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TRAIN TRAVEL

Five things you didn’t know about Switzerland’s rail network

Swiss trains are famous for their punctuality — we all know that. But there are also some things about the country’s railway system that many people have no clue about.

Five things you didn't know about Switzerland's rail network
Switzerland's mountain railways are spectacular. Image by Iso Tuor from Pixabay

Switzerland is a nation of avid train commuters.

In fact, a report from Eurostat, Europe’s Statistical Office, shows that the Swiss are Europe’s most frequent train travelers per capita, so it is just as well that they have a (mostly) reliable railway network to take them from point A to point B, and back.

The reliability of the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) is no secret, but there are some facts that may not be as widely known.

These are some of them.

Extensive and dense coverage

People in Switzerland take it for granted that they can get pretty much everywhere by train, but did you know that this small country has one of the world’s densest and most extensive rail networks: around 5,300 kilometres of tracks and 804 stations along the way.

While the SBB is the government-owned railroad, there are also over 70 private ones, including the famous “scenic” lines that travel through the Alps.

The world’s steepest cogwheel train lives in Switzerland

Alongside the fast, modern trains that crisscross the country horizontally, there are some vestiges of days gone by.

One of them that is still in service is the cogwheel train commissioned in 1889, known to this day as the steepest one in the world.

It travels on a gradient of up to 48 percent, which is perhaps not surprising in the heavily mountainous country.

At such a steep incline, it takes 30 minutes to cover the 4,618-metre-long distance between Alpnachstad and Pilatus, the two locations in central Switzerland that the train connects.

Some mountain trains face an uphill ride. Image by Evelyne H. Bur from Pixabay 

Sheep (yes, sheep) are among SBB’s most valued employees

Relax — the sheep are not driving the trains.

Instead, they work in the company’s embankment maintenance department. This means the animals are tasked with eating the grass along the rail tracks.

They graze on rough terrain and steep slopes inaccessible to conventional lawn mowers. Each day, the animals dutifully eat their way through about a square kilometre of land.

The crew is headed by the foresheep named Bruna, who even has her own Instagram account.

Intricate timetable

The Swiss leave nothing to chance, least of all the timing.

The trains run according to a sophisticated and very precise schedule, departing each station at regular intervals, and are closely linked and coordinated with other public transport systems, like buses and trams.

This finely-tuned timetable cuts waiting times to a strictly necessary minimum for connecting journeys.

Trains run according to the iconic SBB clock. Photo by Jan Huber on Unsplash

Trains are punctual… except in October and November

The timeliness of Switzerland’s trains (at least in comparison to other countries’) is legendary.

But perhaps it shouldn’t quite be.

As the SBB itself admits it, “we have more punctuality issues” in October and November than during other times of the year.

Why is this?

“The main reason is the shift to wet, stormy, and cold weather conditions. When the tracks are wet, trains need longer to accelerate and brake”, the company explains.

But commuters too are to blame, it appears.

“When it rains, passengers often congregate under the platform roof and board the train through the same door. This leads to longer stops…There are also other factors that we can do little about, for example, shorter days with less daylight”. 

And these are two other fascinating facts about Swiss trains, which you already know about from previous articles, but which bear repeating:

 IN PICTURES: World’s longest passenger train winds through Swiss Alps

Why is there a foul odour stinking out trains in Switzerland?

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TRAVEL NEWS

REVEALED: Countries fear non-EU travellers face delays under new EES border checks

A number of countries in Europe's Schengen area admit they fear delays and insufficient time to test the process ahead of new, more rigorous EU border checks that will be introduced next year, a new document reveals.

REVEALED: Countries fear non-EU travellers face delays under new EES border checks

Schengen countries are tightening up security at the external borders with the introduction of a new digital system (EES) to record the entry and exit of non-EU citizens in May 2023.

The EES will enable the automatic scanning of passports replacing manual stamping by border guards. It will register the person’s name, type of the travel document, biometric data (fingerprints and facial images) and the date and place of entry and exit. The data will be kept in a centralised database on a rolling three-year basis that is re-set at each entry. 

What the EES is intended to do is increase border security, including the enforcement of the 90-day short-stay limit for tourists and visitors.

