Zurich: passionate patrons of public transport

29 min


After exploring the railway industries of Barcelona and Toronto, the Tangent team now heads to Zurich, the largest city in Switzerland whose rail infrastructure is characterised by punctuality, reliability, and integration. In times of socioeconomic turmoil, what can the UK learn from a population who genuinely consider their public transport network a national treasure?

It’s no secret that the UK rail industry faces a widening skills shortage that has kept many businesses awake at night, worrying about how exactly they can lure more young people into their teams. Take a half-baked approach to this and people will mistake your invitation for a siren call: after all, why join an industry that is steeped in historical bias of being old-fashioned and unnecessarily complex? How can outsiders trust companies when they tell them the railway is more of a family than a burden, while so many newspaper headlines seem to claim otherwise?

In Zürich, the Swiss have taken a very different approach. Rather than reactively attempt to convince people that the rail industry is diverse and thriving, they have built decades’ worth of foundational public trust by showing children, from a very young age, what exactly makes this sector so special. Right from kindergarten and throughout all levels at school, children are taught about the value of public transport, how to behave themselves onboard trains and trams, how to use the network correctly, and even how to read timetables. That is the winning formula: start early and do it well.

It’s no surprise, then, to see just how much the Swiss love their public transport. They cherish it to such an extent that some even claim there’s never really been a booming car industry in the country. Presidents and ministers wouldn’t dare be caught dead riding around in a fancy limousine; the train is their only option – and with a network that runs punctually and reliably to an almost impeccable standard, they sure don’t seem to mind.

Right from kindergarten and throughout all levels at school, children are taught about the value of public transport

So, how exactly did they get to this point?

To understand what makes the Swiss, and more specifically Zürich’s, rail industry the globally enviable system it is today, we need to go back to the start of the last century. At that point, the country already had railways in place; they were privately built by bankers, industrialists and entrepreneurs during the 19th century, with the first internal line, a 16km-long route between Zürich and Baden, opening in 1847. Interestingly, the British played a significant role in helping Switzerland’s network take shape, with the Swiss Federal Council inviting two engineers – Robert Stephenson and Henry Swinburne – to draw up plans for a 645km-long countrywide system, which were eventually implemented in full.

But the network only truly established itself as a worldwide frontrunner when it was nationalised in 1901. This came after a string of connectivity and coordination problems when mobilising troops during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, as well as the bankruptcy of several railway companies, continuous strikes, and general opposition to foreign ownership.

As is the Swiss way, this momentous decision to centralise control was made by the public as part of a national referendum where people opted for a state-owned company to replace existing private ventures. Thus was born the Swiss Federal Railways, otherwise known as SBB CFF FFS – the first word being its acronym in German, the second in French, and the last in Italian, all adding up to a mouthful of a name which truly encapsulates the rich multicultural landscape that characterises the geographically small country.

With nationalisation – and coinciding with end of the war during the 1950s – came a boom in modernisation. In an attempt to fix a network whose equipment and rolling stock was in poor condition and unable to accommodate growing demand, the Federal Government poured investment into experimental electrification programmes. By 1960, railways across the entirety of Switzerland had been completely electrified.

Concerted effort was also made to improve public interest in rail travel after the upsurge of road investment during World War II. Within just a few years, the roll-out of more trains at higher frequencies triggered a huge 75% growth in passenger numbers, and in 1972 the Federal Government paved the way to the world-famous Swiss punctuality by creating a timetable measured to the minute. At the main Zürich station of Hauptbahnhof, trains were organised to arrive and depart every half-hour or hourly, a cyclical coordination system – called Taktfahrplan – that facilitates multimodal integration by prioritising interval consistency over demand-driven planning, and one which still is in place today.

Of course, it also helps that Switzerland’s political system is extremely stable: the Swiss Federal Council is headed up by a coalition of seven power-sharing members who serve as the collective head of state, with the position of president rotating amongst them on a yearly basis. Constitutional changes also require mandatory referenda, and any change in law can be challenged by a member of the public as part of the country’s system of direct democracy. Ordinary people can even suggest amendments to existing federal legislation, and overall act as the guardian of the rule of the law, assuming the role of the country’s non-existent Constitutional Court.

