I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for years.
A chance to finally test the Swiss Rail network’s world famous reputation for being on time. To see if reality matches reputation. My great rail journey will transport me from Vevey, on the shores of Lake Geneva, in Western Switzerland, across the country to the alpine vistas of Arosa, in the East.
A distance of some 356km. And if all goes according to plan, a travel time of 5 hours 29 minutes. Cost? 114 Swiss francs (Us$116), with a half-fare travel card.
Recent figures show that more than 87.7% of Swiss Rail passengers reach their destination on time. The most punctual rail service in Europe. A train is only considered late, if it arrives three minutes after its scheduled arrival time. Unsurprisingly, Swiss residents each make an average of 59 rail journeys per year, the highest per-capita usage in the world.
First up, I have a confession: I love trains. The older, the better. The more toots, rattles and hums, the better. Whilst as yet undiagnosed, I suspect I have a dose of the train spotting gene.
Second confession: I have at times been critical of Swiss trains in the past. When I was commuting daily to Geneva for work a few years ago, I experienced delays at least 2 to 3 times per week. My experience of reliability, didn’t always match the widely held perception of Swiss precision.
As a great patron of public transport, I hold a fond appreciation for the extensive coverage of Swiss rail, bus and ferry networks. There is barely any part of the country that you cannot reach with public transport. Even when you get to the end of the line, there is often a small bus, run by the postal service, that whisks you even deeper into the heartland of Helvetia.
I joke with my friends that if you get lost here, you only have to follow a well signed manicured walking trail for 10 minutes in any direction and there’ll be a bus or train there to shuttle you back to safety.
No intention of getting lost today. Just a light hearted test to discover if my train connections from one side of Switzerland to the other, run according to schedule. Plus, a special mission, which I’ll reveal closer to my destination.
06:55. It’s all aboard in Vevey and off to a great start, with the InterRegio service 1806 arriving several minutes early. I must admit, I have a fleeting thought. Why even bother to test whether the trains will run on time. Surely, it’s a fait accompli, a foregone conclusion?
I never tire of the magnificent panorama when travelling alongside Lake Geneva, between Vevey and Lausanne. World Heritage listed stone-walled vineyards, established by the Romans and developed by monks 1,000 years ago, cascade down the Lavaux hillside. A sight for my waking eyes, as the sun flickers gently across the shimmering vista.
07:20. Next train on time from Lausanne to Zürich, although there is a platform change. Passengers scurry across, not wanting to miss it, but equally, not wanting to make the train late either. A person in a wheelchair is assisted by staff to the new platform – an excellent service offered by Swiss Rail to those with limited mobility.
En route from Lausanne to Bern, the train snakes through the almost artificially luminescent fields of Gruyère, renowned for its bowling green pastures. The verdant grass is cropped to what looks like a nationally regulated length, by what appear to me to be some of the happiest cows around. They produce the milk that makes Swiss chocolate taste oh so good. You could be forgiven for thinking all of this is staged.
Somewhere around Fribourg, my train traverses the Röstigraben, as the locals call it – it translates to the fried grated potato or hash brown trench, an imaginary line, that marks the not so fictional boundary between French-speaking and German-speaking Switzerland. I don’t see many potatoes, no trench in sight and no border guards checking to see if your pommes de terres preference is gratin or grated.
What is incredibly noticeable though, is the language change. From French to Swiss German in a matter of minutes. From one station to the next. Just like that. Oui becomes Ja and Non shifts to Nein. It’s when the cultural diversity brought by four official languages really impresses upon me. It’s also when my head goes into a spin trying to communicate. Do I use my average French, or smatterings of Swiss German that I picked up while living in Bern? Usually, I find myself unknowingly trying to invent a new fifth national language – ‘Frengermglish.’ It sounds horrible, but gets me by.
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Happy to report that the train is on-time in Fribourg. A racket of noise echoes through the carriage, as a spirited group of young guys on compulsory military service, join the mix of Saturday morning commuters, holiday makers and some canine out for a dog-gone adventure, complete with its own official transport identity card.
With the soldiers nudging a round of breakfast beers, I have the impression that drinking games take priority over war games. Switzerland is a neutral country after all. “Schön” is the call to arms, as conversations focus on music, parties and ‘schlafe und esse’ (sleep and food in Schweizerdütsch). I don’t for a moment underestimate their readiness though, with standard issue weapons openly on display to fellow train travellers and easily within arms reach.
A short stop in Bern, Switzerland’s capital. One of my favourite Swiss cities. Like the Lavaux vineyards, the old-town here is World Heritage listed and famed for its bears, the Bundeshaus (Federal Palace) and the place where Einstein’s brilliant mind, hypothesised theories of relativity while working at the patent office. A seven minute pause, time enough for some passengers to alight and for others to light-up and sneak off for a quick puff.
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Smoking in public places is one of my biggest gripes about Switzerland, particularly on Swiss Rail platforms. One day, that will hopefully change and the small train station cubicles currently reserved to shelter non-smokers from the toxic fumes, will instead become hazy havens for puffing passengers, just like the ones you see inside airport terminals.
08:33. We’re late! Ok, a minor delay of only one minute departing Bern. The tracks between Bern and Zürich are among the busiest in the country. Straight and flat. It’s a high-speed commuter corridor, with services hurtling along this section every 15 minutes on weekdays.
