Impressions of Europe – Switzerland

he one problem with Switzerland is that once you have been there it tends to become a measuring stick for everything else, especially transport wise. It’s simple really – everything just WORKS!

The Swiss railways (SBB/ CFF/ FFS) are the stuff of legend and it is all true. If the timetable says it goes at 10.58 then it bloody well goes at 10.58 and arriving on the platform at 10.59 will just get you a rear view of the last carriage. All Swiss railway clocks come from the one manufacturer and are computer linked so when it ticks over to 10.58 on the platform at Geneva it does also in Berne, Zurich, Brig or St Gallen.

Also European trains don’t necessarily warn you they are leaving, when its time they just shut the doors and go. Whilst sitting in a train at Zurich station one day there was a TGV heading to Paris on the opposite platform. Two young women toting cases came up the ramp. One stopped to answer her phone, as young women will do. The other stopped to look at her both facing away from their train. Behind them the doors of the TGV shut and, much to their dismay, the train left without them.

As compared to Australian systems, getting around on the SBB is a dream. There are services between all the major cities generally on an hourly or half hourly basis between around 5.00am and midnight. Some of these, particularly on the busy Zurich-Berne-Basle corridors, use double deck stock. Express services stop at the major cities and have local sweeper trains following or preceding them servicing the smaller towns and hamlets. Branch line trains connect nicely with main line trains, with each other where they meet and with buses. At many small towns you can alight from the train, walk out of the station to the adjacent bus stops and have a couple of minutes to photograph the handful of buses there.

They will then depart, usually all together. Now you have about 15 minutes to get a drink, use the toilet (which are free by the way unlike in France and Germany – except at Lucerne station), look around or whatever. Then buses will start to appear again to connect with the next train and after about 26-27 minutes you make your way back for the next train which will heave into view just as you arrive on the platform. Or you can just spend more time on the platform and hope to photograph an express or freight train passing through.

Station signage is clear in the three major languages and in symbols. Major stations have good indicator boards listing the time, destination, major stops and platform number for each train (usually for an hour or so in advance). Platforms are divided into sections marked A, B, C, D etc. The indicators will tell you which sections the train will pull up in (depending on how long it is) and also that the first class car(s) will pull up at, say, A. And they do. Every time.

Late running is considered something akin to a national disgrace. One main line train we were on in 2013 was delayed by a signal fault. Within two minutes of us coming to a halt the conductor was on the P.A. not only clearly explaining what was occurring and giving a predicted duration of delay but also profusely apologising – and all in four languages. Try that at home!

I was told that the Swiss even have a system for dealing with late running international trains operating within Switzerland by having spare trains at border points. Say, for example, you have a late running express train coming from Italy, passing through Switzerland and continuing into Germany or France. If the train is significantly late the Swiss will bring in a spare set. This leaves the border station on time and runs on schedule within Switzerland to the border exit point, thus ensuring the internal Swiss portion of the service runs as advertised. The late running through train will then be slotted in as best in can be when it eventually appears.

In almost all cities, the railway station, or a square/ street just near it, is the focal point for the local transport system. Post bus depots or termini often adjoin stations as well. In the capital city of Berne you come out of the station subway into a square which has the main tram, trolleybus and bus stops dotted around and through it. Postbuses are on the roof of the station. There are lots of them running into Berne providing some quite frequent semi commuter belt services.

Many tram routes also pass outside the Zurich Hauptbanhof and a five minute walk will bring you to the “international coach terminal”. This is a rather grand name for what is, essentially, a paved yard with a few porta cabins providing food and toilets but which nevertheless provides a nice variety of coaches on services from all over Europe.

Even in a smallish town like Brig, you walk out of the SBB station and immediately outside are the tracks and platforms of the Glacier Express running services east and south west. In between the two stations is the departure point for the postbus services and the local town routes. It is all elegant in its simplicity and replicated throughout the country.