As a result of this political stability, even a small change in the government’s power split can feel like an earthquake: in 2019, for example, the Green Party’s 13% total share of the national votes – a 6% increase from previous elections – was interpreted as a “green wave” in the country and marked a considerable leftward shift amongst the Swiss electorate. Compared to the up-and-down politics of the United Kingdom, it’s unimaginable that such a slight increase would have an impact on the political spectrum – but for the Swiss, it represents one of the greatest changes of recent years.

Deep dive: Zürcher Verkehrsverbund

Responsible for the more politically charged decisions of Zürich is Zürcher Verkehrsverbund, or ZVV, the public transportation system which brings together rail, bus, tram, trolleybus, lake boat, and cable car within the canton (or Swiss region). While SBB is responsible for operating services, ZVV oversees rolling stock, financing and planning, and growth forecasting. “We call ourselves a holding company; we finance about 50 transport companies in the canton,” said Dominik Brühwiler, deputy director of ZVV. “We pay them what they really need, and all the income from their fares comes directly to our organisation.”

If overseeing almost 50 member organisations sounds pointlessly complex, consider that Zürich’s fare system is seamlessly integrated in the truest sense of the word: even across services that ZVV does not oversee, such as international high-speed trains, tickets are still valid. “The ticketing system is completely open,” Dominik explained. “That’s a bit different to other countries, because you never have to make a reservation or pay a supplement to change modes. As long as the service stops within the limits of the region of Zürich, you can use the same ticket.”

These member organisations are also tidily split between eight market regions, with each having a market-responsible transport company – or MVU for short – in charge of ensuring that services are working as planned, performance deadlines are met, and budgetary limits are respected.

Not long ago, ZVV also used to be responsible for new rail infrastructure funding in the canton, as with every other region in Switzerland; but from 2015, the federal government has taken over this process by centralising both decision-making and overall financing. “Before that, renewals, maintenance and operation of the infrastructure were always organised by national funds, but the infrastructure extensions were mostly paid for by the cantons,” said Dominik. “Luckily, the Zürich region started very early compared to other regions in Switzerland with infrastructure extensions and investment in commuter trains – already in the 1980s. The region paid for around 80% of this new infrastructure. Today, we’re very far advanced compared to others, as there were a lot of infrastructure measures rolled out.”

However, what was once a straightforward financing system became gradually more difficult given that these physical assets were also being utilised by ‘private’ companies or international operators, so the federal government brought in new and allegedly more democratic laws around funding mechanisms.

“There are two sides to this change,” argued the deputy director. “On one hand, there’s even more money available now to finance new infrastructure, which is a good thing. But on the other hand, if you’re not paying for it yourself, all you can do is hope that it comes out well. If you really want to do something, there’s no longer a possibility to just go and do it. And of course, all regions want more than what national government pays – so that becomes a tad more difficult.”

The fares that come through ZVV’s member organisations are responsible for meeting up to 70% of the total operating cost, while the remaining amount is split in two, with half of that covered by the canton government and half coming from the region’s many municipalities. For Dominik, this economic model provides the same degree of stability as the country’s political system. “I consider it very important that we are safe in this area, because if you’re investing in infrastructure or buying new trains, you have to be sure that you can use them afterwards,” he told Tangent. “But we never have problems with that; the financial framework is always very stable – perhaps as a result of the political system. It’s quite a steady form of financing, and we never have to fight for it.”

Everything is so close, and so closely related, that we have to work together

In a sense, ZVV’s structure equates to a marriage between Network Rail and Transport for London, embodying the former’s responsibility for planning and infrastructure and the latter’s devolved approach to service provision and decision-making. But unlike the inherently siloed market in the UK, each organisation responsible for delivering transport in Switzerland knows that it is incumbent upon them to work together extremely efficiently.

“Of course, there is always a fight for competencies between the regions and the national government, but Switzerland is such a small country – we call our trains ‘intercity’ and ‘fast’ whereas in other countries they would be municipal or regional. Everything is so close, and so closely related, that we have to work together; many things have to be standardised nationally,” explained Dominik. “For example, we also work together [with SBB and ZVV’s transport companies] on the timetable. It’s not like we force anyone to do anything; we always work together to try and improve the timetable interface between two companies so that passenger interchanges can work well.”

The same goes for ZVV’s relationship with the federal government, with Dominik claiming that “while there’s always some difference in interests, all in all, it generally works very well.”

