Is this the world’s best public transport?

April 11, 2011, 12 Comments

Forget about the trains in Switzerland! Yes, they are super-punctual, (usually) clean and extremely well-used, but everyone expects that even before stepping foot on the Intercity from Bern to Basel. What was the biggest surprise for me was realising that the whole Swiss public transport system is just as efficient, right down to the last detail. It’s as if the entire country revolves around public transport rather than being obsessed with cars. What a great idea!

Take Bern, for instance. Leaving aside the slightly embarrassing squealing tram trauma, the network of trams and buses that covers almost every square inch of the Swiss capital is excellent. So what – that’s no different from Paris or London. The big difference is the attention to detail. All the trams (and most buses, I think) now have info screens dotted along the inside, giving you all sorts of useful information. The one pictured above shows up first, so that you know which stops are coming up and which other lines you can change to.

As you approach the next stop, the screen changes to show connection times for all other lines. How fab is that! You can see if you need to run to make the 12, or if you can take your time for the 20. Of course the screens are a customer service, but they also help the system work efficiently: informed passengers are usually happier and quicker ones. To make sure, there are also loudspeaker announcements, though with less detail – roughly a verbal version of the first screen.

That latter part is the same on the trains. There’s nothing more satisfying than gliding into Zurich main station while the conductor announces all the main connections (in various languages and with platform numbers) so that you know exactly where to go. And in case you missed that announcement, it’s repeated on the platform loudspeakers. So efficient, so helpful. And especially compared to last time I caught the train home from Paris. Horrendous. Sitting in Gare du Lyon, waiting for SNCF to decide which platform the Bern train was leaving from, I longed for Swiss efficiency. It’s a daily service so surely they could have some degree of planning instead of giving passengers five minutes to sprint across crowded halls to catch the train? Moments like that make me love SBB and love living here.

I think that’s the secret of Swiss success. Attention to detail. And a certain degree of control freakery, but when it produces results like the public transport system, I can live with that. If all countries had public transport like this, maybe the world would be a better (and less polluted) place. Thank you Switzerland!

12 Comments on "Is this the world’s best public transport?"

  1. Anthony Lambert Monday April 11th, 2011 at 11:09 AM · Reply

    Hi. You may remember we met at Daunts at the launch of your book. I wrote the Bradt guide to Switzerland based on using the Swiss Travel System (4th edition, Switzerland without a Car) so completely endorse all you say about public transport. For over 20 years I have written numerous articles trying to persuade people that they don’t need a car to enjoy the best of Switzerland, that thankfully you can’t drive to many of the best places anyway and that the range of passes represent excellent value (especially now with free admission to 400 museums thrown in). Enjoy your pieces – though I did disagree about throwing really serious foreign national criminals out of the country. It seems eminently sensible not to burden the prisons/taxpayers with such people.

    • swisswatching Monday April 11th, 2011 at 11:14 AM · Reply

      Of course I remember – and have used the Bradt guide many times. And you’re right about many of the best places being unreachable by train. But I still disagree with the foreign criminal initiative – if only because it is not limited to ‘really serious’ criminals (benefit cheats are not the same as murderers). Plus the fact that it makes no distinction between people who were born here or who have just arrived; in almost any other country, they would not be ‘foreigners’ but nationals.

  2. swisswatching Monday April 11th, 2011 at 01:39 PM · Reply

    Fergus- I had a quick look at the following countries, mainly English-speaking because I didn’t have the inclination to wade through government websites in French, Spanish or Italian. It shows that Switzerland has a very restrictive policy. These countries allow automatic nationality for children if just one parent is a permanent resident (ie C visa) not even a national. USA & Canada don’t even stipulate that.

