Why Swiss Trains are the Best in Europe

Why Swiss Trains are the Best in Europe

I live in the Netherlands, where we have some pretty good trains.
There’s a dense network that connects nearly all major towns and cities.
The busiest train station, Utrecht Centraal, has over a thousand train departures per day.
And there are also high-speed trains to neighbouring countries.
For example, I can get to Paris in less than 3½ hours.
But as good as we have it here in the Netherlands, there’s another country in Europe that does
trains better. Much better in fact. Welcome to the Confoederatio Helvetica, or
as I like to call it,. Switzerland
Famous for mountains, holey cheese, chocolate, bendy knives, and time bracelets.
And, of course, trains. Lots and lots of trains. Now I’ve been to Switzerland many times,
and I’ve taken the train every time I’ve come, because of course I did: it’s the
most efficient way to get around. But recently I stayed a full week in Switzerland,
and took multiple trains per day to find out what makes these the best trains in Europe.
One of the things that really sets the train system apart in Switzerland is just how extensive
it is. Look at this map. There are train stations
everywhere! There are towns, tiny towns, that have consistent,
reliable train service every 30 minutes. In many other countries, they wouldn’t even
provide bus service to a place this small. Some of the smallest towns have a request
stop service, where you need to press this button to have the train stop. But there’s
still train service! And this train station, that services only
a single café, a ski lift,
and a hiking trail, has service every 30 minutes.
Meanwhile the city of Calgary in Canada, a city of 1.3 million people, has no intercity
train service at all. Zürich also has about 1.3 million people,
but almost 3000 trains per day, with train times so frequent, you don’t
even need to look at a schedule. So if you’re taking the train here, you
won’t have to wait very long. Frequencies like this are the gold standard
of public transportation, but this is really only feasible in more populated areas.
So how do they provide such good train service to smaller towns and villages?
Well, Switzerland is a relatively small country by land area, and some people may assume that’s
why the public transit can be so good, but these Wikipedia-level statistics can be very
misleading. Because by population, Swiss cities actually
aren’t that big. After Zürich, the next largest city, Geneva, has only about 600 thousand
people in the whole region. In fact, almost 50% of the entire population of Switzerland
lives in small villages of less than 10,000 people.
In a way, Switzerland is a sprawling country but instead of car-dependent suburban sprawl
like you’d see in North America, it’s village sprawl. Yet the country still
manages to cover this highly dispersed population with exceptional public transport.
Switzerland uses what is called “clock-face scheduling.” For example, a transit vehicle
that comes every 30 minutes will always come at 15 minutes and 45 minutes after the hour.
Or 5 minutes and 35 minutes. Or maybe it’s 4 times per hour at 5, 20, 35, and 50 minute
past the hour but regardless, it’s consistent, and it goes all day, so that regular users
won’t have to think too much about the schedule. This is actually pretty normal, and many countries
schedule their public transit this way, including the Netherlands and Germany.
But Switzerland takes this a step further by synchronizing their timetables across the
entire country, a method called pulse timetabling or integrated timetables. Here’s how it
works. Train departure times at a train station are
staggered, so that trains may be arriving every 30 minutes at, say, 15 minutes past
the hour, and departing in a different direction at,
say, 25 minutes past the hour. This way, most people arriving at the station will have at
most 10 minutes to wait for their connecting train.
But Switzerland integrates these timetables throughout the entire network, across the
entire country, to minimize connection durations as much as possible.
Not Just Bikes viewer Jokteur has written a great article about this that I’ll link
to in the description, but here’s the quick summary, for those of you allergic to reading.
His analysis, done at 10AM on a Friday. So, outside of rush hour, shows that across the
entire Swiss train network, the average wait time for a connection is 8.4 minutes, with
77% of all possible connections being 10 minutes or less.
That’s … astonishing. And it means that even a trip with multiple train connections
is only marginally longer than a single direct train.
Another benefit of integrated timetabling is that the Swiss can squeeze the most capacity
possible out of their network. Switzerland is an incredibly mountainous country,
and that means that building rain lines is extremely expensive.
So there aren’t a lot of individual rail lines, and a small number of routes need to
be shared by a large number of rail services. This tight scheduling is the only way a route
like this could operate with only a single track through the mountains.
