This may not come as a shock, but the Swiss know how to rail and they rail hard. On the backend of a work trip to Geneva, we had set our sights on attending Art Basel. Art Basel for those not in the high-end art world (nor are we) is a yearly gathering of galleries and artists from around the globe packed into the Messe Basel exhibition hall. Similar events are held yearly in Miami and in Hong Kong. But I digress. Looking at a map of Switzerland from left (French-speaking Geneva) to right (German-speaking Zurich) offers a cornucopia of alternative stops between these two points. We decided to hit the coastal town of Montreux on the other side of Lake Geneva then stay over in the tiny Berner Oberland town of Mürren, venture onto Luzern (Lucerne), attend Art Basel, then depart from Zurich. So, how to get from here to there?
Not to shill too hard for Swiss Federal Railways – or SBB – but holy cow, it is easy, convenient, fairly inexpensive, and, most importantly, consistently on time. This latter point was especially worthwhile for us as we had to change trains not once or twice to get from Montreux to Mürren but took a train from Montreux to Zweissman (small gauge to climb up into the Berner Oberland), Zweissman to Interlaken Ost (standard gauge), Interlaken Ost to Lauterbrunner, Lauterbrunner to Grütschalp (cable car), to Mürren (panoramic train). In each instance, the train or cable car departed soon after we arrived and we did little waiting at all. In fact, as I am writing this, we are pulling into Zurich now on platform 12 and we need to change trains for the airport – the train to the airport is waiting just across the platform and departs in 8 minutes from our arrival time.
SBB is the German language abbreviation for the company and the full abbreviation (SBB CFF FFS) includes the French abbreviation – CFF – and Italian abbreviation – FFS. Swiss Federal Railways is a 100% state-owned enterprise in Switzerland with all of its shares held by the Swiss Confederation or the Swiss cantons. The track network in Switzerland is extensive – nearly 3,200 kilometers – and every time we looked at a departure board, there was always a way to get from here to there. According to SBB’s website (https://reporting.sbb.ch/en/home) – 1,25 million passengers carried per year, 88.8% arrived on time (defined as +/- 3 minutes from schedule) and a whopping 96.7% made their connections. And if you happen to be one of those delayed, you can surely let someone know as 94.7% of the rail network has 4G connectivity. Trains are marked by the type of train you are riding – e.g., IR for inter-regio (covering multiple cantons), IC for inter-city (major cities), S-Bahn (commuter train). Tickets are sold in two classes (first and second). SBB also has travel passes available – much like Eurail passes, these passes are good for unlimited travel on most rail, offer discounts on special fares (like cable cars in the Alps or boat rides on Lake Lucerne), and sold in increments of days (i.e., 3-day pass, 4-day pass).
The most amazing part of SBB is its new smartphone app that has a “touch” timetable – essentially, you draw a line with your finger between two stations to display the next available options for the travel you want.
From there, tickets can be purchased on your phone and displayed to the ticket personnel on the train from the app. There is no need to change languages on the automated ticket kiosks anymore or get to the train station well in advance of the train’s departure because the tickets, time-table, and platform information are all available through the app.