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The little differences: 5. Swiss public transport – a disappearing advantage

Swiss trains (and buses and trams) run like clockwork, while public transport in the UK at least is a disaster – that seems to be the general perception. Judging by recent experiences, the gap might be closing.

By Martin Pütter

It’s an old, old joke among London’s transport users: you wait for absolutely ages for a bus, and then three come all at once. Like they do with the nation’s weather, Brits grumble about their public transport system but ultimately endure it. And Switzerland? The country always used to be renowned for the reliability and punctuality of its public transport. Judging by recent personal experiences, however, I think this advantage might be disappearing – and not because other countries are catching up.

Let me go back quite a few years, to the mid-1990s. I remember the then press spokesman of the Irish Embassy in London waxing lyrical: “You can set your watch by Swiss public transport. No matter what time of day, no matter how much traffic, if the timetable says my bus would arrive at, let’s say, seven minutes past the hour, then it arrives exactly then”, he told me after he had returned from a six-month posting to Geneva, a notoriously congested city.

What has not changed since then is my knowledge – or lack thereof – of public transport outside Switzerland, especially in countries where many expats come from, be it the USA (never been there), Canada, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand (ditto). So I would love to hear how expats from those countries see things – please post a comment below this article.

But I do know about public transport in the UK. Not only did I read or hear about bewildering experiences with trains or buses, about delays and cancellations, I had many such experiences myself (too many to mention here). Suffice it to say that many Brits will probably agree with me that timetables in the UK are not worth the paper they are written on.

You do not believe me? Then let me tell you how I have learnt to spot Brits on trains in Switzerland. They are the ones who cannot hide a grin or a chuckle when a train driver apologises for the train being delayed by two (2) minutes. Would train drivers in the UK do that for such a short delay? Never! If (and it is a big “if”) they did apologise, it would have to be for a delay of at least 15 minutes.

Recently, however, the Irish diplomat’s compliment about Swiss public transport has come to seem rather less deserved. Being a rugby referee in my spare time I travel a lot through Switzerland, and usually I rely on trains leaving and arriving on time. It started last autumn, when I was on my way to Monthey in the canton of Valais. Delayed trains and missed connections meant I arrived only 30 minutes before kick-off – far too late for a referee (with all the pre-match preparation). OK, a one-off, I thought – until a few weeks ago problems began to pile up. First, a train I was on got stuck between Fribourg and Berne for half an hour (signal failure); the next day the same again, just outside Basel (homebound football hooligans on the tracks). Another day, I was late for a meeting – all trains in and out of Berne were delayed because of a broken down train. I missed a train because the tram that was supposed to get me to the station did not come, I had buses not stopping where they were supposed to stop, and I had a train cancelled (OK, that train came from abroad, so you could lay the blame outside the Swiss borders). And I got the idea for this article on a train to Zurich that was diverted from its normal route – without any announcement to the passengers or apologies for the delay that caused.

Friends have also told me about their problems with public transport. My colleague Bettina, for example, arrived late for a meeting: “Missed my bus. Waited for ages, and then two came in a row,” she wrote on one of the social media. Or take Mike, the president of the local rugby club, who wrote on his way to a match: “Looks like we’re getting another train adventure, due to ‘work’ on other lines.” And on a recent Wednesday afternoon in Basel, a temporary power outage meant that no trams were running between the Badischer Bahnhof and Riehen, leaving locals – and probably not a few visitors to the newly opened Gerhard Richter exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler – scrambling to get on one of the hastily organised replacement buses.

But after all, Switzerland has one of the densest, busiest public transport networks in the world. And as any watchmaker will tell you, all it takes is a grain of sand in the gears and the most sophisticated timepiece will stop running “like clockwork”. As for me, I am rediscovering what I had learned during my time in London: be flexible, have a plan B (or C, or even D), look for options before something happens, leave early. Just like a Brit, in fact. And if I had to choose between public transport in Switzerland and public transport in the UK (or Germany, for example) I would take Swiss public transport every time.

2 Responses to “The little differences: 5. Swiss public transport – a disappearing advantage”

  1. Chris Morley says:

    A good article Martin.
    All very true.
    My expierence of the SBB after 40 years of working and living in this country is excellent. However, the rail system is at it’s limit and short delays or even cancellations are to be expected through knock on effects.
    Last Monday I expierenced ‘hell’ on SBB while travelling 1st (GA holder) from Lugano to Basel.
    A train that was to travel from Lugano to Zurich was cancelled so they decided to put all the passengers on one train as far as Rotkreuz which is not a scheduled stop for our express train.
    I had a reserved seat which a 2nd class passenger was sat in and refused to move and the train was jam packed full.
    I stood for nearly 2 hours in between 2nd class carriages.
    A horror scenario that is all so common today and to be reckoned with !!
    Needless to say a letter is in the post and I expect compensation !!

  2. I to have noticed a slight lapse in the swiss transport being on time, or buses not stopping. I hope this is not going to become a regular occurrence.

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