The invaluable English-language Swiss website Swissinfo.ch has this weekend two excellent articles about the near perfect public transport system in their country. Two reason for me to be interested: I’m a frequent user of their public transport, and – since I’m Dutch – I know that the Swiss railways are a benchmark for much of the rest of Europe, especially for the Netherlands where train are notoriously late and unreliable. Not not mention Belgium, my other resident country, where trains are typically so late, you do not look up when trains are leaving. There is always a fair chance you can get the previous one, unless there is one of many strikes.
First about the meticulous planning:
“In Switzerland the timetable is planned to the second,” Daniel Haltner, responsible for train path capacities at Trasse, told swissinfo.ch. “When we communicate that the train leaves exactly on the hour, we even factor in the 12 seconds the train driver may take to react to the signal turning green.”
And about the popularity of public transport:
With popular backing the government has been promoting public transport. As a result, more than two million people – a quarter of the population – have a half-price pass. The Railways’ slogan “Those with a brain take the train” is not only a household name in Switzerland; many also follow the call.
In 2010, every person would have travelled 2,875 kilometres by public transport, a 40 per cent increase since the turn of the century. The average number of annual trips rose 30 per cent to 225 per head, according to the Association for Public Transport.
While Swiss public transport has 19 operators, 95% of the planning of trains is in the hands of one overarching company, called Trasse. Especially the Dutch have been obsessed with the Swiss railways. In the Netherlands any change of season causes massive delays, whether its autumn leaves, winter cold or heavy rain. The problem, as described here in Dutch, seems pretty simple.
Although Switzerland and the Netherlands have in length about the same railway system, Switzerland spends annually about 50% or euro 1 billion more on infrastructure. That helps, but that might be for the Dutch an inconvenient political truth: a good public transportation system does cost money.
Of course, the Swiss do complain about the costs of their public transportation, but since a huge amount of the Swiss do not want to change it, they cough up the relatively higher train fares (although, I would not call the Dutch railways very cheap either.)
The Swiss railways face also their problems, as mobility increases. Passenger traffic always got preferential treatment over cargo, but pressure from logistical companies grows for more capacity. The main difference is that in Switzerland politics, and thus the electorate, calls the shots. In the Netherlands and Belgium railway companies still work out the effects of a basically failed privatization operation.
In the Netherlands, the railway companies have included failure into their schedule. They just skip 20% of the trains in advance, before they can run into trouble,