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Text: Keir Plaice | Photography: Tim Bardsley-Smith/My Media Sydney | Video: My Media Sydney
The little red train whooshes through the fields and pulls in to the platform right as the black minute hand makes its lurch forward. The red paddle then begins its sweep, circling the white face in 58.5 seconds. It pauses at the top, as if it were catching its breath, and then the electrical impulse arrives from the Swiss Federal Railways’ central clock, and the minute hand springs forward to the next black marker.
All across Switzerland, the station clocks are synchronised, from the tiny hospice high on the Bernina Pass, with its stone walls, chimney, and red wooden shutters, to the enormous Hauptbahnhof in Zürich, with its 26 tracks, which serve more than 2,900 trains daily. Their crisp dials and unique movements epitomise the outstanding thoughtfulness and efficiency of the Swiss travel system.
The Swiss public transport network includes 29,000 kilometres of rail, boat, and bus routes, which can take you to every corner of the country, from five-house villages high in the Alps to your hotel on the other side of the city. And it’s all timed to ensure your journeys run as seamlessly as possible, with regular departures that leave on the minute and are next to never tardy.
The system is not just designed to take you quickly and easily from A to B – much of it seems custom-built to show you the finest of Switzerland. Its boats provide the best way to explore Switzerland’s lakes, and scenic trains such as the Glacier Express, which runs from Zermatt to St. Moritz, offer comfortable front-row seats to some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the country.
The infrastructure is often worth seeing in its own right too. In the mountains, train tracks emerge out of cliffs and soar over viaducts that span precipitous gorges. They rise through meadows and snowfields, and pass through tunnels that lie kilometres under the ground. It’s almost a miracle that it all works so well, which is a testament to Swiss engineering.
The system is designed for cyclists too. Most trains have special compartments with hooks for you to hang your bike. Buy a bicycle ticket, and you can bring it on board, although you may have to reserve a place ahead during peak times. This can be done on the sbb.ch website or via their mobile app. The buses in Switzerland are bicycle-friendly as well. Most have racks or trailers to take your bike to your next destination.
Affordable all-in-one tickets are available, which offer unlimited train, bus, and boat travel, as well as admission to more than 500 museums. Other tickets allow you to travel on freely-selectable days or to transfer to and from a single destination. Regional passes are also available, and you can purchase individual tickets at the stations.
“The system is designed for cyclists too. Most trains have special compartments with hooks for you to hang your bike. The buses in Switzerland are bicycle-friendly as well. Most have racks or trailers to take your bike to your next destination.”
The conductor blows his whistle. The doors close, and the train departs silently.
The seats are plush and spacious. Out the window, mesmerising landscapes pass by with ever-increasing speed. There’s just the sound of hushed conversations.
A conductor walks in, offering tea and coffee.
This truly is the nicest way to travel around Switzerland.
Switzerland’s famously punctual railways are just one part of the broader Swiss public transport network – an efficient, reliable and safe way of getting yourself (and your bike) from one amazing riding destination to the next.
The extensive network of trains, buses and trams is optimised for ease of connection, but in many cases also appears to be custom-built to display the very best of the country. Switzerland is the benchmark that public transport systems the world over are judged against, and having explored this country on a range of transport modes during our time here, it’s easy to see why.
Find out more about the Swiss Travel System here.
The Swiss Travel System’s efficiency is its most famous asset, but there are countless other measures by which the country’s public transport infrastructure excels.
The recently opened Gotthard Base Tunnel is the world’s longest railway tunnel – a 57km journey through the heart of the Alps, connecting cantons and countries.
The Glacier Express, running from Zermatt to St Moritz, is a panoramic train journey taking in the very best of Switzerland’s Alpine scenery, including the Matterhorn. The train journey takes in no less than 91 tunnels and 291 bridges.
For a full list of highlights by train, bus and boat, visit here.
The best way to see Switzerland by public transport is to purchase a Swiss Travel Pass, offering unlimited travel on public trains, buses and boats. These tickets, specifically designed for foreign visitors, present easy access to the world’s densest public transport network.
To find out more about Swiss public transport tickets, visit here.
Swiss public transport’s reliability is such that a timetable actually means something – rather than merely being a suggestion.
To find the departure time of your next train, bus or boat, or help plan your travels through Switzerland, visit here.