    Germany – automatic if born after 2000 and one parent has permanent residency and has been living there for minimum 8 years
    Australia – automatic if born before 1986; since then, it’s automatic on the 10th birthday if still living in Australia
    New Zealand – automatic if born before 2006; since then, it’s automatic if parents have permanent residency
    Canada – automatic for any child (except of diplomats) born there
    USA – automatic even if the parents are illegal immigrants
    South Africa – for children born since 1995 if one parent has permanent residency
    Ireland – automatic if one parent has permanent residency or both parents have lived 3 of the last 4 years in Ireland (Northern or the Republic)

    In the UK – It’s automatic for children born before 1983; since then, it’s automatic if at least one parent has permanent residency. Interesting is the case for parents from the European Economic Area. Their children “born after 30 April 2006 will be British citizens if at least one parent lived in the UK continuously for five years pursuant to their rights under European law prior to the birth. Similar rules apply to children of Swiss citizens born in the UK from 1 June 2002 onwards.” UK Immigration Office
    That means they don’t necessarily have to have permanent residency, just five years continuous living, equivalent to a C Ausweis here. But do the Swiss reciprocate? I now have a C visa but if I were to have a child, it wouldn’t be Swiss automatically. Whereas if I were Swiss living in London, my children would now be born British. Fair?

  3. swisswatching Monday April 11th, 2011 at 03:12 PM · Reply

    Interesting new study of European integration, showing that Switzerland ranked 23rd out of 31 countries. It said: “No [Swiss] policy is even “slightly favourable” to integration. Indeed migrants face restrictions when it comes to long-term residency, naturalisation and family reunification.”

    • swisswatching Tuesday April 12th, 2011 at 07:45 AM · Reply

      Hmm. I’m amazed you think that living somewhere for 12 years and then having to actually apply for citizenship is the same as automatically having it from birth. Completely different – the latter is a birthright, the former something bestowed on you if you have been good enough.

  4. Anthony Lambert Friday April 15th, 2011 at 01:44 PM · Reply

    Oh dear. I really did set a hare running.

  5. Marianne von Bern Saturday April 16th, 2011 at 05:07 PM · Reply

    *Sigh* I miss Bern so much….. thanks so much for your blog, makes me feel a little less homesick *re-sigh*

  6. Marianne von Bern Saturday April 16th, 2011 at 05:11 PM · Reply

    By the way, I’m one of these former “Uusländer” who grew up here and eventually obtained Swiss citizenship. I’m very proud of that and proud of *my* country. I truly believe that in order to have the right to hold the citizenship of such a wonderful country you have to show that you are up to it. Be good and hard-working, pay your taxes, learn the language. I believe it’s not much to ask in return (apart from a few 100s to 1000s CHF, depending on your income :))

  7. Vasu Thursday April 28th, 2011 at 11:34 AM · Reply

    Nice post that captures, one of the things that I love about Switzerland. Coming from India, the public transport here is also one of the things that I may miss terribly if and when I leave Switzerland.

    My perception is that even within Switzerland the Swiss German part and the DB trains into Germany are a class above the French / Italian speaking parts. (Well the one in Graubünden is equally good and classier if I may say so). For example, I was in Ticino last week, and had a nightmare trying to work out how to buy a cross border ticket to Como. (If anybody can figure that out in one try, in less than a minute he / she is a genius!)

    But this is nitpicking, and overall Swiss public transport rocks when compared to my experiences in Asia, U.S and rest of Europe. I live in Basel, and one of the greatest things about Basel is how well connected it is to rest of Europe, as well as to neighboring parts of Switzerland
    For the record, I rate Tokyo as the best public transport I have ever experienced any which way you look at it. The she scale of operations in Tokyo is mind boggling compared to Switzerland, and the Tokyo Metro is the benchmark for public transportation for large cities / regions.


  8. Vijay Srini Thursday May 24th, 2012 at 02:11 PM · Reply

    Yes, I have been to Switzerland some time back, and have been overwhelmed by the public transport there. They are neat, tidy, Airconditioned atleast to some extent, and comfortable. And the trains there are punctual, and (except once), each and every time, the trains were BANG ON TIME. Another plus point is that they are not overcrowded, unlike in India. And even late at night (say 10 pm or more), if you are stranded in one city 25 km away, there is no problem getting to another city, again unlike in India.

    However, what bothered me most was the price of tickets, which were way too expensive, even with a Travel Pass and half fare. This could make many people think twice about using the public transport there. (Being a tourist myself, I had no vehicle, and had to depend on Public transport, which I appreciate). If the ticket prices could be brought to a reasonable level, I suppose that more and more people would use the public transport there.

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