Swiss show the way in integrated transport

When asked about the best place for public transport, transport commentators invariably suggest it is the major cities of Switzerland, especially Zurich. The Swiss are keen to show off their transport credentials and in November held a seminar at the Swiss embassy on the country’s public transport system.

The strategy is thought through with all the precision of a Swiss watch and, interestingly, the Swiss realise that their model is not perfect and are happy to discuss its failings. The system is, also, unbelievably complex because of Switzerland’s federal structure and a virtually incomprehensible financing system. The strength of the Cantons, which have their own parliaments and legislative structure, means that the federal government has great difficulty in imposing national standards.

Zurich which was the main subject of the seminar, has for historic reasons an even more complex structure as it has a transport authority, whose boundaries are not contingent with the canton. The transport authority oversees a structure of eight companies – some private, some public – which have a kind of ongoing project management role over the transport facilities which are supplied by 50 providers, again both public and private. The notion, therefore, that the Swiss transport system is entirely publicly owned is way off the mark, but, for the most part – some cantons are exceptions – the providers are on a management contract system so that they bid on the basis of cost alone. And the costs are high, with transport drivers getting a guaranteed £43,000 per year.

Nevertheless, Zurich covers about 64 per cent of its costs through the fare box, not much different from London. And, of course, the level of service is incomparably better with a genuinely integrate system of buses, trams, rail, ferries and even funicular railways, all operating on regular headways ranging from 7.5 mins to hourly.

Some of the answers to questions from the British audience were a bit hazy and the decision making process seems opaque. For example, transport operators seem to have a choice about whether to spend on existing services or investing for the future. The major tram operator in Zurich, which is owned by the city administration, is, for example, spending huge sums on building a series of tram routes that circumvent the city centre, a kind of Outer Circle. But it was unclear who exactly was making the decision to build these lines.

The complexity should not, however, take away from the effectiveness of the Swiss system which is integrated in every conceivable way and is customer-focussed in a way that we can only dream about. The extent of planning and forethought was encapsulated by the speaker from SBB, the federal railways, who talked about a 100 kilometre section of line where the railway wanted to improve services. In particular, it wanted to stop at intermediate points because there were small towns ripe for growth but he would only be able to do that if they bought trains capable of better acceleration in order not to delay other services on the line: ‘the railway administration allowed us an extra 12 minutes but no more’, he said, ‘and therefore we had to buy the right trains’. The result, though, was higher land prices and better economic growth in the area. This demonstrates how the subsidy to the railway, which amounts to around 50 per cent of its overall cost, little different from the UK, is used consciously to achieve overall national goals, rather than merely narrow engineering ones.

The policy of support for public transport is not politically contentious as it is accepted by all parties. The reason, according to the speaker from the Swiss Railways is that this reflects a broad public consensus. Half the population are regular public transport users and a further 30 per cent support the concept, possibly because they have sons and daughters, or elderly parents who are regular users. With this kind of public support, no one questions the large subsidies absorbed by public transport.

However, the question of whether much of this is transferable to the British scene is harder to answer. Certainly, the Swiss system is an advertisement for coordination as opposed to competition. But ideology of providing a good public service, whatever the cost is so ingrained in the Swiss psyche and represents such a contrast with the prevailing thinking here that the lessons may be difficult to assimilate.

Even the Swiss speakers were prepared to admit that the transport operators had no incentive to market their product since they did not keep the revenue. Nor had a smartcard system been introduced both because of the cost and the complexity given the huge number of suppliers. One of the speakers painted a vision that would terrify British transport providers: ‘In the next few months’, he said, ‘we will publish the train timetable for 2018’. While such forethought is commendable, it also leaves little room to accommodate changing market conditions.

However, the advantages of a unified genuinely integrated system would seem to more than make up for these negatives. For example, the Swiss are quite happy to provide buses that link with the last train coming into a station, to ensure that people can use public transport rather than the car for, say, a late night trip to the theatre. It may be expensive and loss making, but it is all part of the service. Similarly, hourly buses are sent into every valley and up every mountain passeven though there may be few passengers except at peak times running from train stations because that is necessary to ensure that people have a useable service.

The truth is that England and Switzerland represent the two extremes of transport provision and with our level of deregulation and privatisation, there is little scope for adopting the best Swiss practices but nevertheless a visit to Switzerland should be mandatory for all transport practioners, if nothing else just to ensure they know that there are different ways of doing things other than relying on competition and private sector funding.