For example, while travelling through the South of Switzerland, our train occasionally
needed to wait briefly for another train to clear the tunnel, which was only a single
track, but wait times were short and we always arrived on time.
Of course in order to pull this off, the trains need to arrive when they’re supposed to
arrive, and Swiss trains are famously punctual. The official statistic is that 91.9% of all
trains arrive on time, but it’s even better than it sounds.
First of all, “on time” is defined as within 3 minutes of the scheduled arrival
time. This is a much stricter definition than you’ll find in many other countries.
Here in the Netherlands for example, the national carrier, Nederlandse Spoorwegen, considers
a train to be “on time” if it’s within 5 minutes of the scheduled arrival time.
And where I used to live in the greater Toronto area, GO Transit uses a 15 minute metric for
“on time” performance, for a region that is a tiny fraction of the size of Switzerland,
but with a similar population. And if you think that’s bad, VIA Rail in
Canada says that 71% of their trains are “on time”, but they don’t publish what metric
they use. But anyway, what’s really impressive about
the Swiss train network is the connection punctuality. 98.9% of trains in Switzerland
allow their passengers to make their connection. Which is amazing.
After all, arriving at home 5 minutes late one day isn’t really a big deal,
but just missing your connection to a train that only leaves every 30 minutes, is much
worse.
But enough statistics and graphs, what is it actually like to take the train in Switzerland?
Well first of all, the trains are really nice. Every train I took was modern, clean, and
comfortable. In the mountain regions, there are even trains
with windows like this, to enjoy the view. And you definitely want to get a good view
when the landscape looks like this. There are also tourist trains, like the Glacier
Express, that are even better. But more about that later.
But even the regular intercity trains are great. I want you to look at this scene for
a moment. How freak’n civilized is this? Can you seriously tell me you’d rather sit
in traffic on a highway, confined to your seat with a belt, and constantly needing to
pay attention, with no way to comfortably eat, or even take a piss, instead of
This!? I refuse to believe that there is any better
way to travel, than on a train like this one. I was also impressed at how many trains had
level boarding, and direct access to wheelchair areas
and accessible restrooms. It wasn’t every car on every service, but
it’s clear that Switzerland is making a concerted effort to ensure that their network
remains accessible to everyone. And every station I visited had ramps or elevators,
too. Though as I was filming my walk to my connecting
train, I wasn’t expecting to see this guy take the escalator. Damn.
Individual train trips in Switzerland can be quite expensive, but for residents it’s
quite common to have half-price or regional travel cards loaded on a SwissPass. And some
people are even provided an unlimited travel card by their employer.
For most of the week I travelled second class, and in every case this was more than good
enough. But for the last 4 days I bought a country-wide
travel pass for first class, just to see the difference. Thank you, Patreon supporters!
First class is an upgrade, but it’s not significant, and probably not worth the price
unless the route you’re taking is expected to be really busy.
However some of the trains have “business zones” like this one, that are extremely
comfortable, and I was able to get a few hours of work
done while in transit, too. There’s a famous quote by the former mayor
of Bogotá, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where
the rich use public transportation.” And that is absolutely the case in Switzerland.
When I was travelling in first class, I routinely saw well-dressed people, and professionals
like this who opened their laptops to debrief after a business meeting.
I believe that having wealthy people take public transportation is important, because
for better or for worse, these people are likely to have the power and political influence
to demand efficient service. For planning your journey, the SBB app is
fantastic. You choose your route, and it shows you exactly how long it’s going
to take and where you need to change, with a list of every station in between.
And it will even show you the layout of the station, and the exact path between platforms.
Changing trains doesn’t get any easier than this.
Here is an example of a typical train trip; one of the many I took during my week in Switzerland.
In any other country, I’d be worried about taking a trip with this many changes.
But when you’re likely to catch your connection in 99% of cases, it’s not a problem at all.
Here I look at my first connection. The app shows me where I need to stand on the platform
for my train, as well as an estimate of how busy each carriage is.
The app tells me exactly whereI need to get off to change trains, and which platform I’m
going to. And I get a notification when we’re getting
close. Changing trains is trivial because I know
exactly where I’m arriving, and which platform I need to get to.
This is an older train, but it’s still clean and comfortable.
My next train was running almost 3 minutes late, and the app warned me that the connection
might not be possible. But of course it was perfectly fine
and I got my next train with plenty of time to spare.