We have been to Switzerland on two trips. In May of 2013 we landed in Zurich, stayed a night then caught the train down to Milan through the Gotthard pass. I did this specifically for Jeanette to get a first look at the alpine scenery. Fail. Low cloud cover on the north side of the base tunnel meant that most alps were either topless or invisible. The central portion of this route will soon be replaced by the new base tunnel between Erstfeld and Bellinzona (due to open by the end of 2016) which will cut the best part of an hour from travel time but also cut out the most scenic part of the trip. Doubtless local trains will still cover the old the line so if you are not in a hurry I recommend you do that or do a return trip experiencing both options.

After touring Italy we trained back from Milan to Brig through the Simplon tunnel, stopping only to activate our Swiss Passes (explained later) before continuing to Berne over the old Lotschberg pass route run by a private company the BLS. In 1979 this was the only route. Now the SBB services use a base tunnel, but if you have the extra hour take the BLS line which clings to the north side of the valley after leaving Brig then passes through the original higher level tunnel before descending to rejoin the main line near Spiez. It’s a far more scenic trip.

We were based in Berne for the next week, during which I covered Switzerland from Lausanne in the West to St Gallen in the east and from Basle in the North to Lugarno in the south. The most spectacular day was travelling from Berne to Interlaken then via narrow gauge trains to Lauterbrunnen and Kleine Sheidegg where you change to the Jungfraujoch line. This takes you up inside the mountain to what is the highest railway station in Europe.

This time we beat the bad weather but the hordes of Chinese tourists on the next train were not so lucky. From Kleine Sheidegg you can return to Interlaken via picturesque Grindelwald. Geneva we saved until last as we then picked up an Insight coach tour there.

After seeing the sights of Geneva, the tour took us to the cheese making town of Gruyere then to the ancient Chillon Castle near Montreux before spending the night at the ski resort of Crans Montana, complete with hair raising hairpin bend ride up and down the mountainside. We then went to Zermatt for a spectacular day of viewing the Matterhorn by cable car and/ or rail. Fail. That bloody low cloud was back and this time hovering just over the rooftops of Zermatt. What bloody mountain? The afternoon was spent in bed watching a cowboy film.

This was followed by a long day in the coach from Zermatt across the pass into Italy at Lake Maggiore, then past Lake Como and back into Switzerland at Lugarno then across several more passes to the resort town of St Moritz. The idea was that you make good time on the mountain passes. Fail, roadworks on every single one. We arrived well over an hour late, with only minutes to spare before dinner and it was also snowing.

It was still snowing next morning (the fountain in the square outside was frozen) when we left firstly for a trip on the Glacier express to Chur followed by a lunch stop in the tiny country of Lichtenstein then on to our final destination of Lucerne. The highlight here was to be the spectacular scenic trip up Mount Pilatus on the cable car returning via the rack railway on the other side. FAIL. Half way up we disappeared into that wonderful cloud emerging half way down on the train. We returned to Zurich and after a couple of days there flew back home having had the suggestion from the TD that the end of summer was the best time for weather in the Alps.

Heeding that advice, in August 2015 we again flew into Zurich and again spent the night before catching a train the next day to pick up another Insight coach tour which spent several days in Switzerland before traversing Austria (see above). This time we began at Lucerne again with Mt Pilatus. Oh Oh! Cloud again! Have now been there twice and still don’t know what the view is like from the top, though I did manage a couple of rather spooky misty shots of the train. I note that this year the tour has been changed to use another mountain instead!

Much nicer was the next day which took us on the coach as far as Andermatt where we spent the rest of the day aboard the luxurious Glacier Express mountain railway which took us all the way to St Moritz. This was a great trip with lots of scenery and long enough stops at Dissentis and Chur to enable shots of the local buses. The post bus terminal is on the roof at Chur – something I had missed on the previous visit. The Glacier Express (which is run by the pairing of two private railway companies) runs several times a day (less in winter) and actually travels all the way from Zermatt to St Moritz in special carriages with table service and the works. However, if you are on a budget you can also do the whole route by local trains which run hourly but involves a couple of changes.

