Still Not Quite A Great Swiss Rail Journey

Wintry Bernina Express Pic: courtesy Daily Mail

Since this blog was written Great Rail Journeys have not used the Ambassador Hotel in Brig. The Swiss private equity company ‘s new brochure shows they plan to use it again for Christmas. I would not recommend staying there -particularly over Xmas to avoid disappointment.

I am also reblogging this following revelations that up to £13 trillion is diverted by wealthy individuals to tax havens. The ultimate owners of Great Rail Journeys are in the Jersey tax haven and are directly connected to a Swiss Luxembourg bank which has links to taxhavens across the world from the Caymans to the Ukraine.

I can’t quite resist  going off piste and writing an evaluation of taking a break this Christmas – going with my wife Margaret on an organised rail trip to Switzerland in search of snow. Run by Great Railway Journeys (more later), a well-known up market travel company, parts of the trip equalled expectations. Going over the Bernina pass by rail and the train journey to Zermatt,  and staying in a quaint  wood panelled hotel in Chur, the Romantik Hotel Stern, in the 16th century old town, were magical.

The tour guide, a Lancashire lass, Sue Fairweather (employed independently by GRJ) was a brilliant people manager, well organised, yet allowing its mainly elderly travellors a lot of freedom, and participating in a particularly raucous Christmas Day gala dinner, where some of the alcohol consumed could have rivalled revellers in Magaluf.

But the trip had two jarring features. Despite two firm assurances before we left from the company that the hotels could easily cope with a lactose free diet for my wife – it became obvious that they couldn’t and a hotel in Brig  that left so much to be desired that I think it should  lose its contract.

This led me to do a little journalistic investigation into Great Rail Journeys – particularly after some of the more seasoned travellers pointed out  that each year the company has cut down on what it offered but not what it charged. Examples are dropping the odd inclusive dinner and cutting down a free Swiss rail pass – to a free Swiss half rail pass.

Great Rail Journeys markets itself as a 30-year-old British specialist travel company based in York. It was until 2005. Now it is owned by a private equity group called Primary Capital through the Amber Travel Partnership. Investors in London-based Primary Capital have no  particular interest in rail holidays, the company is merely part of a portfolio which also includes the cafe chain, Coffee Republic, and the seed merchant, Thompson and Morgan.

But the private equity company don’t even own GRJ. The parent company in Primary Capital is EFG Reads Trust Company Ltd, an offshore family trust based in Jersey. It has 400,000 shares to 96,000 held by others. According to its annual accounts Primary Capital paid no corporation tax in Britain in 2009 and 2010 setting previous losses against money due to the UK Treasury and its accounts show that £1m of its income is not subject to British tax. Yet it managed a £1.3m dividend pay out in 2010.

But the trail does not end in Jersey. It turns out the family trust company are advisers to EFG, a Luxembourg and Zurich based bank with a telephone list of subsidiaries from the Cayman Islands to the Ukraine. Unfortunately for investors it is still in Greece, though it has tried to pull back over the Eurozone crisis.

So far from your holiday money going to a British company it eventually lands up going into the pockets of what the late Harold Wilson famously called (probably politically incorrect now) the ” gnomes of Zurich.”

Ambassador Hotel Brig: Not as good as it looks, don’t stay. Pic courtesy

As for the unhappy experience in the hotel, the Ambassador in Brig,(see ) its owner did not live up to the niceties of its name. He undiplomatically warned the 34 people on the tour  during his welcoming speech against putting critical comments on tripadviser in case it damaged the reputation of his hotel. (don’t say this in front  of a journalist!)

Not content with that they were – unless reminded by our tour organiser – hopeless at organising a non dairy diet – to the point of denying there was cheese in a course when it was on the menu in English and German!

The so-called “recently refurbished rooms” would have done credit to a mediocre tatty English b&b, just ticking the boxes on the facilities, but leaving you with not enough room to swing a Swiss cat in the shower. If there were any refurbished rooms, it must have one done up for the brochure!

The food if you weren’t on a non dairy diet was good. If you have a lot of spare cash in Brig  the a la carte menu was mouth-watering but very expensive, easy to spend £100 a head. Whether it deserved its food gold star from GRJ is a different matter.

My advice is that if you want to book a future GRJ holiday that includes this hotel at Brig, don’t go!

But it was the exception. We came across a remarkable atmospheric restaurant in a 1522 inn in Chur, the Hofkellerei, with a  brilliant three course meal including local  meat specialities for £30 a head.

And an amazing world-class art, archaeology, sculpture park and classic car museum created by a Swiss philanthropist, the Foundation Pierre Gianadda, where Henry Moores, Rodins, Cezanne and Picassos rubbed shoulders with unique Roman bronzes and historic Bugattis, all in the tiny town of Martigny in the Valais. see their website at .

Europe’s poverty aid programme for bankers and tax havens

Not quite the aid bankers have in mind. Picture courtesy The Guardian

When you think of aid to the starving poor in Africa, you think of Oxfam or Christian Aid. You don’t think of wealthy bankers, private equity companies or tax havens.

 Yet a report out  examining in detail the aid programme given by the European Investment Bank on behalf of the European Union reveals more and more aid cash is being given to African banks, private equity companies and passed through tax havens.

 The report from a group of non governmental organisations Counter Balance reveals that much of the €1.01 billion given  to relieve poverty is now going to projects that are run by banks and private equity companies. And worse than that commercial confidentiality by both the banks and the EIB  is preventing the public and the taxpayer knowing whether it has gone to good use.

The EIB argues that all is well as the banks know better than them what to do with the money and their own audit checks, often farmed out to local firms in these countries, prove it is value for money.

But the report reveals that all is not as well as they claim. In one case in Gabon the EIB had a lucky escape when they were about to give money ton the Banque Gabonaise de Devloppment only to discover that there was alleged corruption at the bank involving the siphoning of funds by the cronies of the now dead president, Christian Bongo. They pulled out just in time.

 In Nigeria, they also offered a €50 million credit line to the Intercontinental Bank of Nigeria at a  time when its managing director was being investigated for alleged fraud by Nigeria’s equivalent of the Serious Fraud Office. The bank had to bailed out last year by Nigeria’s state bank. Luckily for the EIB none of the money had been drawn down.

The report also highlights a lot of money going to Mauritius – where many private equity companies are based, but not much of the cash is being spent there, most of it is spent in the rest of Africa.

 The fear must be – in the wake of the Irish bank crisis and the collapse of Lehman Brothers which started the global crash – that the EIB could be next on the list. What could look on the surface as a sound investment might turn out to be little better than some of those subprime investments given a AAA rating.

 The problem is that all the EIB loans are triple AAA rated because they are in Europe. If anything goes wrong, it could be another matter. Don’t say you have not been warned, but this report, even though it is quite dense and detailed, is a must read. It is rather like a canary warning of danger in the mines.

You can get the report at Counter Balance. The direct link to download it is

 I have also written an article in The Guardian. The direct link is