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Why Swiss trains are less punctual — and what is being done about it

If you rely on Switzerland’s railways to commute to work, or just to get around, you have probably noticed more delays or cancellations. This is what the company plans to do to get the trains back on the right track.

They are not faster than a speeding bullet, but Swiss trains do try to be on time. Photo by Kajetan Sumila on Unsplash
They are not faster than a speeding bullet, but Swiss trains do try to be on time. Photo by Kajetan Sumila on Unsplash

Switzerland’s rail network (SBB) has a reputation for being reliable and punctual, but this has not always been the case lately.

Years ago, news about a Swiss train arriving late would have been unthinkable. Today, delays are increasingly more common across the country’s vast railway network, inconveniencing thousands of passengers.

Reasons for tardiness have included temporary glitches such as sub-zero temperatures cutting off power lines and disrupting train traffic in several regions, numerous construction sites, and sink holes opening up on the tracks. 

There have also been more long-lasting factors that are still derailing (pun intended) train travel: the chronic shortage of train conductors in Switzerland, aggravated by training delays caused by the pandemic.

And more recently, personnel absences due to Omicron are growing at SBB, resulting in an “increasingly tense” situation, as the company has already exhausted its staff reserves.

As a result, “individual train cancellations cannot be ruled out”, according to SBB spokesperson Frédéric Revaz.

To date, services have been cut between Zurich and Bern, and on the Léman Express line which connects Geneva with neighbouring areas of France. Also, fewer Tilo trains in Ticino, connecting the canton with cities in the Italian region of Lombardy, are running, with some services suspended altogether.

READ MORE: ‘The pleasure of punctuality’: Why are the Swiss so obsessed with being on time?

What does it mean to be ‘late’?

The SBB has set a rather high bar for punctuality.

Trains are considered to be on time if they are less than three minutes late. The SBB’s target is 94-percent punctuality rate.

The punctuality values ​​in the last three months on some major intercity routes are below the threshold:

  • Zurich HB – Bern: 73.5 percent of on-time arrivals and departures
  • Lausanne – Geneva: 71.5 percent
  • Basel – Zurich: 67.5 percent
  • Zug – Zurich HB: 76.1 percent
  • Olten – Lucerne: 66.7 percent

Not always on time. Photo: JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP

How does SBB plan to tackle late services?

In short term, the company is preparing different scenarios to be deployed to counter Omicron-related staff shortages, depending on the evolution of the health situation within the company, but no details are given.

Looking further ahead, restoring punctuality may be a matter of logistics.

For instance, construction sites on the west-east axis will be better distributed  to reduce the number of speed restrictions that cause delays.

Also, SBB wants to change travel times.

“One of the main reasons [for delays] is that driving and stopping times no longer match reality,” said David Fattebert, head of the SBB’s Punctuality Programme.

“The timetable must be designed in such a way that there are certain buffers in the rail system”, he added.

That’s because since 2004, scheduled travel times have not changed, although more and heavier trains have been in service, and the pre-pandemic number of passengers had risen sharply. This resulted in longer stop times at the train stations.

SBB has already acted on certain routes. In Bern, the Intercity in the direction of Zurich no longer runs at 32 minutes past the hour but at 31.

This caused many commuters to miss their connection to Zurich. At peak times, passengers push their way through the narrow underpasses and overpasses, resulting in longer transfer times. “We have zero reserves in Bern”, Fattabert pointed out.

Scheduling changes are also in effect on the Bern-Zofingen-Lucerne route. The journey time is now 61 minutes instead of former 60, and that one extra minute does make a difference.

“If we are able to drive faster on a route, we no longer pass the time saved on to the customer immediately, but instead build it into the timetable as a reserve where necessary,” according to former head of passenger traffic Toni Häne.

The SBB cannot, however, incorporate unlimited number of buffers into the timetables, because the Rail 2000 concept on which SBB schedule is cased, stipulates that the travel time between Bern, Zurich, Basel and Lucerne should take no longer than one hour.

How do Swiss trains rate in comparison with other countries’ rail services?

The good news is that even despite delays and other glitches, SBB is still one of the best and most punctual networks in Europe.

Surveys show that SBB ranks among the top three train systems (along with the Netherlands and Denmark) in terms of punctuality, with 95 percent of the trains being ‘punctual’ or ‘almost punctual’.

READ MORE: Train travel: How you can save on first class upgrades in Switzerland

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How Switzerland wants to improve regional train links

In its new strategy, Swiss government wants to focus on the development of its regional railway system. This is what it plans to do.

How Switzerland wants to improve regional train links

Switzerland has a dense rail network, with 5,200 km of tracks crisscrossing the small country width- and length-wise, as well as upwards to the Alpine peaks and under its tunnels.

Improvements to the system are deemed necessary in a country where public transport is widely used: according to official data, “the Swiss travel more by train than any other nation in the world, clocking up an average of 2,400 km per person every year”.

While the 44 InterCity (IC) trains, which connect the country’s major agglomerations, are still the backbone of the network, the government wants to focus on the development and expansion of the regional traffic, according to Transport Minister Simonetta Sommaruga, who announced on Wednesday the “reorientation of strategy in the development of rail”.

“The goal is no longer to shorten the journey between Zurich and Bern by another five minutes, but to look at where there are most people who could use the train more,” she said.

“Future development stages will improve the rail offer primarily over short and medium distances”.

Concretely, this means increased regional traffic and the development of stations in the suburbs to accommodate more InterRegio (IR) and RegioExpress (RE) trains.

READ MORE: Where are Switzerland’s best and worst train stations?

Unlike long-distance ICs, which mainly stop in cities, regional trains usually run on shorter routes and make more frequent stops at smaller, suburban locations.

For instance, while an IC train between Geneva and Lausanne makes two stops and runs 35 minutes, its RE counterpart on the same route stops at six stations and runs 48 minutes. This means more passengers can get on and off at smaller stations.

For this reason, “the Federal Council takes into account that the greatest potential for transfer [from car] to rail lies in the connections between the regional centers and the agglomerations. In concrete terms, this means increasing regional traffic, and developing stations in the suburbs », the Federal Department of Transport said in a press release, though it has not specified which regions will benefit the most from this project.

What else is the new strategy calling for to improve rail travel?

In a project to be gradually implemented over the next 28 years (which is why it is called RAIL-2050), the government is planning to use longer and double-decker trains, offer more frequent connections, and occasionally reduce journey times.

The latter will be “carried out mainly where rail is not competitive with road in terms of travel time », including on the Bern – Lausanne line.

The government is also planning to complete the development of over 28 km of double tracks in Lotschberg base tunnel between Ferden (Valais) and Mitholz (Bern).  

This article has useful information along with interactive maps showing how far you can travel from every Swiss city via direct train:

Travel: This interactive map shows direct trains from every Swiss city