The next morning was a horse drawn carriage ride up a nearby glacial valley – they also actually ran a horse drawn bus as well. The fuelling point at the depot required chaff bags! The afternoon was free in St Moritz but Jeanette and I bailed out at Pontesarina as we had agreed to ride the Bernina Pass line which travels down and into Italy (this was actually her idea after reading about it). Time only allowed us to go as far as Poschiavo and back but that covers the leg over the pass and is one of the world’s most spectacular train trips – high alpine on one side then a magnificent spiral descent down the valley on the other. On the way down we had a first class car to ourselves so both side windows were promptly lowered and many photos taken. Note – don’t try this in a more populated carriage – the Swiss, particularly the German Swiss will complain to the conductor about the fresh air even when it is a non aircon carriage and its thirty degrees outside – and inside.

From St Moritz, where the local buses are in a most pleasing and colourful livery, we travelled into Austria for the rest of the tour returning by train from Vienna to Zurich a week later on the high speed Railjet train. We had a 40 minute stop at Zurich to activate our Swiss passes before proceeding onto Brig. On dear! Our travel agent had the wrong dates on the vouchers. It took quite some persuading, a little deception (“but we’ve just arrived in Switzerland from Austria”), some feigned outrage at the travel agent and referrals to two levels of management, but we did receive our revalidated passes with five minutes to spare

We had arranged to stay at Brig for six days as I wanted to revisit Chamonix and Zermatt in clear weather, do the Furka Pass steam train and take Jeanette on the Golden Pass line (which she had begged off from in 2013). However we were both sick as dogs on arrival with what turned out to be severe bronchitis in my case and borderline pneumonia in hers. The next day was to be fine at Chamonix so I was determined to go. Jeanette stayed in bed.

It’s a fair trip from Brig to Chamonix. Over an hour down the Sion Valley on the main line train then just on two hours up and down over the border on a private line, including a change of train half way at Vallorcine. I arrived in Chamonix at 11.00am and made my way to the cable car terminal. World’s longest queue! It seems this was the first really fine day in weeks so half of Europe was there. It took until 12.40 to have a ticket in my hand for a car number that would not leave until around 2.00pm. It’s a spectacular two cable car ride up to where you can view the summit of Mt Blanc and see the roof of three countries (France, Switzerland and Italy).

I figured half an hour at the top to take some pics, then start the long trip back. Nope. “Your return car is number so and so which will leave around 4.30”. Try being at 10,000 metres for two hours with bronchitis. I spent the last hour nursing a coke and a bun in the restaurant. Oh and the whole cable car was stopped for about 15 minutes while they made some minor repair. I was starting to get worried at this stage as the last train back across the border was at 6.40pm. As it turned out I made it just in time for the 5.40 returning to Brig at 8.35 after a 13 hour day. But mission had been accomplished.

Next day I went back down to Martigny and Bex to ride some of the other four private rail lines there. However the one at Martigny was being bustituted which did provide some bonus bus pics. At Leuk, the local bus operator’s depot is in the station car park making a depot visit possible during a 30 minute stop. It also helped that three of their buses came out to wait at the station to connect with the next train. After at short stop at Sierre where there was a MAN Lions City on a run I continued to Sion where I saw on the town services, new two Volvo hybrid buses which had been delivered since I had passed through in 2013.

Friday Jeanette was so bad (and I wasn’t so flash myself) that we both spent half a day at the hospital in Visp. By lunchtime we had been examined, blood tests and x rays and had pills. No Medicare for tourists in Switzerland. Only cost 2000 francs (about $2,600A). Ouch at the time but eventually got it all back on the travel insurance. A quick trip to Spiez and back provided the only bus action for that Friday.

Saturday was steam train day at the Furka Pass – an incredible line with incredible scenery. Its part of the original Glacier Express line but long bypassed by a base tunnel. Restored by volunteers (in a manner similar to Puffing Billy), but which included retrieving the original locos from Vietnam, it is a highly recommended trip with several journeys each way on weekends and some weekdays. I was also able to complete my last piece of the Glacier Express line by local train between there and Andermatt. This is a good place for coach spotting as many tour groups join or alight from Glacier express trains there in the middle of the day.

The final day was Sunday and the weather was forecast to be fine at Zermatt. Jeanette finally roused from her sick bed and we made our way to Zermatt where the Matterhorn could be seen against a cloudless sky. The trip up and down the Gornergratt railway on the opposite side of the valley was well worth it. Next day it was up to Berne then via Interlaken and Lucerne (low cloud again) to Zurich and off to Germany.

