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.

  • Steve Bacon

    Let’s hope Britain can learn from Swiss, German and French examples of truly integrated transport. If I want to go from A to B, why can’t I simply choose the most appropriate mode for my journey, be it train, bus, tram or ferry? Outside of London, I must buy separate tickets from each operator. Most continental European regions are now split into Transport Authorities that can decide on how best to integrate their services, and make decisions that no commercial operator would regarding late-night services. When I lived in southern Germany, I rarely used my car because we had just such a comprehensive service.

    Passenger Transport Authorities outside London have lost the power to plan a comprehensive integrated service. Manchester’s PTA is a prime example. It no longer has the political or commercial clout that it had when I was there in the 1970’s, to provide a single ticket covering all parts of the conurbation. Locals now have to weigh-up whether to buy from First Group or from Stagecoach rather than just jump on the next bus that happens to pass. What a sheer waste of resources.

    Mancunians now have the opportunity to change the situation, but Westminster must also legislate to give back to the PTA’s the power they once had.

  • Richard Crompton

    I think the reason why SBB will publish the timetable for 2018 soon is this. The timetable is the aspiration and it gives time for the civil engineering works and the trains to be developed so that the passenger needs, as now perceived, can be fulfilled. The results of similar thinking in the past is the way that the railway facilities at Zürich function. This is only possible because of the massive civil engineering works that have been implemented so that large numbers of mainline trains can arrive just before the hour (or half hour) and then depart again just after the hour (or half hour). By managing the system to achieve precision operation there are reliable connections between mainline trains that minimise journey times between all sorts of places. Without the appropriate infrastructure this would not be possible.

    Such a timetable needs departures just after the hour and arrivals just before the hour, meaning that travel times between interchanges need to be just under 60 minutes, or 90 minute and so on. They built a new stretch of high speed track just to get the journey between Zürich and Bern down from 69 minutes to 57 minutes. The trains run at 200 km/hr not because of perceived prestige but because the connections at the principal nodes would be much better.

    And does it work? Yes it does. At all sorts of peculiar times the trains are well filled. Imagine, back end of October, Saturday evening weather forecast shows Sunday will be nice. I get out of bed early for a day in the Alps. Zürich HB at 7 o’clock on a Sunday morning, I have to walk right to the front of the 13 car train to get a seat. The other passengers had all seen the weather forecast. The SBB management had also watched the TV and had added 5 cars to the standard 8 car formation because they know their customers.

    Couldn’t do that with a Pendolino, Intercity 125, Intercity 225 etc.

  • John Connett

    The Swiss investment in public transport also doesn’t stop at the borders of their country. The Haut-Bugey line ( in France connecting Bourg-en-Bresse and Bellegarde-sur-Valserine through the Jura massif is being restored to support TGV traffic. Although the line is entirely within France a third of the money is being provided by the Swiss to improve journey times to Geneva.

    Compare that with the UK where the Cambridge – St. Ives – Huntingdon line which could have provided useful diversionary routes has disappeared under 100,000 tonnes of concrete of kerb guided busway.

    The Swiss also run a seven days a week service. Their timetables describe such services as ‘runs always’ …

  • Adrian Roberts

    Perhaps EM Forster has provided Switzerlands transport motto – Only Connect.

    A visit to Switzerland should be mandatory for all transport providers be it bus, air, boat or train. The key to success is co-ordination so that the passenger knows there will be a connection between train and bus or boat. I could travel from Gruyere to Geneva with ease knowing that the little train from Gruyere connects with the Geneva train at Romont or wherever.
    To go into the mountains the buses are lined up at the station and depart a few minutes after the train arrives. This makes things so easy and gives the passenger confidence to travel. Things are by and large reliable. Yes, there is disruption at times and it is true that people begin to look at their watches if a train is 30 seconds late arriving, but the system seems to recover very quickly.
    On my journeys to Basel from Geneva I travelled on the fairly new luxurious tilting train which has 7 cars including a restaurant, however, most trains were two sets in length – 14 cars with two working restaurants! Compare this to the Cross Country 4 and 5 car Voyager trains in the UK.
    Double deck trains of 10 cars often have 3 or 4 extra single deck cars added if it’s busy. Local trains have 4 to 7 cars.
    People use the trains in large numbers so its not uncommon for trains near midnight to have seven 7 or 8 well filled carriages.
    The joining up of the network to encourage easy travel is the key. This needs to become the dominant philosphy in UK transport to encourage modal transfer and solve car congestion.
    When I returned to the UK I had to go from Newcastle to St Bees. The first train was a 2 car Pacer, packed to the doors, very noisy and uncomfortable for 90 minutes. It was like travelling on an old battered street tram. Then I had to wait for an hour and a half in Carlisle for a 1 car train which was totally packed and very unpleasant for another 80 minutes. Perhaps if I’d gone a bit further the next train would have been a half carriage! All this for twice the fare of the tilting train in Switzerland.
    Things in the UK should be so much better as we spend far more on rail than in BR days. That said, when I went to Manchester yesterday, everthing on Transpennine express was punctual and clean and the stations at Leeds, Stalybridge, Huddersfield and Piccadily have never looked so smart.