Even when the connection involved a transfer to a bus
it was waiting right outside. Because the schedules are properly aligned,
even to a connecting bus service. So, was all of my travel perfect in Switzerland?
Well, no.
I took about two dozen trains while I was there, and I was unlucky enough, or lucky
enough, for the purpose of this video, to miss one of my connections. So what was that
like? Well first, the train was late because of
a delay in another country. Oooh. Switzerland throwing Italy under the
bus! I mean … train! But from what I’ve been told, many of the
Swiss trains that are late are late because they’re coming from another country, so
this was a pretty typical experience.
So anyway, my train was late, and I missed my connection.
Now, there have been many times in my life where I’ve been driving between cities,
and I end up being a half hour late, or an hour late or more, because of unexpected car
traffic. This is just a normal part of travel, especially places with no alternatives to
driving. But being stuck in stop-and-go traffic like this sucks. It sucks a lot and I hate
it. When I missed my connection in Switzerland,
I was in a tiny town of only 13,000 people. But while I waited I was able to grab something
to eat, and I stepped outside to enjoy the view.
When you drive in traffic, you don’t really know how long it’s going to be, and it’s
stressful and frustrating. This delay was the exact polar opposite of
that. In fact, it was a really enjoyable break. I just wonder, how much better, the world
would be, if people’s travel delays were like this,
Instead of like this. It just blows my mind that even a delayed
train trip in Switzerland was better than almost any intercity driving trip I’ve ever
done in the US or Canada. And can I just point out that this town of
13,000 people has regular train service, including international trains?
But the best part about travelling in Switzerland, was that whenever I got to my destination,
no matter where it was, it was always a short walk,
tram trip, or gondola journey directly to where I wanted
to go. Because every Swiss city, town, and village
is designed properly, to be mixed-use and walkable.
This was the very first time that I returned to the Netherlands after a trip abroad, and
didn’t think to myself, “finally, back to civilization.”
It’s easy to feel that way when coming back from a trip to North America, because everything
is just so terrible there by comparison. But returning from Switzerland was different.
Everything just seemed a bit less … polished. Despite getting on a recently renovated train
back to Amsterdam Zuid, it still seemed kinda rickety and noisy compared to the train I
left in Zürich. And I almost missed my train because I forgot
to tap my OV chipkaart before boarding. It was only at this point I realized that
I hadn’t gone through a fare gate for a train the whole time I was gone. Which was
really nice. Dutch cities, are pretty great, and that’s
an understatement, and cycling is certainly better here than anywhere in Switzerland,
and I talked about that in a previous video. But there’s something to be said about a
country that is so well set up with high-quality, punctual, and efficient public transportation,
that makes travelling so easy. This care-free transportation felt like true
freedom, more so than any car-dependent place I’ve ever been.
Of course, one thing they definitely don’t have here in the Netherlands is mountains,
so one of the highlights of my trip was taking the Glacier Express, a scenic train that takes
you through some of the most beautiful views in the Swiss Alps.
I made a whole other video about what it’s like to take the Glacier Express, and you
can watch it now on Nebula. Nebula is the Streamy award-winning service
that was created by and for educational video creators like me.
On Nebula you can watch all of my YouTube videos, completely ad and sponsor-free,
and there’s extra content, like my Glacier Express video,
as well as videos from over 150 other creators, on topics like engineering & technology, history,
media analysis, creative writing and more. I legitimately enjoy Nebula and I watch content
on there almost every day. You can sign up to Nebula directly, but it’s
actually cheaper to get it bundled for free with a subscription to CuriosityStream.
CuriosityStream is a streaming service for professionally-produced educational and documentary
films. They have thousands of titles available on a wide range of topics.
For example, I recently watched one of their documentaries about Engadin, a wilderness
preserve in the Swiss Alps, which was really interesting.
If you sign up at curiositystream.com/notjustbikes, or with the coupon code notjustbikes, you
will get both CuriosityStream and Nebula for only $14.79 for the whole first year of service,
which is about as much as a ticket from Zürich to Basel, if you don’t have a travelcard.
You can sign up using the link right here or in the description.
I’d also like to thank my supporters on Patreon, who pay me to travel first class
on those sweet, sweet Swiss trains. If you’d like your name in this list of supporters,
and get early access to my public videos, visit patreon.com/notjustbikes.

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