So far this has mostly been about rail. So let us move on to buses.

The Swiss Post Office is a major provider of bus services and covers nearly all the places where trains do not run. There is an eclectic mixture of services and vehicles. Services range from rural village school runs operated by minibuses, through to urban and semi urban services using all sorts of high and low floor rigid buses, bogie buses and even some double deckers, all in the distinctive yellow postbus livery. Makes include Mercedes, MAN, Volvo and Iveco. Some new double deckers are due for delivery in 2016.

Many routes provide coverage to small hamlets within a valley or from the town in the valley floor to the villages and ski resorts up on the mountainsides.

A few routes parallel train lines. One route I sampled in the Sion Valley took me from Sion to Martigny taking just over an hour to do what the train does in 20 minutes. Rather than following the rail line directly the bus route followed a parallel road on the other side of the valley floor passing through several villages including one half way where a driver changeover was conducted in the forecourt of the small postbus depot. This inter town bus route, which ran hourly in the off peak with peak hour extras, was lightly loaded mid morning but nevertheless utilised an MAN artic.

Decades ago Postbus was famous for its fleet of magnificent bonneted Saurer and Berner buses. Quite a few of these are still around either as tour buses or specialty vehicles. In 1979 probably the riskiest thing we all did for the whole trip resulted from spotting a bonneted Saurer outside a station where we were pulling in for a two minute timetabled stop. As one we bailed out of our compartment toting just our cameras, raced to the door of the carriage, across the platform out the exit and lined up for the shot.

Within sixty seconds we were reversing course reboarding with just seconds to spare. God knows what would have happened if the train had pulled out as all our bags, passports and everything were in the compartment.

In 2013, I bailed out of another train for a Saurer, this time with my day bag! Approaching a small station between St Gallen and Rapperswill, there was a small depot with not one but two Saurers standing out the front. I made an instant decision to stay the 30 minutes until the next train. Walking back to the shed I discovered it was a former postbus depot with no less than seven ex postbus vehicles, all immaculate (barring one which was clearly under restoration). Unfortunately there was no one in attendance so I could only obtain shots of the two facing the street. But it was well worth the delay and was made up for by the next town on my schedule being both rather boring buswise and also bad for the sun so 60 minutes there became 30 – back on time.

In 2015 our Insight coach pulled up at one scenic viewpoint near Goschenen directly behind a bonneted Saurer doing an “Olde Time Tour”. While others admired the view I had better things to do. Two weeks later I got to the station in Brig one morning to discover a forward control Berner (similar in size to an early sixties Bedford SB) doing a tour pickup. How good is it to have your day made within five minutes of leaving the hotel and before even doing any of the good stuff you had planned!

I did sight some private school buses though most were minibuses in hillside villages. There was also at least one depot full of larger buses in the Sion valley but this was only glimpsed from the train in passing.

Town services in both small and large cities are mostly run by business entities of the Cantons and use predom- inantly modern low floor buses, either diesel or hybrid on Mercedes, Volvo and MAN chassis. Trams can be found in Zurich, Berne, Geneva, Basle and Neuchatel. These four cities also have trolleybuses as do Lucerne and Lausanne. The latter two are trailer towing trolleys. By 2015 those in Lucerne were being replaced with new and very long Hess multi section trolleys.

If you are visiting Switzerland, staying for more than a couple of days, and want to have a good look around, a good investment is the Swiss Pass. Available in either first or second class this allows travel on any train operated by the Swiss Railways and the BLS and also on many of the branch line trains run by private operators. Where the fare is not fully covered (such as on a few tourist railways like the Jungfraujoch) it usually provides for a 25% or 50% subsidy. And when you get off the train, the pass covers any service run by the Postbus system and also on the local tram, trolleybus and/or bus systems in 29 cities -basically anywhere of any size at all.

Having spent more than two weeks in Switzerland over two visits and taking over a thousand train, bus and tram photos I have experienced no hassling whatsoever. There was just one bus driver who approached me whilst I was photographing a line-up of buses outside Rapperswill station and said “Are you a tourist?” When I said yes he just smiled and walked off. Why can’t everywhere be like Switzerland?