Opinion and Analysis For Members

OPINION: Trains in Switzerland are excellent, so why are cars still king?

Clare O'Dea
Clare O'Dea - [email protected]
OPINION: Trains in Switzerland are excellent, so why are cars still king?
A Swiss train at the Montebello Kurve heading to Pontresina, Switzerland. Photo by Andreas Stutz on Unsplash

If you look at the high usage figures for the Swiss train network, it might seem that rail is king in Switzerland. But, as Clare O’Dea writes, cars are still the dominant form of transport, and trains remain a pricey option.


With an average of 48 trips per person taken in 2021, the Swiss hold the European record for train usage. It’s a very secure record, with twice as many trips taken by Swiss residents in relation to the closest contenders: Luxembourg (26), Austria (24), Denmark (23) and Germany (21). 

However, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are still being felt, with 2021 figures for Switzerland 35 percent down on 2019. Many potential passengers are staying away, either working from home or prepared to sacrifice time in traffic to avoid mixing with crowds. 

Although passengers inevitably grumble about delays, broken air-conditioning and crowded carriages, the Swiss network is about as good as it gets for train travel, this side of utopia. In terms of comfort, coverage, frequency, integration with the rest of the public transport system, and punctuality, the service is exceptionally good. 

With punctuality at 91.9 percent across the entire network of passenger trains, according to Swiss Federal Railways figures, and connection punctuality at 98.9 percent, it is logical to assume that most of the daily 0.88 million passengers go home satisfied. 


Rail travel too expensive

My minor complaint about Swiss trains is that it is socially acceptable to take off your shoes to put your stockinged feet on the seat. How about just no feet on seats at all?

My major complaint about Swiss train travel is that it is too expensive. A full-price, second class ticket from Bern to Zurich, for example, costs 51 francs. That’s a distance of about 120km, a one-hour journey. 

There are ways around the high costs, if you’re in the know. Anyone who travels regularly by train in Switzerland would be mad not to invest in an annual half-price travel card, which costs 185 francs. The savings on a handful of return trips from Bern to Zurich would more than cover the cost.

There are also good savings to be made when booking in advance, the so-called Supersaver tickets, but these are only valid for the exact train booked so not useful if there’s any uncertainty in your plans. With a Junior card that costs 30 francs per year, children aged between 6 and 16 can travel free with their parents. 

READ ALSO: How Switzerland's train services and timetables change this year

Switzerland train

A train travels through Switzerland (© SBB CFF FFS)

People who travel by train in Switzerland, but not frequently enough to buy the half-price card or the annual GA (unlimited) Travelcard for a jaw-dropping 3,680-francs, will find individual ticket prices painful. 

Switzerland could learn from other countries

This is not the responsibility of the railways themselves but an issue of public policy. With such an excellent public transport network, why is it that two-thirds of journeys are still be made by car? 

The Swiss don’t show any signs of giving up their love affair with the car. There were 4.7 million registered passenger cars in Switzerland in 2022 and 0.8 million motorcycles, out of a total of 6.4 million road vehicles. That’s an increase of 39 percent since the year 2000, clearly exceeding the rate of population growth over the same period which was 24 percent. 

Switzerland could look over the border to Germany for inspiration on how to encourage more train use, where cut-rate travel deals have had an immediate and significant effect. 

In response to the cost-of-living crisis and the energy crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine, Germany has taken radical steps on pricing to encourage more people onto public transport. The successful 9-euro monthly ticket for all regional travel, offered last summer, will be followed in spring 2023 by a special offer of 49 euro per month to cover all regional transport. Austria has taken a similar flat-rate approach. 

This kind of action is currently absent in Switzerland, where people are used to paying high prices for everything. The constitution even stipulates that, “A reasonable part of the costs of public transport will be covered by the prices paid by users."


This constitutional article (81a) has been quoted whenever campaign groups – in Zurich, Bern and Fribourg, for example – have attempted to introduce free public transport at a city or cantonal level. Recent proposals have been quashed by local government and have not made it to a public vote – yet. 

Seats on a train in Switzerland.

Seats on a train in Switzerland. Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

READ ALSO: Five things you didn't know about Switzerland's rail network 

How can the Swiss be persuaded to ditch cars?

It is true that the Swiss have the power to change the Constitution by popular vote, if asked the right question, but voters tend to reject initiatives that are perceived as handouts. 


There is a risk that offering something for free means it will sooner or later become underfunded, relying entirely on state subsidies. The experience of free public transport in Luxembourg since 2020, Malta last year and a number of European cities, including Tallinn, should provide helpful evidence on the outcomes. 

One thing is certain, more needs to be done to incentivise people to ditch cars and embrace public transport, along with emission-free alternatives such as cycling. It would be great to achieve a happy medium for Swiss trains, a combination of good service and affordable prices. 

If the various carrot and stick tactics work, and more people are persuaded to use Swiss trains, that will raise issues for capacity. What a good opportunity to scrap first class to make the best use of the available space. 

I can see that this luxury is appreciated by business travellers and well-heeled retired people in particular, but there is nothing more annoying than having to walk through the rarefied atmosphere of half-empty first-class carriages to get to a second-class carriage where there is standing room only.  


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