Small but always punching well above its weight, Switzerland is basically the Roger Federer of the railways. So, before Midnight Weekly drops you off at Geneva station, let’s start by lifting the lid on the reasons for the remarkable success of the Swiss train network.
The mountainous terrain of the champion in question hasn’t held it back. Spread across its 41,285 square kilometres, Switzerland has no less than 5,300 kilometres of railway, with 29,000 kilometres of lines. That makes it one of the most dense railway networks in Europe. While many Swiss people consider ticket prices to be too high – no doubt the country’s Achilles heel when it comes to trains – they remain astonishingly popular. On average, Swiss residents take the train 71 times a year, travelling a total of 2,400 kilometres, which is twice as much as the average French person.
Moreover, the authorities, not content with only persuading their citizens of the merits of train travel, have seized at the opportunity to position their country as a sustainable tourism destination too. It’s pretty simple, really: to get around in Switzerland, no need for the car, as the railways will take you pretty much everywhere.
The Grand Train Tour of Switzerland is a case in point. This journey combines all the country’s most scenic train lines in a single train ticket, the Swiss Travel Pass. There’s no limit on where you can travel or how long your chosen journey is: you can hop on and off as you please. Whether you want to immerse yourself in nature, hit the ski slopes (some of which, like Zermatt, are only accessible by train) or wander around the country’s historic cities, you’ll be able to get there by train. Not only is it an enjoyable way to explore the place, but it’s good for the planet too. Why can’t more countries be like this?
And the network’s success isn’t just down to its density: the trains are also notoriously punctual. In 2017, the Chemins de Fer Fédéraux Suisses (CFF) proudly announced that 89 percent of trains were on time, with one word offered up as an explanation: cadencement (rhythm). Behind this concept, which was first introduced in 1982, lies quite a simple idea: trains in Switzerland leave at exactly the same time each day, ensuring connections can be made easily and smoothly. Add to that the number of lines, and the fact that stopping ‘on demand’ is the norm (rather than stopping every time without any passengers necessarily getting off), and you’ve got a recipe for a stress-free travel experience.
Of course, in a country where more than half of the territory is Alpine, setting up such an extravagant rail network wasn’t straightforward at all. In fact, the first tracks were laid in the country well after their European neighbours. It wasn’t until 1844 that the first railways service started up in Switzerland, and at the time, they started abroad, in Strasbourg, and only went as far as Basel, only just over the border.
Three years later, the first internal line opened, connecting Zurich and Baden: 25km-long trip. By this point, the Swiss had fallen well behind, Germany already had 6,000 kilometres of railway, while England had 10,000. But Switzerland – with its very central European location – would soon make up for lost time and in fact become a railway pioneer.
In 1882, the world’s largest railway tunnel was inaugurated there: though it was only 15 kilometres long, its engineering genius received immediate acclaim from the international press, because the Saint-Gotthard Base Tunnel was located some 1,000 metres beneath the Alpine pass of the same name. Right up until the end of the nineteenth century, Switzerland continued to go beyond what had been presumed possible in the railway realm, building a station that – even today – is the highest in all of Europe: Jungfaujoch Station is some 3,454 metres above sea level.
During the twentieth century, the Swiss railways continued to thrive. The country pursued all manner of ambitious projects, with one of the most impressive being Rail 2000. Voted for by the Swiss public in 1987, this would see more than 130 separate building projects completed by 2004, with the aim of increasing the number of possible connections throughout the country. A new plan, Rail 2030, is building on the prior strategy, and get this: each year, the country is currently spending a whopping €404 per inhabitant on it (compared with €42 in France, for example), which will no doubt ensure the long-term future of this one-of-a-kind network.
In an era where the train has become an essential ally in the fight against climate change, Swiss people are doing their bit by ditching cars and travelling by rail instead. And not just that: a huge number of lorries used to transit through Switzerland to get from one end of Europe to the other, so in order to curb their impact on the planet, the federal government has made motorway toll prices more prohibitive, while offering a rail alternative that’s much cheaper. Along a north-south axis, lorries can drive on board trains for a nine-hour trip across the country (a nice break for heavy-goods drivers), vastly reducing the carbon footprint of the journey: at least 30,000 fewer tonnes of CO2 are produced each year.
Those interested in the intersection of rail travel and international politics should check out the book Géopolitique du Rail by Antoine Pecqueur, who dissects with brio the way the train has influenced borders and zones of influence around the world.