Urs Arpagaus, SBB’s regional manager for Zürich, agreed, pointing out that despite occasional political infighting between cantons (and the government’s ethical responsibility to cater to all of them, rather than just give into the desires of the major cities), all parties work collaboratively.

“It’s really working very well in Switzerland, this cooperation between train companies, national government, the Federal Office of Transport, and the cantons,” he asserted. “Of course, there are discussions, but they’re always solved by working together – as long as we accept one another. For example, as long as the Federal Office of Transport accepts and respects the knowhow of SBB – around how and where to build, how to maintain, what’s the best solution, etc. – and ZVV’s knowhow about political things, financing, or long-term planning. That is really Switzerland’s success factor, I would say. As long as we talk to each other, we will find a solution. We all want to improve the system.”

I would say that the quality in Great Britain isn’t really higher than in Switzerland, even though it’s privatised

That’s a big step up from the experience Urs has had when travelling around the UK around four years ago, during the Rugby World Cup. The SBB manager recounts having to travel from Bath to Gloucester in an unbelievably overcrowded train because there had been seemingly no contingency plans or reinforcements in place to deal with the large influx of tourists. “In terms of cooperation between organisations and different train operators, it looks like they don’t work together very well, and there is no price integration,” he commented, albeit emphasising that his experience in the UK has been limited.

“They don’t seem to care; I don’t know if they can’t do something about it because they don’t have the resources – which is also bad – or if they just don’t want to, because people will have to travel and pay the money regardless. But I would say that the quality in Great Britain isn’t really higher than in Switzerland, even though it’s privatised – that’s a fact. The quality won’t improve for customers just because there’s a new train design in place.”

Projects of past, present, and future

One of the standout programmes in Zürich’s recent railway history was the Durchmesserlinie, or the so-called ‘Diameter Line,’ that crosses the city from Altstetten in the west to Oerlikon in the east, traversing the main Hauptbahnhof station via a brand-new underground through-station called Löwenstrasse. As well as enabling the cross-city line, the new four-tracked underground station provides additional access to the underground Museumstrasse station and the major Gessnerallee and Sihlquai retail centres.

Upon leaving Löwenstrasse, trains then continue their journey through the twin-track, 5km-long Weinbergtunnel, opened in 2014. Since its launch, the Diameter Line has allowed ZVV to significantly increase its commuter S-Bahn service, whilst passengers have enjoyed much shorter travel times, extra connections, and emptier seats. Almost 500 trains – 140 of which are long distance, while around 320 are part of the S-Bahn network – run via Löwenstrasse every single day, relieving enough congestion to allow the main Hauptbahnhof station to cope with skyrocketing demand.

The completion of that project was certainly one of Zürich’s greatest railway achievements in recent memory, especially considering that it was just one of many stages required to deliver a fundamental upgrade to the S-Bahn network – constituting its largest expansion in the history of the ZVV. But some would argue that it pales in comparison to what lies ahead.

Earlier this year, the federal government voted in favour of a huge SFr13 billion – around £10bn – package of rail infrastructure upgrades to eliminate stubborn bottlenecks in the country by 2035 (yes, even the Swiss suffer with intense congestion). The plan, known as STEP 2035, encompasses around 200 projects of varying sizes across both the main SBB network and the routes operated by so-called ‘private’ railways (which are in fact mostly government-owned). Several key services – such as Zürich to Bern – will become half-hourly, while a number of regional S-Bahn services will run every 15 minutes; 14 new stations will be built, of which seven will be on the SBB network; and freight will benefit from new ‘express paths’ on eight main routes.

The ambitious STEP 2035 was laid out in Parliament as a solution to deal with the explosion in passenger demand in Switzerland, which the government expects to soar to almost two million travellers a day by 2040 – or around 50% more than present figures. For Dominik, one of the key parts of this programme of work will be the four-tracking scheme at Stadelhofen, a three-track station that is currently “completely oversaturated.” That project in itself will already account for around SFr1 billion of the 13 billion available.

“It will be extremely expensive because it’s right in the middle of the city,” he said. “It’s very complicated to build and takes a very long time. I can’t say at the moment how they will be able to put everything together at the end, but it’s a huge problem because you can’t completely interrupt a main line for several weeks at a time.”

