Date: Tue, 2 Jul 2019 18:26:36 +0200

Vienna, July 2, 2019 (AFP) - Smoking in Austrian bars and restaurants will be banned as of November following a vote in parliament on Tuesday, after years of protracted debate on the issue.   Only MPs from the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) voted against the ban, which looks set to finally rid Austria of its status as the "ashtray of Europe".

The FPOe -- whose former leader Heinz-Christian Strache is himself a keen smoker -- had stymied a previous attempt to ban smoking in pubs and restaurants when it entered government in December 2017.   That prompted a backlash from large sections of the public and the Austrian medical association, which organised a petition in favour of the ban signed by almost 900,000 people, or around 14 percent of voters.

However, in May the FPOe left government under the shadow of a corruption scandal implicating Strache, paving the way for the smoking ban to come back before parliament.   "We are going to protect the health of hundreds of thousands of Austrians and prolong their lives," Pamela Rendi-Wagner, head of the main opposition Social Democrats (SPOe) -- and herself a doctor -- said after the vote.

Austria is currently led by a technocratic government after the so-called "Ibiza-gate" corruption scandal brought down the coalition between the FPOe and the centre-right People's Party (OeVP) and triggered early elections to be scheduled for September.   The scandal emerged when footage in May showed Strache in a luxury villa on the island of Ibiza appearing to offer public contracts to a fake Russian backer in an elaborate sting operation, forcing him to step down from all his posts.

Austria was one of the last European countries where smoking was still permitted in bars and restaurants, despite calls for bans dating back more than a decade.   Up until now, smoking has been legal in such establishments as long as it was done in a separate area -- although this rule was not always rigidly implemented.   No separate area was necessary in establishments smaller than 50 square metres (540 square feet) if the owner was happy to allow smoking on the premises.   However, a growing number of restaurants and cafes had already banned smoking of their own accord.
Date: Wed, 10 Apr 2019 16:33:41 +0200

Vienna, April 10, 2019 (AFP) - The Austrian city of Klagenfurt indefinitely suspended its bus services Wednesday after a case of measles was detected in one of the drivers.   "All bus traffic is suspended until further notice in order to prevent infection," the city's KMG public transport operator announced.

The company runs all public transport in the southern city of 100,000 inhabitants, which is also the state capital of Carinthia.   It took the unusual measure after it was revealed that one driver had been diagnosed with measles on 3 April.   Since then two further suspected cases have been reported.   KMG said it was working to establish "the vaccination status of all drivers" before authorising bus services to restart and was embarking on a deep clean of its vehicles.

The resurgence of measles, a once-eradicated and highly-contagious disease, is linked to a growing anti-vaccine movement in richer nations -- which the World Health Organization has identified as a major global health threat.   On Tuesday, New York mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency in parts of the city, ordering all residents of certain districts in Brooklyn to be vaccinated to fight a measles outbreak concentrated in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
Date: Sun, 3 Mar 2019 04:10:56 +0100
By Sophie MAKRIS

Vienna, March 3, 2019 (AFP) - It looks like a scene from the halcyon days of the railways: travellers finding their sleeper berth, turning on the reading light and stowing their cases under the bed.    But it's still a common nightly ritual at Vienna's main station, where overnight train routes have endured in the age of low-cost flights -- and are even expanding.   From early evening onwards, the departures board at Vienna's "Hauptbahnhof" station becomes a roll call of destinations to whet the appetite of any globetrotter: Venice, Rome, Zurich, Berlin, Warsaw...   It's an unusual sight in a continent where budget airlines and faster trains have become the norm and led to the closure of many slower overnight routes.

But Austria's state railway company OeBB is looking to expand its network.   It already runs 26 such routes, either on its own or in partnerships with other operators.   In late 2016, OeBB bought the night train operation of its German counterpart Deutsche Bahn, which was looking to offload a department it judged insufficiently lucrative.   Around 60 percent of DB's overnight routes were preserved, including a revamped Vienna-Berlin service which started a few months ago.   Pointing to the "moderate growth" in passenger numbers -- more than 1.4 million used the services in 2018 -- OeBB has ordered 13 new trains equipped with state-of-the-art sleeper carriages.

