Why Swiss Railways Matter

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Rail travel in Switzerland (known as SBB) is widely recognised as being one of, if not the best in the world. Having spent nearly 20 years using it first-hand, I’d agree that it’s hard to fault.

Unsurprisingly, the cornerstone of its success lies in the functional basics – a reliable, punctual and comprehensive network. Yet the value of this practical efficiency is largely taken for granted by Swiss nationals. For them, the key advantage of rail travel is what it enables them to do and feel as a result – a more intangible benefit perhaps than “getting there on-time”, but no less important.

For example, locals do not value the reliability of the rolling stock and infrastructure itself – announcements of ‘defective trains’ or ‘signal failures’ are unheard of and even unimaginable to them. Instead, it is their feeling of trust that matters – the complete confidence that whatever business meeting or leisure outing is undertaken, the rail trip itself will not let them down.

Similarly, Swiss travellers measure the punctuality of train departure and arrival not by ‘train-minutes’ on the clock or the timetable, but by the lack of ‘my downtime’ – the avoidance of those slack, extra minutes needing to be added to insure against a possible problem.

And as for SBB’s comprehensive network coverage (including bus, tram and even boat and cable-car), its unique selling point is not that the route itself exists, but that it inter-connects so seamlessly, from the first mile to the last.

All this adds up to a national benefit too – one of economic productivity, despite operating across some of Europe’s most challenging terrain. This impact is not insignificant – in the UK, delays on the rail network costs passengers an estimated £1bn in lost time every year (Source: Public Accounts Committee 2008)

For the Swiss people, it seems they really don’t think in terms of ‘good’ rail journeys or ‘bad’ ones. They might chat about what they did or achieved on their trip, but not how well the journey itself was managed. Instead, that’s for the rest of us to talk about…and wish it were like that in our country.

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