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Why Swiss trains are less punctual — and what is being done about it

They are not faster than a speeding bullet, but Swiss trains do try to be on time. Photo by Kajetan Sumila on Unsplash
They are not faster than a speeding bullet, but Swiss trains do try to be on time. Photo by Kajetan Sumila on Unsplash
If you rely on Switzerland’s railways to commute to work, or just to get around, you have probably noticed more delays or cancellations. This is what the company plans to do to get the trains back on the right track.

Switzerland’s rail network (SBB) has a reputation for being reliable and punctual, but this has not always been the case lately.

Years ago, news about a Swiss train arriving late would have been unthinkable. Today, delays are increasingly more common across the country’s vast railway network, inconveniencing thousands of passengers.

Reasons for tardiness have included temporary glitches such as sub-zero temperatures cutting off power lines and disrupting train traffic in several regions, numerous construction sites, and sink holes opening up on the tracks. 

There have also been more long-lasting factors that are still derailing (pun intended) train travel: the chronic shortage of train conductors in Switzerland, aggravated by training delays caused by the pandemic.

And more recently, personnel absences due to Omicron are growing at SBB, resulting in an “increasingly tense” situation, as the company has already exhausted its staff reserves.

As a result, “individual train cancellations cannot be ruled out”, according to SBB spokesperson Frédéric Revaz.

To date, services have been cut between Zurich and Bern, and on the Léman Express line which connects Geneva with neighbouring areas of France. Also, fewer Tilo trains in Ticino, connecting the canton with cities in the Italian region of Lombardy, are running, with some services suspended altogether.

READ MORE: ‘The pleasure of punctuality’: Why are the Swiss so obsessed with being on time?

What does it mean to be ‘late’?

The SBB has set a rather high bar for punctuality.

Trains are considered to be on time if they are less than three minutes late. The SBB’s target is 94-percent punctuality rate.

The punctuality values ​​in the last three months on some major intercity routes are below the threshold:

  • Zurich HB – Bern: 73.5 percent of on-time arrivals and departures
  • Lausanne – Geneva: 71.5 percent
  • Basel – Zurich: 67.5 percent
  • Zug – Zurich HB: 76.1 percent
  • Olten – Lucerne: 66.7 percent
     

Not always on time. Photo: JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP

How does SBB plan to tackle late services?

In short term, the company is preparing different scenarios to be deployed to counter Omicron-related staff shortages, depending on the evolution of the health situation within the company, but no details are given.

Looking further ahead, restoring punctuality may be a matter of logistics.

For instance, construction sites on the west-east axis will be better distributed  to reduce the number of speed restrictions that cause delays.

Also, SBB wants to change travel times.

“One of the main reasons [for delays] is that driving and stopping times no longer match reality,” said David Fattebert, head of the SBB’s Punctuality Programme.

“The timetable must be designed in such a way that there are certain buffers in the rail system”, he added.

That’s because since 2004, scheduled travel times have not changed, although more and heavier trains have been in service, and the pre-pandemic number of passengers had risen sharply. This resulted in longer stop times at the train stations.

SBB has already acted on certain routes. In Bern, the Intercity in the direction of Zurich no longer runs at 32 minutes past the hour but at 31.

This caused many commuters to miss their connection to Zurich. At peak times, passengers push their way through the narrow underpasses and overpasses, resulting in longer transfer times. “We have zero reserves in Bern”, Fattabert pointed out.

Scheduling changes are also in effect on the Bern-Zofingen-Lucerne route. The journey time is now 61 minutes instead of former 60, and that one extra minute does make a difference.

“If we are able to drive faster on a route, we no longer pass the time saved on to the customer immediately, but instead build it into the timetable as a reserve where necessary,” according to former head of passenger traffic Toni Häne.

The SBB cannot, however, incorporate unlimited number of buffers into the timetables, because the Rail 2000 concept on which SBB schedule is cased, stipulates that the travel time between Bern, Zurich, Basel and Lucerne should take no longer than one hour.

How do Swiss trains rate in comparison with other countries’ rail services?

The good news is that even despite delays and other glitches, SBB is still one of the best and most punctual networks in Europe.

Surveys show that SBB ranks among the top three train systems (along with the Netherlands and Denmark) in terms of punctuality, with 95 percent of the trains being ‘punctual’ or ‘almost punctual’.

READ MORE: Train travel: How you can save on first class upgrades in Switzerland


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