- Eco-friendly -
It's no surprise then that Austria has become the poster child for rail enthusiasts, who say it provides an example of how overnight train travel can provide an alternative to air travel and even help in the fight against climate change.    "With regard to the target of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050, night trains which run on renewable energy are an attractive alternative," according to Thomas Sauter-Servaes, transport expert at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences.

But as with all those who have researched the sector, he admits that cross-border overnight rail travel can represent a logistical and financial challenge.   The profits per passenger take a hit from the extra space that sleeper compartments require, on top of the higher labour costs for those who have to work on the trains overnight and money spent on laundry.   And that's before you take into account the hefty fees sometimes charged by other network owners for use of the rails, the technical difficulty of decoupling and then re-attaching carriages, and navigating the myriad of different rules a train has to adhere to over a long journey.

Sauter-Servaes points out that international air transport has a big commercial advantage in being exempt from VAT and fuel taxes.   Among those preparing to board at Vienna station to spend a night on the rails on a recent evening, some told AFP they had chosen a night train with the environment in mind.   "It's a small gesture, and it won't stop me taking the plane for my holiday in Madagascar this autumn, but it's better than nothing," said Austrian traveller Yvonne Kemper.   David, a 42-year-old from Germany, said he was using the Hamburg service because he needed to get to Goettingen in Germany for a business trip -- a medium-sized town which, typically, is served by night trains but has no airport.

- An Austrian tradition -
OeBB spokesman Bernhard Rieder explained that Austria's attachment to night trains is down to "a tradition stemming from Austria's mountainous terrain, which limited the development of high-speed lines".   He added that "the night train sector is distinct in that it can't function without strong cross-border cooperation."   "Night trains are and will continue to be a niche market, but that doesn't mean a niche market can't be profitable."   But Poul Kattler, from the pan-European "Back on Track" group which campaigns for more cross-border night trains, says the sector should be more ambitious.   "If national railway companies were more aggressive in the market and the EU built a truly common rail policy, we could offer a real transport alternative and a very popular European project," he says.
Date: Tue, 15 Jan 2019 15:26:31 +0100

Vienna, Jan 15, 2019 (AFP) - Around 60 guests were evacuated from an Austrian hotel and holiday apartment house early Tuesday after the buildings were engulfed by an avalanche, rescue services said.   "It was lucky the avalanche didn't occur four hours earlier when all of the guests were in the dining room," said Heribert Eisl, of the mountain rescue team in Ramsau am Dachstein, a village in the central Styria region where the accident happened at 1:00 am (0000 GMT).

The dining room was filled with snow up to one metre (three feet) below the ceiling, he told a news conference.   The avalanche shattered the hotel's windows and overturned vehicles in the car park, but no-one was injured, Eisl said.   "We hadn't expected the avalanche to wreak such damage," he continued.

A number of areas in the Austrian Alps have been on high avalanche alert for the past 10 days as a result of heavy snowfall across the west and centre of the country since early January.    In some regions, more than three metres of snow has fallen.   The army has been called in to help clear roads and roofs and evacuate residents in the wake of the bad weather, which has also affected southern Germany and parts of Switzerland.
Date: Mon, 7 Jan 2019 20:17:54 +0100

Vienne, Jan 7, 2019 (AFP) - Three skiers and two snowshoe hikers have died as heavy snow and avalanches hit Austria, isolating several areas of the mountainous country, authorities said Monday.

Two German skiers lost their lives in avalanches in the western region of Vorarlberg on Sunday, and a Slovenian died in the region of Salzburg, rescue services said.   The bodies of two missing snowshoe hikers were discovered Monday as snow caused chaos in parts of the country, blocking roads and shuttering schools.   Two other hikers are still missing in the country's northeast.   Up to 1.5 metres (five feet) of snow has fallen in central and north Austria since the middle of last week, with up to three metres accumulating in the mountains around Salzburg, Austria's meteorological service said.

Some 2,000 people, including tourists, were left stranded in villages in the Soelktal valley in the southeast.    Army helicopters used in avalanche control were grounded due to the bad weather.    In the Hochkar mountain range in Lower Austria, ski resorts were closed until further notice, with inhabitants and tourists requested to vacate the area.    More snow is expected this week, with up to 80 centimetres forecast from Tuesday.
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