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Railwatch 068 - July 1996

Transported to a land of dreams

Switzerland should have been an example for the British government when it was considering privatising the railways. The country is probably the best example of user-friendly and efficient transport in the world, provided by teamwork between the state and free enterprise. The trains run on time - but its secret is integration, the word that no Tory transport minister is allowed to mention. RDS member Anthony Lambert loves the country and his new book Switzerland by Rail is a valuable guide book but also a pointer to what could be achieved in Britain. Here is his story.

The idea for a guide book to Switzerland based around the use of public transport came from a visit in 1992, when I was struck by the ease with which seamless, multi-modal journeys could be made. Because the Swiss believe the only sensible way to organise public transport services is to achieve the maximum degree of integration between modes, timetables are planned to provide convenient and quick connections. This is achieved despite multiple ownership of railway, bus, tram, funicular and boat companies. Fragmented ownership need not preclude modal integration providing there is consensus over its importance to the success of each part, something that is clearly lacking in the UK.

Switzerland has the densest network of public transport in the world. Two-thirds of Swiss people have less than five minutes walk from their homes to the nearest public transport. 97.5% live less than a kilometre away. Besides 3,131 miles of state and privately owned railways, there are 660 postal-coach routes and 650 funiculars, cablecars, rack railways and chairlifts. With local transport and steamer services, this amounts to a public transport network of 12,818 miles.

Only Japanese railways are used more frequently per person than those in Switzerland. With at least an hourly service on most routes, the national average is an astonishing 74 passenger trains a day, so a long wait is a rare occurrence.

There are probably no railways in the world that can boast such an environmentally friendly source of power. All routes are electrified, and not only is most of the electricity used by Swiss railways generated by water, but the technical sophistication of Swiss railway engineering is reflected in the high proportion of trains equipped with regenerative braking. This exploits the steep grades of many Swiss railways to combine braking with electrical generation. Traction motors are turned into dynamos to feed current back into the overhead lines while checking the speed of the train.

On the Gotthard line two descending trains feed enough electricity back into the system to power one ascending train. The trains themselves are comfortable, clean and punctual. Stations are focal points of the local community, even small market towns often having a station café, or restaurant of such quality that it attracts non-railway users. Because stations of any size are usually staffed, they offer such services as luggage forwarding and storage, and those used by tourists usually change money, hire out bicycles and provide general as well as railway information.

Another compelling reason to use public transport is that it is the only way to reach many of the country's most celebrated places, since road traffic is thankfully excluded. Driving a car in mountain areas requires full attention from the driver, who can derive little pleasure from the surroundings. Trains on mountain railways, in contrast, offer panoramic views, some having special observation cars with generous glazing.

The visitor's use of public transport is eased by a range of passes, the most versatile being the Swiss Pass which covers 11,000 miles of railway, boat and bus networks and the municipal transport systems of 36 towns and cities. It also entitles the holder to reductions on many mountain railways and aerial cableways. The Swiss Pass represents excellent value for money for anyone on a touring holiday. For those wishing to concentrate on rail travel, the Swiss Freedom Pass allows unlimited rail travel.

Switzerland by Rail is a guide to every Swiss railway, describing the route and what there is to see and do from each station - castles, museums, picturesque villages, cycle routes, walks, etc - as well as connecting journeys by steamer, postbus, funicular and cableway. Introductory chapters provide background information on the country, holiday planning, getting there, great train journeys and general advice on walking and cycling.

Switzerland is not a cheap country, but the book suggests easy ways of saving money, and the Swiss Pass remains a bargain. For anyone who has not been to the country and wants to see just how good a properly integrated transport network can be, the Swiss Travel System will be a revelation.

Random examples of integration:

  • At Martigny, there is a goods depot where standard and metre gauge meet. The standard gauge of the Geneva-Brig line follows the Rhone valley and the metre gauge to Châtelard crosses the border with France to reach Chamonix and St Gervais.
  • The Swiss post office relies heavily on the railway network and meets trains at stations on both standard and narrow gauge lines, using vehicles ranging from large vans to scooters with parcel trailer.
  • Adjacent to the Swiss Federal Railway's station at St Gallen is a separate platform for two metre gauge railways, the Trogenerbahn and the Appenzellerbahn. The former is a largely roadside tramway to the hill-top town of Trogen, the latter a major system that serves towns and resorts in the lovely area known as the Appenzell.
  • Three metre gauge branches - from Leysin, Les Diablerets and Champéry - connect with the Geneva-Brig line at Aigle. A post bus is likely to be seen waiting outside the station while a train for Les Diablerets is loading with parcels.

Switzerland by Rail by Anthony Lambert, 416 pages plus 12 pages in colour, 15 maps, £10.95. Published by Bradt Publications, 41 Nortoft Road, Chalfont St Peter, Bucks SL9 0LA. RDS members can buy the book post free. Tel: 01494 873478; Access and Visa.

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