CILT Logo Gradient1 The Scottish Region Website

Switzerland: The world's best transport system?" by Malcolm Bulpitt, MCIHT, HonFIHE: Glasgow meeting of 10 February 2015

Malcolm Bulpittd

Malcolm Bulpitt

© John Yellowlees, 2015

Malcolm Bulpitt, editor of the Swiss Railway Society's magazine Swiss Express, addressed the Scottish Region meeting on the development of the Swiss railway network and looked at how the country has the arguably the most efficient rail system in the world.

He started his presentation by outlining the geography and history of Switzerland, explaining that the country has a population of 8 million and consists of 26 Cantons, which are essentially independent states within a Confederation with a Federal Government located in Bern. The country has only existed in its present form since 1848. Sadly, he also pointed out that William Tell was just a figment of an 18th century German playwright's imagination!

Switzerland has one of the best transport systems in the world, with all public transport being integrated. Any part of the country is accessible by public transport, railways and post bus services providing most of the services. However the Swiss came late to railways with its first lines arriving nearly 20 years after the first services started in Britain. The first (French) line reached Basel in 1844 whilst the first truly Swiss railway did not commence operation until 1847.

It was in 1848, after a short civil war, that Switzerland as we know it today was founded, prior to this the country was essentially a collection of independent mini-states, each with their own border controls and customs requirements making internal transport slow. The new Swiss Federal Government, after 1848, decided that a railway network was needed and employed Robert Stevenson and Henry Swinburne, better known for their railway building in the UK, to propose a network. They identified two routes, Basel - Luzern and Zürich to Genève as the first lines. British companies then went on to fund some of the first lines with one of the first to be constructed being built by UK railway contractor Thomas Brassey. The network was slow to come together with the nascent tourist industry playing an important part in its development. However when Thomas Cook's first party of tourists visited the country in 1863 there were only 650 km of railways.

Switzerland, situated in the middle of Europe, had for centuries been on international trade routes. Determined not to lose this transit trade to railways in neighbouring France and Austria in 1869 it signed a treaty with the Italians and Germans for the construction of its first trans-alpine route on the alignment of the historic Gotthard Pass. This line was completed in 1882 and it was followed in 1905 by the Simplon Tunnel linking the Rhone Valley to Italy.

By 1871 Switzerland had the first rack railway in Europe (climbing the Rigi above Luzern) although the first rack railway in the world was built up Mt. Washington in the NE of the United States. In 1873, the first metre gauge railway in central Europe was built whilst the first line to be electrically powered from its outset followed in 1888. Following a referendum in 1898 the Swiss decided to nationalise its principal railways and by 1902 the SBB (Swiss Federal Railway) had taken over 50% of the national network. There are still some 60 private (mostly narrow gauge) operators, with the BLS (Bern Lötschberg Slimplon) being the other major railway operator with about 10% of the standard gauge network.

World War One highlighted the country's reliance on coal, with all of it needing to be imported mostly from France or Germany, so the Swiss adopted a policy of electrification and by 1960 every Swiss passenger route was electrified. Smaller railways developed to link into the main routes, the smallest of these is a 1.2m (4') gauge line only 2km in length with one rail car providing the service.

Swiss railways has a clear distinction between different types of train, including InterCity, InterRegio and Regional Express services in addition to several S-Bahn rapid transit networks, subsidised by the Cantons and cities served. Some Regional Express services are provided by private companys and many of the smaller railways are private, locally owned and at arms length from the local authorities.

All Swiss railway companies are vertically integrated with their own rolling stock, infrastructure, track, timetables, service standards and so on. Technically they are all concessions let by the Federal Government and normally operated through net cost contracts renewable every 4 years. As Switzerland is not part of the European Union, European procurement rules and competition laws do not apply, although there is an open access policy for international freight operations transiting the country.

To highlight how transport is funded Malcolm explained how the Swiss tax system works and how money is raised. Income Tax is raised by the 2400 Communes who retain between 40 - 60% to pay for locally provided services, everything from roads to primary education and, if required subsidies for improved transport links; between 20 - 40% is passed to the Canton to pay for police, health services, higher education, etc.; the remaining 10 - 20% goes to the Federal Government to fund defence, transport, foreign affairs, etc. The Federal Government also raises revenue through corporation taxes, VAT, etc. It is therefore the local communities that decide what local services they want as funds are raised at local level and discussions and settlements are at a local level. In other words, they have a bottom up system of raising tax revenues rather than the UK's top-down one. At all levels of governance in Switzerland the voting is by Proportional Representation with the result that there is normally a national consensus on the levels of transport provision.

There are some 5,100 km of rail lines in the current network and some 357 million passengers are carried annually. Swiss people travel an average of 2,144 km each year. Some 65 million tonnes of cargo are also moved each year. Switzerland has an integrated timetable whereby services connect with each other, so trains connect with buses, trams, ferries etc. Such is the demand for rail travel that consideration is now being given to demand management and pricing differentials, especially for peak travel times.

Malcolm then looked at the various types of rolling stock used and highlighted the latest passenger trains and pointing out that electric multiple units (EMUs) were increasingly replacing locomotive hauled stock. Some of the modern EMUs are more powerful than conventional electric locomotives and are themselves capable of hauling additional passenger coaches. He showed examples of integration, such as the bus station built on top of a railway station and buses and trams meeting trains allowing easy interchange for passengers.

Most services operate on an hourly, or more frequent, "clockface" timetable, with a very few very rural services operating on a 2 hourly frequency. To cope with demand more services are now operating on a half hourly basis. The timetables are compiled centrally to allow nationwide interchange and passengers can benefit from a range of tickets offering travel throughout the country. For example, the GA Travelcard is valid on all rail and bus services as well as steamer services and enables travel anywhere in the country over a year for a price that is less than a 40 mile annual season ticket in SE England.

There are approximately 300,000 GA's in use. Another 3-million people hold a half price (costing approx. £60pa) discount railcard, yet despite the county having more cars per head of population than, for example, Germany, demand for travel has been growing and double deck rolling stock is used on many services to cope with demand. Public transport is seen to be environmentally friendly and people are prepared to use it, due also to the levels of service provided. Compare Switzerland's railways with those in the UK and you can see the difference.

New infrastructure is being built, for example the 57km Gotthard Base Tunnel that is due for completion in 2016. When it opens it will be the worlds longest railway tunnel and will increase capacity across the Alps for services between Germany and Italy as well as providing better internal links.

There was a lively question and answer session and Malcolm answered many questions on various aspects of Swiss railways before being presented with one of the Scottish Region's engraved glasses as a memento of the evening.

Further information on the Swiss Railways Society can be found on their website at

The Scottish Region would like to thank First ScotRail for hosting the meeting, and for transporting the speaker up from the south of the UK.

Report by John Fender and Malcolm Bulpitt and photograph by John Yellowlees.


The CILT Logo is a registered trademark of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport
Unless otherwise stated, site and contents © John G. Fender 1997 - 2021
Site designed & maintained by John G. Fender