The Swiss reputation for precisely timed trains is entirely accurate.
Even when I board a classic timber ferry boat on the lakes at Interlaken, Switzerland’s adventure playground, all I have to do is present my Swiss Travel Pass.
The same on the epic scenic rail routes through this beautiful country, and on everyday trains, too.
The same on buses, right down to the ScolaCar (PostBus) postal mini buses in regional and rural areas.
The Swiss Travel Pass includes all public transport, and entry to 500 museums and exhibitions.
It is available for three, four, eight or 15 days, and there are first and second class Swiss Travel Passes.
“You are free to travel wherever you want to go,” says Janine Zingg, of Swiss Travel System, with me today on the train from Interlaken to St Gallen.
Janine says that last year, the “four day, second class” pass was the most popular with visitors. It is $296 (chf 216) for adults; $74 a day. The next most popular was the eight day pass, and in second class this is $516 (chf 376) for adults; $64 a day.
Passes can be for consecutive or select days, and there are also transfer tickets, for those who want to arrive at an airport, and just travel to one destination and back. There is also a youth pass.
I think Switzerland leads the world, in every sense, in public transport in general, and train travel in particular. Although there are three different gauges of track in the country, trains have been developed that will alter the distance between their wheels in 10 minutes to accommodate a different gauge. They are expected to be running in 2020.
“Switzerland has the densest public transport system in the world and we are world champions at travelling by train,” says Janine.
In a country with a population of just over 8 million people, 1.5 million travel daily by train. In addition the average Swiss person took 47 extra train journeys last year. They each covered 2100km on trains on those special trips.
“It really is what we do here,” as Janine puts it.
The whole country is connected and trains run on time. If you’re catching the 8.12am, you can plan to arrive on the platform and step straight onto the train just before that. If you arrive late, another will be along soon.
The Swiss use the word “efficiency” a lot, for all aspects of life, but Swiss public transport is the epitome of it.
Janine tells me that to get such an efficient Swiss Travel Pass, 250 public transport companies have to work together. She seems genuinely puzzled when I ask how one manages to get them to co-operate. “They just do,” she says. She still seems bemused: “Because everyone wins in this situation.”
The train is due to leave at 5.05pm from platform 12 in Lucerne and Mark Wettstein, director of Switzerland Tourism for Australia and New Zealand, drops me off at 4.59pm.
“You’ll make it in plenty of time,” he says.
I am the only one hurrying down the platform at 5.01pm, and hurriedly boarding the first carriage I get to.
The locals know that a 5.05pm leaves at, well, 5.05pm precisely, so even 5.04pm means you have a whole minute in hand.
Swiss precision is not a cliché and not even a state of mind, but a state of the nation.
It is completely obvious that the Swiss would become synonymous with the best quality of watch making — efficiency and precision seem embedded in their DNA; cultural, national traits.
And so, at 5.05pm, my train for Interlaken leaves Lucerne heading for Interlaken.
It follows the blue lakes in the bottom of lush valleys, passing chalets with shutters and soft nosed dairy cows with bells. By Kaiserstuhl, we are in classic, picture-postcard Switzerland, the grass a spongy green, spruce trees marching up the mountain sides, forest of every green imaginable and snow on the tops.
At Lungern, 750m above sea level, the drama seems to step up a notch. Its lake is at the foot of the Brunig Pass.
From here, the train starts to climb the mountain side, before curving back down, handling the descents with a careful slow speed, and then climbing again.
A big waterfall shoots off the mountain opposite, the glistening white droplets then blown back up, vertical into the air.
The train descends back to the floor of the Sarneraa Valley, where ploughed lines show the richness of its glacial history. Many of these valleys still live their fertile lives thanks to the glacial deposits of 12,000 years ago.
The next stop, Meiringen, is famous for the spectacular Reichenbach Falls — a dramatic 250m waterfall which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used as the setting for the death of his character Sherlock Holmes, in his book The Adventure of the Final Problem.
Looking at the white mountain peaks around me in the Bernese Highlands, I am not surprised that the people of Meiringen also claim to have been inspired to invent the meringue.
But this is just a sideline for this train. We go back down the way we came and rejoin the mainline, heading on towards Interlaken.
Back down at lake level, at picturesque Brienz, white swans nibble green grass in a neat park by the milky turquoise, glacial water of Lake Brienz.
At Interlaken, I change trains for Grindelwald, a village just over 1000m above sea level in the Bernese Alps. And you just guess when what time, precisely, the 7.05pm leaves …
The train between Lucerne to Montreux crosses the 1000m Brunig Pass before running along the side of Lake Brienz. The GoldenPass Panoramic, with its extra windows, does the scenic section through the Lake Geneva vineyards.
This is one of the world’s most famous trains. It runs between St Moritz and the Matterhorn village of Zermatt. It passes the 2044m Oberalp Pass, the Benedictine monastery at Disentis, the Rhine Gorge, the castles of the Domleschg area.
The highest railway route through the Alps, it connects the cool north of Switzerland with its warmer south. The highest point is 2253m at Bernina Hospiz.
The full route is from St Moritz to Lugano in Italy, if the Palm Express is included.
Gotthard Panorama Express
Combining boat and rail, this is between Lugano and Lucerne. On Lake Lucerne, there’s an historic paddle steamer, and the train passes through the rugged Reuss Valley.
Rather surprisingly, the chocolate train runs in summer. It runs on the Montreux-Bernese Oberland Railway and visits the factory of Cailler (Nestle), which was founded nearly 200 years ago and is the oldest chocolate maker in Switzerland.
The Cheese Train, on the Montreux-Bernese Oberland Railway to Chateaux-d’Oex, through the Lake Geneva region, runs from the beginning of January to the end of April. Wine and cheeses is served and there insight given into the methods of Swiss cheese making.
The Grand Train Tour of Switzerland
Combining eight routes over 1280km. Although it can be “joined” at any point, lets start in Zurich, where most will arrive. Take the train to St Gallen, and then the Pre-Alpine Express to Lucerne. Then the GoldenPass Line take us on to Interlaken and Montreux. From Lake Geneva, travel on to Martigny, Brig and Zermatt, and then use the Glacier Express to Chur and St Moritz. From here, take the Bernina Express and Bernina Express Bus to Lugano. Finally, the Gotthard Panorama Express continues to Lucerne and back to Zurich. swisstravelsystem.com/grandtour
There is good planning and booking information from Switzerland Tourism at myswitzerland.com/rail
DisclaimerStephen Scourfield was a guest of Switzerland Tourism.
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