Fortunately, the Swiss already have fresh experience in building ancillary tracks within a densely populated urban space, given the delivery of the Durchmesserlinie just a few years ago, which Dominik claimed was similarly complex. “The cross-city line in Zürich was extremely difficult: it took 15 years of planning and building, because it happened under a historic main station, under a river, under several tunnels… a bit like Crossrail in the UK, which has also been extremely expensive,” he commented. “With the Diameter Line, we used really long-term planning to prove that with the system we had planned for the city centre – already including the fourth track at Stadelhofen – we could manage double the number of passengers than what we could in 2005. It’s really built for the future.”

The great nationalisation debate

What has become a mammoth sticking point in UK party politics is perhaps Switzerland’s most accepted status quo: the nationalisation of the railways.

Since taking over from private ventures at the start of the 20th century, the government has not looked back on its decision to invest in a network that is predominantly public, with even the so-called ‘private’ rail companies being mostly owned by the cantons. But what do rail leaders think of this approach?

In short, they love it – as do the Swiss public, who are genuinely passionate patrons of their transport system. Urs Arpagaus, Zürich manager at the SBB, said: “We are very happy with how it works. There is competition when it comes to services – say, the design of trains or new services for passengers – but it’s absolutely not necessary to have competition amongst different train companies on the same route, because it’s better when you work together. It’s all about working together and not against each other. Otherwise, you automatically have a situation in which you are competitors. For example, there’s only one company running trains between Zürich and Bern; if you have competition in the line, there won’t be an improvement in quality, and I think it would be a big disaster. They wouldn’t work together, the prices would be different, it would be more complicated for people to understand… Cooperation really is key: that’s the most important thing.”

Chris Grayling eat your heart out: Urs is also a self-proclaimed fan of true track and train integration. “You can’t split up infrastructure and traffic operations,” he argued. “It has to fall within the same company, in our opinion, because you have to work very closely together. You have different objectives, but you have to find solutions together, and you can do that better when you work in the same company. I’m not sure the competition model in Great Britain is a big advantage.”

But what about the dangers of complacency when you’re running a route unopposed? Urs believes the public keeps companies in check: “So many Swiss people use public transport every day; it’s a national issue when trains are a little bit delayed. Everybody is always looking with big eyes at us and at how we manage it. It’s in our own interest to deliver the best service possible. And either way, it’s still possible for the government to decide a company isn’t running a service well and to give the whole service to another company instead – we have this kind of competition in place.”

Dominik Brühwiler, deputy director of ZVV, backed up this assessment. “It’s hard to change something that works quite well – there is no political will to do it,” he said. “And the Swiss love their public transport. Everybody participates in trying to improve it, so the results get better and better – perhaps comparable to how the Danish treat their bicycles. Trains and tramways are for Switzerland what bicycles are for people in Copenhagen or Amsterdam.

“You see ministers and the president in the trains; they travel with you. It’s accepted for all incomes – in fact, in Zürich, the higher your income is, the more you use public transport. That’s usually the other way around in many other countries. We love our public transport, and everyone cares about it; it’s very important that it works well. If something doesn’t work properly, you’ll definitely hear about it!”

As fast as necessary, not as fast as possible

As is usual for them, the regional transport bodies in Switzerland have already finished planning their timetable for 2035, taking into consideration the proposed upgrades that are scheduled to be delivered in the meantime. According to Urs, the new timetable has already been defined to the minute – essentially leaving no breathing space whatsoever for potential programme overruns. “You can imagine there’s not a lot of space to make changes to the timetable,” said Urs. “Of course, it may be changed by a minute or two at most – but in general, it’s already fixed for 2035.”

But the future is unpredictable, and project delays could always happen – that is the accepted philosophy in the UK, at least. Asked if there are any contingency plans in place, Urs seemed relatively unfazed. “It will be a big topic now to define the different stages [of delivery] until 2035, because of course, not all of the infrastructure investments will be finished at the same time,” he explained. “We have to plan around when we will have what kind of infrastructure finished, and how we can adapt the timetable in different stages, until its final stage in 2035. And if we see in this planning that there might be a delay – it could happen, you never know – then we will make a contingency plan. But not now; we don’t have one yet. We’ll do it if we see any signs that there will be major delays.”

