They are also an instantly recognized symbol of a country renowned for its punctuality and its amazing public transport network.
But what’s the story behind the clocks? Here we take a closer look.
75 years of history
The Swiss train station clock was designed by Swiss electrical engineer and railway employee Hans Hilfiker in 1944 after the national rail operator SBB/CFF put out a call for a clock that would guarantee the smooth running of trains and become part of the Swiss national image.
Hilfiker only became interested in this field later in life but went on to become one of the pioneers of Swiss industrial design. Among his other achievements was the development of the fitted kitchen concept.
Easy-to-read and iconic
The striking number-less design of the Swiss railway clock is not only elegant but also makes it easy to read from a distance. In fact, many other countries have used the design as the basis for their own station clocks.
The clocks have also become an icon of global design, with examples appearing at the London Design Museum and the MoMa (Museum of Modern Art) in New York.
The classic clock design can be spotted in all shapes and sizes. Photo: AFP
The Mondaine watches modelled on the Swiss railway clocks have also been named among the top 10 classic Swiss watch designs.
Around 700 individual pieces
Switzerland’s railway clocks have been produced by the same company from the outset – Moser-Baer, in the Emmental region of the canton of Bern. Around 10 employees are involved in building the clocks which have some 700 individual pieces.
Mysterious master clocks
Each train station has a ‘master clock’ which controls all the platform clocks. There are 760 of these master clocks. They have no minute or second hands. Instead they operate by receiving a time signal every minute – generally by GPS or satellite – which is then passed on to the other station clocks (technically known as 'slave clocks' as they depend on the accuracy of another clock) via an electric impulse.
That jumping second hand
The Swiss railway clocks did not acquire a second hand until 1953. Their design with the red ball on the end is modelled on the dispatch batons which station managers waved to give trains the all-clear to leave.
If you have ever watched the second hand of one of these railways clocks, you’ll have noticed the way it stops just before it reaches the full minute and then appears to jump.
This once-a-minute jump is a historical and technical remnant. Originally, all railway clocks in Switzerland were controlled by just one central master clock. This clock would send out a time signal every minute to all the other 'slave' clocks.
The second hand of those clocks was driven by a motor to avoid the wear and tear involved with having a second hand that jumped all the time.
This continuous motor drove the second hand around the clock every 58.5 seconds and was then stopped by mechanical device. The hand would then pause for one and a half seconds until it was “freed” to move again by the next minute signal from the master clock. This would ensure all train station clocks were on time, according to the SBB,
The ‘jump’ is no longer necessary on technical grounds, but remains part of the design – and tradition of course.
The clock is king
According to Swiss railway regulations, the clock is king when it comes to train departures. Generally, these clocks are on time, ensuring punctuality.
Unfortunately, however, this golden rule also means that if train station clocks are late, then the trains are too. For example, when clocks at Lugano station in the canton of Ticino were four minutes late in a recent incident, this caused problems across the entire Swiss train network.
Switzerland’s train clocks have a life span of around 175,000 hours, or around 20 years of snow, rain, wind and all other kinds of wild weather.