In Switzerland, you can set the clock by trains
The Swiss Federal Railways is famous for its wonderful paths between lakes, glaciers, and mountains. But punctuality, which you can experience at every train station in the country, is also legendary – and has been for 175 years. How do they do it?
HA few years ago, the train stopped at Olten near Basel. Outside, a man ran to the train station. A local sat across from me. He looked at his watch and said, “He won’t catch the train. After we change the schedule today, we’ll leave Olten two minutes earlier.” He said without any malice, it was just a note. Train departure times are non-negotiable in Switzerland. And then the train started without a runner.
SBB, the Swiss Federal Railways, is known for its wonderful routes between lakes, glaciers and mountain giants, but above all for its punctuality. How do they do it? If you are traveling in Switzerland, you will experience punctuality at every train station.
And that for 175 years – on August 7, 1847, the first Swiss train set off from Zurich to Baden, naturally without delay. And today? One never hears announcements of technical flaws, train cancellations, or reversed car sequences. Do the Swiss never have problems with locomotives? Do employees never get sick? Do all switches always work, no matter the weather?
In Switzerland, it’s a battle every second
A video call with David Fatebert should provide answers to these questions. Fatbert heads the SBB punctuality programme: “punctuality is the second most important area for us, right after safety.” So: is it human power? on the vernacular? Fatbert shows a graph and explains: A train is considered late if it arrives more than 2 minutes 59 seconds late. This affects about eight percent of all trains. Events that lead to delays, such as construction sites or technical damage, should be minimized.
However, it is not easy to set a “completely event-free” railroad operation as a goal. The focus is therefore on “strong concepts”. This means that SBB cannot stop an alternate train and alternate crew at every station – but it can at enough intersections. It’s a “battle for every second”.
This battle is clearly a success: In 2021, 91.9 percent of SBB’s trains are less than three minutes late, with one million passengers a day. “Punctuality is in our DNA. You don’t want to be late for a meeting here. Even in French-speaking Switzerland.” By the way, only 75 percent of Deutsche Bahn’s long-distance trains were on time in 2021, although the train In Germany it is only considered late if it is more than five minutes and 59 seconds behind schedule.
But once, during a trip to Switzerland, it is almost impossible. I’m standing at the Oberalp Pass train station after a day of skiing. The track is single-track, and incoming trains can only divert at the stations. Endless domino effects threaten: if a train is delayed, all other trains will not be on time.
Days before I drove back and forth, there wasn’t a moment’s delay. But now we stand on the podium and an announcement goes out: “Regio 45 will leave for Disentis in about six minutes.” Somehow rest assured that the computer sound from the speaker sounds really sad.