Indeed, it’s not all rosy in the country: there have been a couple of delays in the last couple of years due to public frustration amongst those who live close to a planned rail line – a globally contentious issue which can often end up in court. But these delays haven’t been in the dense city-centre areas and, thanks to an extremely logical timetable planning system, they were easily mitigated.

This all boils down to the overriding Swiss transport motto: it’s not about travelling as fast as possible, but as fast as necessary, meaning all trains can be effortlessly integrated rather than randomly distributed according to demand patterns. “It’s not useful to make a high-speed train that can run a given distance in 15 minutes when you’ll then have to wait for your connection for another 15 minutes,” said Urs. “We plan our speed based on running this same distance in, let’s say, 25 minutes – and then you only have to wait five minutes for your connection. That makes a lot more sense.”

Of course, not every country that interfaces with Switzerland’s rail network uses the same timetabling method, meaning international delays can sometimes wreak havoc on the Swiss system. Dominik explained: “Say there’s a train from Germany every hour: it has exactly one time slot where it can enter the system. If it’s 10 minutes delayed, there’s no possibility for it to enter the system anymore, so it has to wait another hour. It’s important to have international trains and services, of course, but that is becoming more and more difficult.”

Urs agreed, highlighting Germany the biggest culprit followed by Italy and, to a lesser extent, France. “These trains are all inside our half-hourly or hourly timetable slots, meaning they’re all integrated. But unfortunately, they can be 10 or 15 minutes late, which disturbs our national timetable,” he noted. “It’s really important that our trains run punctually; let’s say, up to three minutes late at most – but 10 minutes is definitely a problem. To fix this, there are a lot of meetings and a lot of talking – frequent high-level meetings with our CEO and the CEO of Deutsche Bahn or Trenitalia, for example. But it’s quite difficult, because they all have their national priorities; Germany has its own internal issues and Switzerland is only a very small part of that for them. We don’t have the power to make something happen; all we can do is ask them and talk to them.”

End of the line for the double-decker

For both Urs and Dominik, the headline challenge for the Zürich network in the coming years will be an extraordinary surge in demand. “The network is so saturated. On an international level, open access is theoretically possible and there could be private operators coming from other countries – but it’s absolutely impossible to find a free track,” said Dominik. “It takes time to build more tracks, and of course, we’re a country with a very dense population. What’s more, everyone wants to be near transport connections, but not have lines in front of their house – similarly to HS2 in Britain.”

One of the surprising perpetrators behind this inability to plan for more immediate, short-term relief is the prevalence of double-decker trains in the network. Originally touted in the 1990s as the ideal solution to offer more seats within the confines of existing platform lengths, these trains have now proven to be a burden due to their longer station dwell times – and while most are due for a complete refurb soon as they approach the midpoint of their lifespan, an interior refresh can only accomplish so much. “It’s a disadvantage, because double-decker trains are not very effective or efficient at the station,” continued Dominik. “We allocate a lot of time to go up and down the stairs. A single-deck train would be much more efficient.”

Everyone wants to be near transport connections, but not have lines in front of their house – similarly to HS2 in Britain

Urs pointed to Tokyo as an example of where the rail industry invested exclusively in single-deck, multi-door trains that make up a metro-style system with much faster turnaround times, even with the enormous number of passengers onboard. “In the long term, we will have this discussion [about phasing out double-deckers]; it has to be a priority, especially in central areas where trains run very frequently,” the SBB official commented. “We have to think about that for the next generation of trains – let’s say, from 2045 onwards.”

The Swiss (carbon) neutrality

During the two world wars, Switzerland’s access to coal was shut down – so it didn’t take long for the country to mobilise investment into electrification and, by 1959, the entire rail network had been electrified. According to Dominik, a handful of buses still run on diesel, although this does not account for a large share of the country’s CO2 emissions.

So one could forgive Zürich, and Switzerland in general, for putting transport environmental concerns on the backburner – they have effectively done their bit already. But as populations around the world begin to wake up to the looming climate emergency, persistent attempts to make public transport even more sustainable continue even amongst the Swiss.

In 2016, they even won the top prize at the global UIC Sustainability Awards for a project dubbed ‘Sleep well, my train’: in essence, it means heating systems in Swiss rolling stock are linked to the daily timetable in order to allow vehicles to heat up automatically at the required time, saving SBB five gigawatt hours a year.

