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Can Switzerland keep its trains running if energy crisis worsens?

Millions of passengers rely on the usually dependable Swiss public transport network to get them from point A to point B. But this could change if there is an electricity shortage.

Can Switzerland keep its trains running if energy crisis worsens?
It is not yet certain that Swiss trains will run as normal this winter. Photo by Victor He on Unsplash

In what could be one of the most paradoxical statements in recent months, Switzerland’s Federal Transport Office commemorated the 175th anniversary of the national railroad system in March 2022 with these words: “By opting for electricity, the railways bet early on a modern energy source available in Switzerland”.

Of course, nobody could have predicted back then that one day electric power may not be as plentiful, affecting the smooth running of Swiss Federal Railways (SBB).

This could, however, happen if there are — as officials predict — power outages caused by European-wide energy crisis.

While the natural instinct might be to blame Russia for this situation, the war in Ukraine is only partly responsible for the impending crisis.

The other reason lies much closer to home: 28 of 56 nuclear power plants in France — which exports electricity to Switzerland —  had to be shut down early this year for an undefined period of time due mostly to corrosion damage.

As a result, industry experts say that electricity will likely become scarce during the coldest months of 2022 and 2023, possibly impacting to some degree essential services such as telecommunications, electronic bank payments, and public transportation.

READ MORE: How energy shortages could hit daily life in Switzerland

How worried should we be about trains being out of service?

As Switzerland’s rail system has its own power resources, in the event of a general breakdown its energy autonomy is estimated at about one hour — just enough time to bring the trains back to the station and not leave passengers stranded.

However, in a complete blackout, all train services would come to a standstill.

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Depending on the extent of disruptions, Switzerland’s economy could suffer, as it relies heavily on trains —not only for passenger traffic but also for transporting goods.

For Franck Furrer, secretary general of the Association of Shippers “freight has very few paths on the rail infrastructure” and lack of electricity would impact the transport significantly.

What about passengers?

SBB has been preparing for such worst-case scenarios, the company announced on Thursday.

Swiss trains “are powered 90 percent by hydro energy,” mainly from SBB’s own power stations. However, these facilities currently produce less energy due to drought and low water levels in the reservoirs over the summer.

While the company said it is trying to ensure that its “reservoirs remain at their maximum level”, in the meantime it has to buy substitute energy on the market “at constantly rising prices”.

Still, is no no guarantee that the trains will be able to run all winter without any disruptions.

In the event that the government imposes restrictions on energy use, “the rail offer should be greatly reduced or would lead to an interruption of services”, SBB said.

Could the government order limits on energy use that would impact public transportation?

If shortages were to become serious, the Organisation for Electricity Supply in Extraordinary Situations (Ostral) would activate a four-step procedure.

As a first step, the Federal Council will call on the population (individuals and businesses alike) to voluntarily reduce their electricity consumption.

If this is not enough, consumption restrictions will be imposed. Among them would be the ban on operating ski lifts, as well as limits on other infrastructures that use up a lot of electricity — and that would include public transport system.

READ MORE : How is Switzerland is preparing for power outages this winter?
 
 
 

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TRAVEL NEWS

What happens if you overstay your 90-day limit in Switzerland?

If you are coming to Switzerland as a tourist, you can’t overstay your welcome. But rules differ depending on where you live.

What happens if you overstay your 90-day limit in Switzerland?

Switzerland’s tourism authorities are bending backwards to attract foreign visitors to visit the country.

This is evident from these two messages that the (retiring) tennis champ Roger Federer made with his famous friends:

The extent to which Switzerland depends on tourist revenue became clear during the Covid pandemic when borders closed and the hospitality sector slowed down to the point of almost shutting down completely.

However, this doesn’t mean that tourists can remain here for as long as they like.

These are the rules

Visitors (as opposed to permanent residents or others who have some kind of official status in Switzerland such as a long-stay visa), can only remain in the country for 90 days. 

It doesn’t matter whether the person visits from a Schengen nation or a third country, and whether they need a visa to enter Switzerland or not — the 90-day rule is the same for everyone.

There are, however, some differences, based on the person’s country of residence.

If you live in a EU / EFTA state and want to remain in Switzerland longer than three months, you must apply for a residence permit at the Population Registry Office in a given canton.

However, third-country nationals (eg Brits, Americans, Canadians) are not eligible to exceed their stay.

Whether they entered on a tourist visa, or without it — for instance, residents of the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Israel, and Singapore don’t need a visa for Switzerland — they must leave the country within 90 days.

The 90-day rule states that you can stay 90 days out of every 180 – so in total you can spend six months in Switzerland, but not all in one go. It’s important to note that the 90-day limit applies to the whole of the Schengen zone; so time spent in eg France, Germany or Italy also counts towards your 90-day limit. 

These rules are in place not only in Switzerland but throughout Schengen and in other countries outside the EU as well; they are in place to prevent people from staying longer than allowed, and possibly seeking employment or welfare benefits.

What happens if you are caught overstaying your limit?

Swiss police don’t patrol the streets looking for foreigners who have been staying in the country for more than 90 days.

More often than not, these offenders come to the attention of authorities by chance: perhaps someone reports them, or they are ‘caught’ during a random identity check, or in other accidental ways, or your overstay could come to the attention of border police when they stamp your passport as you leave the country. 

The extent of punishment depends, again, on whether the offender comes from EU / EFTA or a third country, with penalties being stricter for the latter category.

According to the government, those fro EU / EFTA living in Switzerland “without permission must leave the country. If they do not voluntarily comply with this obligation to leave, they can be returned to their home country against their will and at their own expense”.

“A third-country national who stays for more than 90 days without a residence permit or a long-stay visa is overstaying and is therefore in an irregular situation. This can lead to a criminal prosecution and to an entry ban to the Schengen area”, which includes Switzerland.

READ MORE: UPDATE: What are the current rules for entering Switzerland?

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