coming under pressure, because customers look at the price difference,” SBB CEO Andreas Meyer told Swiss magazine Beobachter in late January.

Ongoing debate

The SBB's decision to roll out more supersaver tickets comes in the context of an ongoing debate about the notoriously high cost of public transport in Switzerland.

In a recent interview with newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, SBB commuter services diretctor Toni Häne of Swiss rail service SBB said the operator would “consider” abolishing the half-fare card in favour of cutting regular fares for everyone but noted that such a move would need the whole industry's approval.

The president of customer rail organization Pro Bahn Schweiz, Karin Blättlerthen, then told the news site 20 Minuten abolishing the half-fare card would be “very welcome”.

The cost of “selling, marketing and renewing” half-fare subscriptions would be eliminated and the “large amount of administration costs saved could be passed on to the customer,” she said.

But Ueli Stückelberger, director of the public transport union VÖV, said the half-fare card was “too popular” to abolish, and customers would feel they were losing out.

Stückelberger has also criticized the government for its lack of strategy" when it comes to the new long-distance bus lines, saying it is unclear what the authorities hope to achieve by allowing them to operate.

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