Teaching the Swiss to stand on the right

October 9, 2011, 12 Comments

The Swiss are usually very good at following instructions. This is a country where control and conform can feel like national verbs – somewhere that functions on rules and regulations. But not always. Sometimes there seems to be a collective will not to do the right thing. I know, it sounds so un-Swiss, doesn’t it? You can see examples of such anti-social behaviour every day in most train stations, where people brazenly stand on the left-hand side of the escalators. Shocking!

To combat such blatant disregard for the rules, SBB have started trying to educate the Swiss in how to stand on the right. Huge posters at Basel station and signs on every escalator in Bern station appeared, all saying links gehen rechts stehen – literally ‘left go, right stand’ or more nicely: stand on the right. In Lucerne station they tried a different approach, probably given the number of non-German-speaking tourists in the city, and painted yellow feet on the ground. All to no avail: notice the two Swiss teenagers on the escalator.

I lived in London for 15 years, where ‘stand on the right’ is a way of life on the Underground. Without it the whole system would clog up like a smoker’s arteries. On almost any London Transport escalator, the only people not standing on the right are tourists, who soon get told where to go by the locals. In Switzerland, it’s the exact opposite: the only ones standing in the right place are tourists, because they think they have to follow the rules; this is Switzerland, after all. Little do they know that this is one rule the Swiss ignore.

The thing is, Swiss escalators aren’t that long and stations are not nearly as busy as Piccadilly Circus, so why is it all necessary? Yes, it’s frustrating if you’re running late and can’t get past someone to catch a train. I was recently stuck behind two ladies who were standing side-by-side gassing about nothing important. My polite request to get past was met with a stare of Medusan ferocity, despite us all gliding past a links gehen rechts stehen sign at that very moment. What I’d failed to understand is that it was my fault for not being precisely on time. This walking-standing rule is deemed unnecessary by most Swiss because few of them ever need to make use of it.

SBB clearly think it’s a good idea otherwise it wouldn’t be going to such lengths to try and make it happen. That’s because it’s all about its own punctuality. As the trains get busier and more people try to board at the last minute, so its world-class timeliness is threatened. Plus the fact that in busy stations like Zurich, improving the flow of people can only help reduce overcrowding at peak times. Winners all round, I’d say, apart from those people who can only converse side-by-side, a bit like those sad couples in restaurants who don’t want to sit opposite each other.

The big problem for SBB is that its rules aren’t always followed. There used to be a quiet carriage on trains, but they were just as noisy as all the others. When it comes to not using your Handy (ie mobile phone) or iPod for more than ten minutes, the Swiss are as incapable as anyone else. Conductors couldn’t keep the peace, literally, so silent carriages were quietly abandoned – in 2nd Class anyway. They still exist for 1st Class passengers, who are clearly more law-abiding.

SBB’s latest attempt to regulate its passengers may fail too. Sadly, as London shows that it’s a system that works well without adversely affecting anyone. How hard can it be, Switzerland?

Stand. On. The. Right.

12 Comments on "Teaching the Swiss to stand on the right"

  1. Ninda Sunday October 9th, 2011 at 06:27 PM · Reply

    I totally agree with you. It really gets on my nerve when people stand on the left on the escalator and can’t queue to board the train (or any public transport). This looks very unSwiss to me. I adore almost everything Swiss here – punctuality, cleanliness, etc. – but oh well, perhaps this is the Swiss way to say they are not perfect 😉

    • RT Monday October 10th, 2011 at 11:05 PM · Reply

      No, the Swiss are just not used to do this.Once this rule is established, all Swiss will observe it, just as they observe all other rules. They are very law abiding people.

  2. Anneliese Sunday October 9th, 2011 at 06:56 PM · Reply

    There definitely exist quiet cabins on the trains. There is one on my train every day from Interlaken to Bern and back again.

    And I’ve seen them enforced by passengers when other passengers were being noisy.

  3. David Sunday October 9th, 2011 at 07:02 PM · Reply

    they can’t queue either! However I have seen English people queuing to get on a clearly empty boat when there was nobody else on the jetty….

  4. tim footman Monday October 10th, 2011 at 04:05 AM · Reply

    In Bangkok, they have markers on the train platforms, to tell you where the doors will be when the train arrives. People queue in an obedient and orderly fashion, in two rows per door, so as to allow passengers to exit through the middle.

    Then, just as the train arrives, the queues dissolve like a collapsing rugby scrum and everyone piles on willy-nilly.

  5. Tobias Buser Monday October 10th, 2011 at 07:51 PM · Reply

    In train stations I frequently use the stairs right next to the escalator. I usually walk very fast, so people tend to stand in my way anyway. But when I use it and someone train-blocks me I usually tell them to please step aside which, in general, is sufficient.

    My ideas for explaining such behaviour are that A) its quite a new rule and therefore is only common to frequent or international travellers, whereas ordinary people tend to ignore all the “presumed” ads around them and therefore miss the signs that inform you, and B) elderly people that are going for a hike and never give a **** about anyone that is in a hurry, since they are on pension and try to shove it to you when ever possible (like when they hand in their lottery tickets at 7.30 while you miss your tram to work because you just wanted to get the latest issue of the times) or C) they are teenagers and just don’t care like the also new “not drinking in the public transport” rule…

    But what are the swiss ideals now a days and what is left of it? Are these just memories of the good old times? What has happened to our society that we don’t fit into the image we expect everybody to have from us?
    The problem behind this self-centred thinking lies by far deeper than my before mentioned ideas I’m afraid. And I’m a bit scarred of what might come in the near future. Queuing and standing right might be just the ice tip.

    And should someone from the SBB read this.. why not have a double side in the 20minuten. Links gehen. Rechts stehen. You probably get better results… or place figures on pages. those on the left walk and those on the right stand around.. you can do it 😉

  6. Twan Laan Wednesday October 19th, 2011 at 06:40 AM · Reply

    Stand-on-the-right is not particularly un-Swiss. I would say it is typically un-continental, or, if you wish, very British indeed… Dutch railways made similar attempts to raise the Dutch – in vain, of course. I remember two English students arriving at a Dutch bus stop. One student reminds the other: “Don’t forget not to queue!”

  7. Susan Wednesday October 19th, 2011 at 02:41 PM · Reply

    I think there’s just a fundamental difference in awareness of personal space between Swiss and people from English-speaking countries. It reflects itself in the inability to line up (queue), the full body contact made in crowded spaces (someone who’d never make small talk with you has no qualms about pressing up intimately against your backside or sticking their legs between yours when sitting across from you on a train), the inability to stand on the right side of escalators, and just all around being in the way (often the people who stood side by side talking on the escalator will pause at the bottom to finish their conversation, seemingly unaware that other people are coming off the escalator behind them). The Swiss surely don’t mean to be rude, but they just don’t seem to be aware of (or care about) where their bodies are in relation to others. I have no idea why this is the case (perhaps the crowdedness of the flat regions of the country), but it seems quite pervasive.

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