Rain or shine, blizzard or flood, Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) media spokesman Roland Binz says, federal rail passengers reach their destinations about 96 percent of the time with less than five minutes delay.
It’s this obsession with clockwork arrivals and departures that gives the Swiss a major head start as hosts to foreign tourists.
The advantage has become a major selling point since the Berne-based Swiss Travel System (STS) opened a SBB subsidiary office in London in 1989.
STS head Hugo Furrer pointed out the vital role of punctuality. The main STS marketing tool, Furrer says, remains the reliability of all mass transit in a small alpine nation with integrated barrier-free transfer rights.
The STS message to English-language tourists in London (the largest segment of arrivals in this alpine country) as well as visitors already in Switzerland: buy a Swiss “all-in-one” ticket or “Swiss pass” and avoid holiday delay nightmares.
At the heart of this strategy, the STS head says, lies a means of speeding up crossovers at rail, bus, lake cruiser, alpine cable car and funicular transfer points. It takes effect upon entry within Swiss borders — and well before tourists reach their hotel destinations.
First, Furrer says, the program aims to assure seamless arrivals at major Swiss railway centers. That’s where travelers will step out of coaches from neighboring countries.
But the tourist may wish to enjoy excursions along the way without needing to worry about his luggage. Let’s say it’s a visit to the William Tell Museum in the Swiss heartland town of Bürglen and later a stopover at the Jungfraujoch “Ice Palace” high in the central alps.
The all-in-one ticket, or Swiss Pass, serves as the passenger’s proof-of-payment at each transfer point. The sightseeing venture could involve an SBB train, a postal bus, a lake cruiser and a private cogwheel railway to the ridge of the towering Jungfrau. Yet the flash pass, as Metz explained, permits quick-and-easy boarding at each point along the way.
Furrer says STS offices sold more than 241,000 “all-in-one” tickets in 2007 — a figure earning the SBB outlet SFr. 59.3 million. Observers expect this figure to increase in 2008.
One crucial reason: the reluctance of many incoming foreign tourists to pay new airline surcharges including baggage fees if they can book rail tours instead.
In some resorts – for instance, Davos — hotels may offer guests complementary bus passes to relieve congestion on the town’s busy shopping promenade. And Engadine tourists can buy half-price skiing tickets for cable cars serving slopes at Corvatsch and Diavolezza. Free bus tickets aren’t provided at Interlaken hotels. But “all-in-one” ticket-holders can now gain entry to museums nationwide.
SBB media consultant Metz admits that there’s always behind-the-scene grumbling from all-in-one ticket partner firms claiming that they’re short-changed in their share of compensation funds received. Yet these carriers lack the SBB’s marketing resources, so they usually settle for their allotments without serious protest.
In rare cases, a community like Davos may pull out of the program because, as Furrer puts it, “it doesn’t see the advantage of taking part in it.” The STS official says his agency has received “a lot of complaints from British customers” over the Davos pullout. He obviously hopes the town that hosts the World Economic Forum will reconsider its move.
However, Furrer calls the pullout by Davos and a few other Grisons resorts “exceptions.” At the same time he concedes that the STS hasn’t had “big success” in integrating local bus service within the all-in-one ticket “because hotels don’t market it enough.”
Other European countries — the Dutch particularly — might be expected to offer the Swiss stiff competition to the STS “all-in-one” travel plan. Furrer agrees, but the Netherlands has mounted no strong challenge so far.
“It should be easier for the Dutch,” Furrer admits, “for their national rail service consists of only one company. They don’t have to work with partner firms as we do.”
As confirmed by the Information Service for Public Transport (LITRA) office in Berne, the Dutch Federal Railways have the densest rail network in Europe. The Dutch are also building a 130-km high-speed stretch from Amsterdam Central Station via Shiphol Airport to Rotterdam and Breda at the Belgian border.
And another country with a high rail density in the lowlands, Belgium, has its own high-speed rail expansion underway: the north axis linking to Brussels and on to the Dutch border. High-speed travel has its champions within the business community, where executives can stay focused on their laptops. Yet it’s another story for tourists keen on the passing scene.
Though ideal for high-speed rail, the flat expanses of the Netherlands and Belgium admittedly lack the scenic splendor of the Swiss Alps. That’s what draws foreign tourists to Switzerland in droves and justifies Furrer’s outreach to them via the STS. At least that’s the finding of longstanding marketing research throughout Europe.
If any other European country combines breathtaking mountain scenery and a desire to tap its potential for tourism, it would be Switzerland’s eastern neighbor Austria. But the Austrians, according to LITRA, have become nearly bogged down with rail groundbreaking ceremonies involving the Brenner Pass.
Two other countries bordering Switzerland — France and Italy — have also made ambitious strides as high-speed train developers in recent years. Both the French TGV and Italian Cisalpino systems feed into Swiss territory.