  • The system in Zürich sounds very similar to Stuttgart and many other German towns and cities. It works well here too- although a bit more timetable integration would be nice.

  • Malcolm Dobell

    I was amazed to see that the Swiss could publish the main elements of the national main line network timetable on a single – approx A2 page – simply because it’s a regular interval pattern. (an insert in December’s Railway Gazette)

    I have always been impressed with Swiss railways and this very simple and straightforward planning system “what do I have to do to operate ‘this’ timetable” is very effective and has led to a whole variety of innovative infrastructure and rolling stock solutions. Their latest approach to reliability – flexing the timetables and even permitting trains to leave a little late in a controlled way so as to maintain connections – is absolutely cutting edge in railway regulation.

  • Actually living in Zürich, I’s like to clarify some of the points raised.

    The 2018 timetable mentioned is not the detailed final timetable. Rather it is an outline wish list on the basis of which planning decisons are made over such issues as the acquisition of rolling stock, rolling stock refurbishment or disposal, repairs to lines and upgrading, increased line and station capacity all of which are processes that need to be set into motion well in advance.

    As for the orbital tram lines in Zürich, this could be referring to either of two distinct and unconnecetd projects.

    One line to the North of the city is currently under construction. The decison to build this was taken by local authorities who convinced the cantonal and national administartions to support them financially. The project is being developed and its operation will be the responsibility of a local company which is organised along the lines of a private enterprise but 100% of the share stock of which is owned by local authorities. The actual operation will however be in the hands of the municipal tram company. these multiple levels of responsibility reflect the federal nature of decisioen making and are echoed throughout Switzerland.

    the second line to which the orbital remark could refer is a line planned in the West of the city. The idea was put forward by the municipal tram company but is far too costly for them to build with their own money. No decison has yet been taken on whether or when this will go ahead, but a positive decision is likely. The city would then have to talk to the canton and the federal government to ask them to shoulder part of the costs.

  • Bob Battersby

    Switzerland is a whole world away as is the European Continent. Swiss fans here to watch their team play at Old Trafford piled onto buses and trams in an orderly fashion. I bet if a load of Brit fans went to Zurich, they’d be disoriented and wait hours to use taxis.Britain is a nation of indebted car addicts. We have been made such and Government want to keep this status quo to enrich their corporate masters. We are probably more down the corporatist road in some ways than even the United States. Our Government does not care for public transport, technology nor manufacturing. Until we have a rout of both politicians and civil servants, or Peak Oil causes a collapse in their masters’ fortunes, I don’t see much change on the horizon. In short, the UK and England in particular is nothing more than a Rotten Borough.
    But you have to say, there’s method in the UK Government’s madness. As the saying goes, they play and we pay.

  • Peter

    I’d like to complain about the SBB’s shockingly good levels of service. With their clean, well-maintained, relatively speedy and punctual trains attracting high ridership at seemingly all times of day, I can never find an empty carriage to myself, even in 1st class.

    Worse, the near-seamless intermodal connections at transport hubs mean I almost never have time to skulk about having a coffee and crafty fag, but instead must board my onward connection in a matter of minutes, where the nightmare scenario of satisfied-looking customers filling the tram/bus/funicular/rack-and-pinion etc replays itself and I have to go hunting for a seat once more.

    Lastly, I never have any conversation on arrival at my destination since there is no lateness to apologise for/explain, no random stops in the middle of nowhere to complain/laugh about, merely an efficient, value-for-money door-to-door service which takes me where I want to go in good time.

    They could learn a few lessons from *us*, I can tell you!

  • Duncan Stewart

    Oh, and by the way, have you looked at the car ownership rates in Switzerland? They have roughly half as many again cars as we have. In the UK car owneship is 373 per thousand (2007 figure) whilst in Switzerland it is 486 per thousand. So we don’t even have the excuse of having more cars and “needing” to use them more. And we have a highly centralised government which is “more effective at achieving its policy objectives” Ho hum …

  • Sean

    My abiding memory of Britain’s unintegrated transport network was in the early 1990s when I used to sail from Fishguard to Rosslare in Ireland and back, having taken the West Coast line to its extremity. On the way back the boat docked in little Fishguard and the next train back east was a mere three hours’ wait…

  • Dan

    So it looks like soem things are better now then Sean….about 1 hour connection going east anyway…

    Mind you Irish Railways have ‘dis-integrated’ travel round those parts:
    “The Rosslare-Waterford railway was closed in September 2010, and is now the ‘missing link’ in the Irish rail network. You unfortunately now need to travel by bus”

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