The Jura mountain range on my left. And the Emmental to my right – holy home to the Swiss cheese of the same name. Our InterCity 709 service, feels like it’s racing the cars next to us on the A1 Autoroute. I can see my mate Röufu’s house in the distance, as we fly past the village of Murgenthal. Swiss to his bones, he also loves Australia and proudly flies both the Swiss and Australian flags on the pole outside his home. Curious about who lived there, I called in one day 10 years ago and met Rolf. We’ve been friends ever since. “G’day Rolf” I mumble, as we lurch past, heading for Züri.
Leaving the greener pastures behind, commercial buildings starts to dominate the skyline on approach into Zürich. Switzerland’s largest city is often rated as one of the worlds most liveable, but also, one of the more expensive. Some reports suggest that up to forty percent of international workers here are earning over 200,000 Swiss francs per annum. Mind you, it probably costs that much to live here. Falling into the remaining sixty percent, I’ll be happy to admire it from a distance for today. Besides, no time to stop, I’m still only half-way on my great cross-country rail adventure and still have two and a half hours to go – 2h 32m to be precise!
The shift from rural to urban industrial landscapes, is an ever-present reminder of Swiss efficiency and productivity permeating every level of society and every corner of the country. The Swiss are innovative, industrious and über organised. They rarely stop – only on Sundays. The material benefits of prosperity are evident; luxury cars on show, garaged in immaculate homes, carefully accessorised with all the creature comforts emulating the latest furniture catalogues. The constant quest – dare I say it – for perfection, is an ever-present motivation, but equally, a source of underlying stress that appears to be an increasing quality of life concern.
Zürich Hauptbahnhoff is the local equivalent of Grand Central Station. At a slight stretch. A hub for train travellers from across the country, changing to their next connection. I usually stop here for a coffee at Spettacolo and a creme schnitt (vanilla slice) at Sprüngli. No time today, I’m on a precision mission.
09:38. My next service to Chur, also departs one minute late. Hardly an upset. Barely a fraction of a delay and one that customer call centres around the world can only aspire to.
This time, it was the shores of Lake Zürich that were rippling like a millpond. This stretch of coast is dubbed the Gold Coast. Multi-million franc mansions, lining the foreshore. I recall reading that Swiss tennis champ Roger Federer lives along here somewhere.
Further down the track, passing a resource recovery centre, I can see the great national tradition of waste recycling in full swing. Every Saturday, families proudly separate their glass, paper and plastic, flocking to their nearest drop-off point to do the right thing. They’re so good at it, the Swiss rank among the world’s best recyclers.
Blue skies abound, in a late run of summer weather, that had a slow and wet start. As the train passes Ziegelbrücke station, with the weekly recycling duties obviously sorted, I can see people blowing up inflatable canoes and floating leisurely down the river. Looks like a tonne of fun, so I make a mental note to come back and try it some time. Mind you, I bet the water temperature is freezing.
On the home stretch now into Chur, before the final train up the hill to Arosa. Still one minute behind, after a total 3h 48m travel time. Reputation well and truly intact I would say.
And then, all of a sudden, the super smooth sailing comes to a grinding halt. Of all the days, to be testing the timeliness of the Swiss train network – a delay. Not just one minute – but 20! In Swiss-terms, it was certainly at the upper end of the delay scale.
The general populous are so used trains running like clockwork, that passengers aren’t quite sure how to react. People are pacing up and down, feet tapping, some shaking their heads, others calling their loved ones and trying to find the right words to say “I’ll be late!” I can see the conductor waving his arms, determined to get the Rhätische Bahn* service back on track. The news gets worse – the delay is prolonged, with the sign ticking over to announce 25 minutes. Despite my criticisms of Swiss trains in the past, I had been secretly hoping to report a perfectly punctual on-time arrival.
*In fairness to the National Swiss Rail service, who were mostly on-time until this point, it was the Rhätische Bahn that was delayed. The Rhätische Bahn is the largest private railway operator in Switzerland, which among other lines, operates the renowned Glacier Express.
In my broken mishmash of German and Swiss German, I ask him politely “Warum haben wir eine Verzögerung?” He suffered my poor attempt to understand the reason for the delay and most probably could have replied in perfect English. Train conductors frequently switch seamlessly between the official languages, as well as English. “Es ist ein technisches Problem,” he suggested, working feverishly to try and resolve the issue. Technicians running around. The old style carriage I chose at the back – the caboose – is starting to warm up like a pie heater on match day at the football.
Finally, after a 32 minute delay, we depart, shunting off to subdued cheers of relief, drowned out by the high-pitched whistle echoing across the rocky cliffs surrounding Chur (593m) signaling the start of our 59 minute climb up to Arosa (1775m).
If I was in a hurry racing to the airport or running late for work, it might have been an inconvenience. But in this fast paced world of instant gratification and wanting everything yesterday, the joys of Slow Travel are mindful moments to savour. Who chooses to be in a hurry?
That said, I am increasingly mindful of the person waiting for me at my final destination: the mother of my late best friend, Robert.
Robert died on Fraser Island in Australia, in 1997. I have been caring for some of his treasured family heirlooms for the past 19 years and I’m finally making this journey to return them to his mother, a longtime local in Arosa. We’ve waited all this time, so what difference is another half-hour going to make, I thought to myself.
Somehow, all of a sudden, any questions about the timeliness of Swiss trains, no longer seemed relevant. Inspired by my mate Robert and surrounded by the sheer and splendid beauty of the Swiss alps, I want this journey of discovery to last forever. Mesmerised by the picture postcard images filling my widescreen window, I’m reminded of Rob’s photos. He was a nature photographer who loved this place and now I see where it all began.
In a place beyond time.
By Tony Johnston
Tony is a broadcast journalist and content producer based in Switzerland.