“Even though the railway system in Zürich is 100% electrified, energy-saving is a big topic,” said Urs. “We focus on a lot of small initiatives. For example, we reduced the air-conditioning in trains from 20 degrees in the summertime to 22 degrees. That has had a major impact: air-conditioning that is two degrees warmer will save a lot of energy. Similarly, when you store train units for more than two hours somewhere, the whole system will shut down automatically – which also saves energy.

“There are a lot of these small measures in place. Our objective is to have only renewable energy by 2025.”

Q&A: The Swissrail Industry Association

Tangent spoke to Michaela Stöckli, director of the Swissrail Industry Association – the Swiss equivalent of the UK’s Railway Industry Association – about their contribution to the rail sector.

Who does Swissrail represent?

We represent more than 110 companies in the railway supply business. We have bigger companies – like Stadler, Siemens, Alstom, and ABB – and a lot of smaller and mid-sized companies too.

Do you help SMEs connect with established rail suppliers?

If you’re a smaller supplier, then you have to make sure that you get in touch with the big ones; they are general contractors and are always willing to meet smaller or newer suppliers. This is what we do: we try to connect them, making sure smaller companies have good access to the bigger ones and can get into their supply chain.

We also have a very good relationship with the government and all transport companies in Switzerland and in Europe. We have regular meetings with SBB and ZVV, for example; it’s a really close partnership, and although we don’t agree all the time, it still works.

Despite the Swiss love for public transport, and the free unlimited travel that members of the rail industry receive, do you face any recruitment challenges?

We do have some problems in attracting young people to work in the rail industry, because it’s seen as old-fashioned and boring. We can also struggle in recruiting engineers directly from high school and from universities. But we’re still pretty successful at it.

We have the so-called dual education system, too: when people leave school, say when they are 16 years old, many companies offer them apprenticeships. Under this system, they spend two days per week going to school, and three days working in a company. After that, many people choose to stay in the sector, because the rail industry is almost like a family.

The apprenticeship system in Switzerland is really successful, and it has been in place since forever.

The Swiss network was electrified in the 1950s, so it’s already effectively carbon-neutral. Do suppliers still invest in making the network even more environmentally friendly?

Absolutely, but only on urban transport rather than rail. We’re talking about new technologies [such as hydrogen or battery] for buses, not for trains or trams. We could also export these new technologies – looking around other countries, this could be a good opportunity for exports.

How much importance do suppliers place on exports?

When we look at the general business that rail companies make, about 50-60% comes from exports. This is across all of them; companies like Stadler and ABB are very successful at exporting, but we also have the smaller ones who are really successful as well. It’s not just the bigger companies who are the drivers; our small companies are very active in foreign markets too.

You recently embarked on a fact-finding mission to the UK. What did you discover?

Indeed, two years ago we went to England and Scotland. It was quite interesting, but the problem is that the UK organisations are so, so difficult and complicated – all the different governments and operators and leasing companies and so on. It can give you a headache.

The other problem is politics. [The UK Parliament] is there for five years, and then they start again from scratch. In Switzerland, we have reliable plans; our railway investments are already all secured from now until 2030, including the spending, regardless of a new government or new parliament. It’s absolutely fixed, so you can be sure that the money will be there.

How does rail public procurement work in the country?

Contracts come from the transport companies – such as SBB – rather than the cantons, or from major contractors such as Stadler, Siemens, or Alstom, for example. There are no direct contracts from government.

Major contractors have absolute free choice to choose their own suppliers. It works great: we are quite a small country, but we have a liberal market – and I think our success really shows that that’s the right way.

What do you think of the fact that the Swiss network is mostly nationalised?

It’s not really privatised and it’s not really governmental – it’s a mixture, and it works pretty well. Some companies are owned, let’s say, 50% by the canton and then the other 50% is funded by the private sector. If you ask them, they all state they are privately-owned, but they’re not – we still support them with public money.

I think the big difference between us and other countries in the world is that we love our public transport – and because we love it, we support it. People are happy to pay taxes. Whenever you have a vote and you ask people if they want to spend a little bit more to finance a new tram, everyone says yes.

To love public transport is one thing, but the willingness to pay for it is another. I think that’s very special.


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