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Swiss Rail Travels

Posted on December 10, 2022

Reading time: 6 minutes.

Cog railway, Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

Though I never followed it up with another visit to the place, the time that I spent in Switzerland in September 2015 possibly my best trip away from home up to that point in my life. Much of this was because of the Swiss rail system, something of renown around the world. There also was a feeling of freedom, of being able to pick and choose from the delights on offer.

There are other manifestations of Swiss efficiency, of course, with hiking trail waymarking being among them. For them, it is not enough to say how far away somewhere is, but you also have to offer time estimations for how long it would take to get there. Being proficient with maps remains necessary though, but it is useful to have the added confirmations.

All this infrastructure can come at the cost of feeling as you are in a wild place, but the Alps are a peopled mountain range anyway. Nevertheless, this makes Swiss mountains very accessible without making them feel thronged at the same time. Sometimes, it can feel as though there is a plan to keep people out of places like that in other parts of the world.

On arrival at Geneva Airport, it took me a little time to make my way to its trains station and then to figure out which train to catch for the city centre. That is because many long distance services start and end there, forming the backbone of airport rail connections instead of a dedicated local train service. Once I got onto a train with my luggage, there was no crowding, and I was soon enough where I needed to be. That my hotel was only a short walk away from Geneva’s main train station helped as well. Once I had settled into my hotel, the rest of my day was spent walking around the city, admiring its at least some of many sights.

The next day was overcast, so I decided on a day trip to Bern for more explorations. As I awaited my direct train to there from Geneva, I spotted an SNCF train awaiting its next service. It is a vague memory to me now, but it may have been graffitied as well as looking a little down at heel, a condition in which I never saw a Swiss train. Trains from other countries do serve parts of Switzerland, as I was to see in coming days.

The train that I needed was a double-decked affair, a type on which I had never travelled before. For the sake of enjoying any views, I chose the top deck on one the carriages, passing a children’s play area below. It seems as if the Swiss include a variety of layouts on their trains, something that adds family friendliness among other things.

My needs were simple, and amply fulfilled by a succession of views along the way along with a lack of any overcrowding. There was Lac Léman and the plateau around Freiburg. On arriving in Bern, I set to wandering around the city, while noting the plentiful supply of trams and buses plying its streets. The greyness meant that this was no day for meaningful photography, but I was sated nonetheless. The return journey was as pleasant as the outbound one, so this was a good introduction to travelling by train in Switzerland.

There is one subject that I have not mentioned so far: cost. You do have to pay well for Swiss efficiency, so I went about trying to get a rail pass online only to be thwarted by weekend system maintenance. This even affected the ticket machines that I tried to use when acquiring a return ticket to Zermatt the next morning. Swiss travel passes do save you money, and are best acquired in advance of going there from my experience.

The ticket machine issues did not stop me getting to Zermatt though. The first part of the journey took me to Visp on a single-deck train bound for Brig, assuming that seven years have not eroded my recollection that much. The route was roundabout due to the location of Lac Léman, international borders and mountainous topography. The latter also challenged the routing of the train to Zermatt, operated by the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn, and you have to wonder how engineers managed to squeeze both road and railway through some parts. Zermatt itself is a car-free zone, so there are frequent trains between there and nearby Täsch, where multi-story car parks abound.

My focus in Zermatt was on getting out walking and to get a glimpse of the Matterhorn for myself. That precluded any use of the Gornergrat Bahn, even if that would mean access to other hikes. Electric vehicles and horse-drawn transport were to be soon too. On a longer stay, the Glacier Express would be another option. There is a lot to savour in this part of Switzerland.

On my way back to Geneva, the train from Visp was delayed, so even the Swiss are not immune to these things. There also was a spot of bother between a conductor and a passenger on the western side of Lac Léman, not that it caused a major effect on the general peacefulness of the whole journey. The overall impression that I was forming is that train travel in Switzerland is a civilised uncrowded affair.

There was one more day for an excursion in Switzerland, and that took me to Grindelwald. This needed two changes, one at Bern and another at Interlaken Ost. The first allowed me some time to capture a few photos of the Swiss capital in bright sunshine. Then, the second was caused by needing to use the services Berner Oberland Bahn. Their narrow gauge operations often go over cog railways because of the gradients that they ascend and descend.

Once in Grindelwald, I decided to walk uphill to Kleine Scheidegg. On the final approach to the end of my ascent, I suffered shortness of breadth, so I caught another cog railway train for Grindelwald without delay. This is also the place to catch trains to Jungfraujoch, but I had got a lot out of the day even if it clouded over to leave Kleine Scheidegg feeling autumnal and not a little desolate. Once back in Grindelwald, I could have left for Interlaken Ost there and then. However, some rest was in order and there was a clock-face timetable in operation anyway. Swiss railways were easily dependable enough for that sort of concession.

Switzerland is in so many ways an unusual place. First, it has three main languages in French, German and Italian with Romansh adding another to these. My time was spent in French and German-speaking regions, so my rusty school French has its uses. Not having German felt like a disadvantage though English is spoken a lot too. The main train company gets the legend SBB CFF FFS because of the three main languages, and was the one that I used most often. There are numerous others too with Deutsche Bahn and ÖBB making incursions from German and Austria, respectively.

The timing of my return flight was such that it allowed some time for some last strolling around Geneva before I left. As I did so, I had to be careful not to get run over by speeding cyclists, some of whom surely intent on getting to work on time. Another train got me to the airport in good time, so I left Switzerland in good spirits.