Indeed the Cisalpino passes through the country and continues north from Zurich to the German city of Stuttgart. Swiss residents boarding within Switzerland gain a 25 percent discount on the Cisalpino in Italy or Germany if they possess a Swiss half-price pass.
German and Austrian trains offer passengers from Switzerland bearing half-price passes the same discount on trips into their country. But at this point France has resisted granting such discounts to its neighbors. SBB spokesmen say off the record that French rail marketers have traditionally preferred a go-it-alone stance.
In this sense, Switzerland’s recent coup in tourism marketing bears more than brief mention, as the Swiss managed to enter France’s back door via rail “cultural diplomacy.” A consortium of Swiss tourism-oriented interests, including the Rhaetian Railways, won the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (Unesco) “World Heritage” listing on July 7 for the RhB’s spectacular Albula and Bernina rail stretches that end in the border town of Tirano, Italy. The United Nations cultural agency granting the coveted honor happens to reside in Paris.
Unesco recognition actually focuses on the need to preserve the mountainous valleys’ unique culture as well as marvelous railway tunneling and viaduct-building feats completed more than a century ago.
It’s notable that the Unesco choice of a tourism-oriented rail line becomes the third such line granted this honor by the UN agency. The other two — Austria’s Semmering Railroad and India’s Darjeeling Himalayan Railway line — also met the UN criteria as deserving scenic rail rides built during the golden age of rail design.
Unesco’s recent decision to honor the RhB Albula and Bernina lines adds yet another reason for rail tourists to spend Swiss francs in the country’s easternmost canton. Canton Grisons director of planning and spatial development Richard Atzmüller explained why. He was one of many expert coauthors of the project’s 700-page proposal to Unesco.
As Atzmüller points out, those who planned the linking 122-km Albula and Bernina lines more than a century ago could have plotted a rail route based on pure cost effectiveness.
“That would have meant determining the shortest possible route between A and Z,” he says. “But the RhB’s civil engineers realized from the start that these lines should attract tourists. So they imagined the best vantage points to view the alpine scenery. Photographers today can see how well they carried out that task — how they created sweeping vistas to showcase gorges, glaciers, viaducts and terraces.”
Trains like the RhB’s “Bernina Express” fire-engine red state-of-the-art panorama cars give tourists every opportunity to film these scenes of natural splendor as they wind through the eastern Swiss Alps.
From a rail-transit marketing viewpoint, Unesco’s nod comes at a timely moment. STS head Furrer admits as much. Even though the “World Heritage” Albula-Bernina stretch lies in RhB territory within Canton Grisons, he knows that his parent firm, the SBB, will profit greatly from its links with the RhB in Landquart and Chur. All rail travelers heading for these cities from Zurich must transfer to the RhB at one of these points. “All-in-one” ticket holders can make the change by simply crossing their platform to an awaiting train.
This raises an overriding question: How do the Swiss manage to design such quick-and-easy “body transfers” from one carrier network to another? And why do countries with high-tech barrier systems so often fail this test abysmally?
As advocates of “barrier-free” fare collection point out, Switzerland became a pioneer in this approach during the 1970s and now ranks alongside Germany as the world leader. In cities, transit authorities vend tickets off-board with the help of self-service machines.
Furrer says some 300,000 Swiss opted for annual passes last year, and 2.3 million more bought half-price passes and use them intensively. A half-price pass, normally marketed with a one-, two- or three-year purchase option, requires the rider to buy a discounted ticket or a multi-trip card. Before each trip, the bearer validates this card at a canceling device built into the ticket vendomat at bus, streetcar or subway stops.
Roving inspectors may spot check the card and half-price pass with photo ID. If the rider cannot show such “proof of payment,” inspectors can assess a stiff fine of up to 30 times a normal ticket’s price. This policy keeps “free-loading” at a minimum.
By contrast, metropolitan centers with older subway systems — say, the London “Tube” or the Paris Metro — have built costly automated barrier systems at each station’s entry and exit points. Critics say local users soon grasp the system of buying swipe cards to enter and exit the barriers. But foreign tourists, who may not have mastered English or French user instructions, find these fare blockades baffling and normally prefer open systems.
Swiss bus riders have it far better with their “open system.” It lets them board at any door — normally at least three on articulated buses — speeding up trips greatly.
Meanwhile, city bus drivers — freed from the task of riding shotgun at a farebox — can focus on the demanding job of maneuvering buses safely through city traffic.
There’s but one exception: the famous apricot-yellow Swiss postal bus. Drivers of these hybrids do collect fares and make change if needed. But their routes usually favor picturesque alpine roads with few stops in urban lowland areas.
Postal buses excepted, the Swiss “all-in-one” ticket for tourists fits hand-in-glove within the country’s barrier-free fare collection system.
Lyn Shepard is an American freelance writer living and working in Switzerland.
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