A major expansion of Switzerland's railway network is on schedule, and SFr1.5 billion ($1 billion) under budget, according to the Swiss Federal Railways.
The company said it was on schedule to complete work on time for the introduction of the Rail 2000 project on December 12, 2004.
Rail 2000 is a huge project to offer more frequent, faster, more direct and more comfortable services throughout the country. It was approved by the Swiss electorate in a referendum in 1987.
For train passengers, the progress of Rail 2000 is already apparent with new trains, more frequent services with half-hourly intervals on the busiest lines and more through connections.
At a recent news conference, the Federal Railways' deputy director, Pierre-Alain Urech, said the first phase would now probably have end costs of SFr5.9 billion, way below the SFr7.4 billion that was budgeted.
"We must not, however, revel in euphoria. There is still a huge amount of work ahead..." he said.
Railways' spokesman Christian Kräuchi told swissinfo that there were a number of reasons why the project was under budget.
"Those SFr7.4 billion were really rough estimates at the time. We were able in the late 1990s when the construction industry was not doing very well to give out orders for construction at low price but we also saved here and there with tough project management on our side," he said.
He added that the savings had not compromised any safety measures.
"We're building rail infrastructure and there we can't go into any compromises as far as safety is concerned," he added.
Krauchi said Rail 2000 would significantly shorten the travelling time between key Swiss cities. Train journey times will be reduced, for example, on the Bern to Zurich route from the present 69 minutes to 56 minutes.
"The main projects are the new line between Bern and Olten [which is on the way to Zurich]. That's a 45 kilometre line that is being built at a cost of SFr1.5 billion," he explained.
To make sure that plans run smoothly and that work is coordinated for the big day, the Federal Railways have just set up a task force with a specific mandate.
Not just infrastructure
"This will have to orchestrate all the different parts of our company involved in the project. Rail 2000 is not just about building infrastructure," Kräuchi said.
"We're also renewing our fleet. It's also a question of introducing a new locomotive cab signalling system and there are many little details concerning the schedule that also have to be put in place," he added.
The cab signalling system, one of the first to be put into service in Europe, will be used initially on the new Mattstetten-Rothrist stretch of track, with trains travelling at speeds of up to 200 kilometres per hour.
The driver will no longer have to look out for signals on the sides of the track because they will be displayed on a screen before him. The aim is to increase safety.
The Federal Railways are keen to talk up the benefits of Rail 2000, but the construction work is causing problems on the existing rail network.
The Railways' deputy director, Urech, said he was well aware that passengers' patience was being overstretched because of delays.
"The reliability of the system is unfortunately at present having unacceptable consequences for punctuality. But we are optimistic as the trend is slowly but surely improving," he said.
The Federal Railways says overall punctuality this year has shown a slight improvement on last year, with more than 95 per cent of trains arriving on time.
That means they arrived within a maximum four minutes delay. Some 82 per cent of trains were bang on time.
by Robert Brookes
In compliance with the JTI standards