There are those who go to Switzerland simply to experience its extraordinary public transportation. All day they ride trains, boats, buses, trams, and cable cars. For them, the "Swiss Travel System" is more than getting from place to place, it turns the country into one big amusement park ride.
In Switzerland, public transport is so reliable, so frequent, so comfortable, so integrated, and so fast and efficient that a visitor from the U.S., where trains are mostly a novelty and buses considered beneath our dignity, can only marvel. And though it may be a Disneyland ride to some tourists, it is as essential to the Swiss as cheese and chocolate. In Zürich, citizens use public transport at a rate double the average of other major European cities. Clean-as-a-whistle trams, buses and little funiculars take them from any part of town to any other, seemingly every three minutes, all day long.
The country believes in public transportation and when ridership flattens, rather than cutting service, as is often the case in the U.S., the government encourages increased use by investing large sums to improve it. SBB, the Swiss railroad continually introduces new, faster equipment and more frequent service. Half-hourly departures are now available on most Intercity lines, late-night and early-morning trains have bee added, and tilting trains - faster around curves - have lowered travel times. Very early departures from all over the country now get passengers to Zürich, Basel and Geneva airports as early as 5:30am. There are also double-decker trains featuring "quiet" cars (no cell phones, loud talk), "bistro" cars, and family cars with children's play equipment. In addition, peak-hour trains between Zürich and Bern have an on-board grocery store, the "Railshop."
These new services have been added to a rail network that was already the most dense in the world. About the size of the state of Maine, Switzerland has 1800 railroad stations and some 3,100 miles of track, most of it electrified.
Even in very small towns, a train seems to be leaving for somewhere every 15 minutes or so. One resident who lives on Lake Brienz near Interlaken commutes to Basel. If he takes the 5:33am train he's in Basel at 7:56. If he leaves at 6:39 he gets in at 8:56, but has to change in Bern. Another who lives in the remote Goms Valley (Goppenstein), between Kandersteg and the Rhône Valley, often takes the train to dinner and a movie in Bern, the capital. The ride is 75 minutes each way, and there are several direct trains running hourly. He can leave Bern for home as late as 11:26pm.
The frequency of service is quite amazing. A couple of examples: from Zürich in the north to Lausanne in the south, trains leave about every half hour, from 5:30am until 9pm. The trip takes a little over two hours. In most cases changing trains is not necessary and IC (Intercity) trains stop only twice. Between Bern and the Zürich airport, during the hours 5:04am and 9:17am, you have your pick of a dozen trains.
The Swiss rail gnomes must stay up nights thinking of ways to make their system more convenient.
• You can get a boarding pass and check baggage for your flight from Zürich, Basel and Geneva airports at more than 100 Swiss rail stations. It isn't a free service but how nice to kiss your bags good-bye at some remote village rail station, such as Chateau d'Oex or Engelberg, and not see it again until it appears on the luggage carousel at your home airport in the U.S.
• Bikes can be rented from more than 200 rail stations in Switzerland at prices starting around $13. Take them with you on the train for as little $4.
• Public phones are available on IC trains
• All IC and long-distance trains offer drink and snack service at your seat and also have snack and restaurant cars.
• Many rail stations have luggage lockers and major stations have shower facilities and hair dryers.
Fast, frequent trains are just the most visible part of the Swiss Travel System. Almost as amazing is the bus system. Together, the postbus network and local city and suburban buses cover every town and village in the country. In addition, each major city has a network of trams or trolley cars. Besides bringing the mail to rural towns, postbuses carry over 90 million passengers, 50 million miles a year. Behind the wheels of these distinctive bright yellow buses with the red stripe are some of the world's best professional drivers. In the whole history of the postal bus system, there have been but a handful of serious accidents. The buses themselves are equipped with three independent braking systems. Some of the routes over precarious mountain roads would dampen the palms of even Chuck Yeager.
The buses don't automatically stop at all stations, so you may have to press a button to get the driver to stop. A sign (hält an, arrêt) inside the bus is illuminated if it is going to stop. If you're waiting for a bus at a 'request' stop, you'll have to flag the driver down.
Dogs ride for half-fare and bicycles go for free in the luggage compartment.
No doubt there are some Swiss residents for whom the country's lake boats fulfill a real transportation need. For most, however, they are just a very pleasant, unhurried way to get from point A to point A, and sometimes from A to B. More than 100 boats glide over the country's lakes and rivers, mainly from April to October. Aboard some of them you can have breakfast, lunch, dinner, dance to live music, or see a folkloric show. There are car ferry services on lakes Constance, Lucerne and Zürich.
One suggestion for an "A to B" route might be the 9:30 breakfast boat from Zürich to Rapperswil, an interesting town with a 13th century castle, a couple of museums, and a children's zoo. The trip is two hours and, if you wish, you can return via rail which takes 35 minutes.
A guest of the lakeside Hotel Giessbach near Brienz can ride a lake steamer to Interlaken for lunch and afterwards take the train to Brienz and there change to the Brienzer Rothorn rack-railway station for a trip to the summit (7,710 feet). Then it's back to the boat for the return to the hotel.
Cable Cars & Funiculars
The Brienzer Rothorn line is just one of 500 rack-railways, cable car lines and funiculars in Switzerland. The Swiss never saw a mountain top they didn't want to build a cable car to and build a restaurant on. The highest and most spectacular - and most expensive - are the Jungfraujoch, the Klein Matterhorn, and the Schilthorn.
In our opinion, the best of the lot is the two-stage cable car to Le Diableret Glacier.
How Switzerland's Travel System Meshes
And isn't it nice that all these trains, boats and buses have integrated schedules? You take the 7:39am train from Lausanne on Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) to Evoléne high in the mountains above the Rhône River. Arrive in Sion at 8:49 and there's the 8:50 bus waiting to take you the rest of the way up the steep mountain road. Or let's say you're in Bern and headed for the Hotel Giessbach on the Brienzersee. The 9:26am gets you into Interlaken at 10:20 where you change for Brienz at 10:30. Arriving Brienz at 10:47 you walk two minutes to the dock to catch the 11:05 boat to Giessbach arriving at 11:16. From the waterside boat station, a small funicular takes you to the hotel. Of course, if you want to delay your hotel check-in, you can stow your bags at the Brienz rail station and take the rack-rail to the Brienzer Rothorn.
That's the way it is every day, all over the country; a complex system of trains, boats, buses, funiculars and cable cars meshing like - dare we say it - a precision Swiss watch.
Of course the best way to experience it all is with one of the several varieties of Swiss Pass. They are valid for travel on the vast majority of the country's trains, buses and boats. Though some rail lines, and virtually all cable cars, are privately owned and may not fully honor Swiss Passes, they almost always grant pass holders a significant discount. Expect to get about 25 percent off.