EU citizens and third-country nationals who reside in a country of the Schengen area will not be subject to such checks as long as they can prove residency in an EU country however they will still be caught up in any delays at passport control if the new system as many fear, causes longer processing times.

READ ALSO: Foreigners living in EU not covered by new EES border checks

But given its scale, the entry into operation of the system has been raising concerns on many fronts, including the readiness of the physical and digital infrastructure, and the time required for border checks, which could subsequently cause massive queues at borders.

A document on the state of preparations was distributed last week by the secretariat of the EU Council (the EU institution representing member states) and published by Statewatch, a non-profit organisation that monitors civil liberties.

The paper contains the responses from 21 countries to a questionnaire about potential impacts on passenger flows, the infrastructure put in place and the possibility of a gradual introduction of the new system over a number of months.

This is what certain the countries have responded. Responses from Denmark, Spain and Sweden do not appear in the report but the answers from other countries will be relevant for readers in those countries.

READ ALSO: What the EU’s new EES border check system means for travel

‘Double processing time’

Austria and Germany are the most vocal in warning that passport processing times will increase when the EES will become operational.

“The additional tasks resulting from the EES regulation will lead to a sharp increase in process times”, which are expected to “double compared to the current situation,” Austrian authorities say. “This will also affect the waiting times at border crossing points (in Austria, the six international airports),” the document continues.

“Furthermore, border control will become more complicated since in addition to the distinction between visa-exempt and visa-required persons, we will also have to differentiate between EES-required and EES-exempt TCN [third country nationals], as well as between registered and unregistered TCN in EES,” Austrian officials note.

Based on an analysis of passenger traffic carried out with the aviation industry, German authorities estimate that checking times will “increase significantly”.

France expects to be ready for the introduction of the EES “in terms of passenger routes, training and national systems,” but admits that “fluidity remains a concern” and “discussions are continuing… to make progress on this point”.

Italy is also “adapting the border operational processes… in order to contain the increased process time and ensure both safety and security”.

“Despite many arguments for the introduction of automated border control systems based on the need for efficiency, the document makes clear that the EES will substantially increase border crossing times,” Statewatch argues.

‘Stable service unlikely by May 2023’

The border infrastructure is also being adapted for collecting and recording the data, with several countries planning for automated checks. So what will change in practice?

France will set up self-service kiosks in airports, where third-country nationals can pre-register their biometric data and personal information before being directed to the booth for verification with the border guard. The same approach will be adopted for visitors arriving by bus, while tablet devices such as iPads will be used for the registration of car passengers at land and sea borders.

Germany also plans to install self-service kiosks at the airports to “pre-capture” biometric data before border checks. But given the little time for testing the full process, German authorities say “a stable working EES system seems to be unlikely in May 2023.”

Austria intends to install self-service kiosks at the airports of Vienna and Salzburg “in the course of 2023”. Later these will be linked to existing e-gates enabling a “fully automated border crossing”. Austrian authorities also explain that airport operators are seeking to provide more space for kiosks and queues, but works will not be completed before the system is operational.

Italy is increasing the “equipment of automated gates in all the main  airport” and plans to install, at least in the first EES phase, about 600 self-service kiosks at the airports of Rome Fiumicino, Milan Malpensa, Venice and in those with “significant volumes of extra-Schengen traffic,” such as Bergamo, Naples, Bologna and Turin.

Switzerland, which is not an EU member but is part of the Schengen area, is also installing self-service kiosks to facilitate the collection of data. Norway, instead, will have “automated camera solutions operated by the border guards”, but will consider self-service options only after the EES is in operation.

Gradual introduction?

One of the possibilities still in consideration is the gradual introduction of the new system. The European Commission has proposed a ‘progressive approach’ that would allow the creation of “incomplete” passenger files for 9 months following the EES entry into operation, and continuing passport stamping for 3 months.

According to the responses, Italy is the only country favourable to this option. For Austria and France this “could result in more confusion for border guards and travellers”. French officials also argue that a lack of biometric data will “present a risk for the security of the Schengen area”.

France suggested to mitigate with “flexibility” the EES impacts in the first months of its entry into service. In particular, France calls for the possibility to not create EES files for third-country nationals who entered the Schengen area before the system becomes operational, leaving this task to when they return later.

This would “significantly ease the pressure” on border guards “during the first three months after entry into service,” French authorities said.

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