The Swiss Don't Miss

(The world on time)

Swiss Train

Wouldn't you agree that Switzerland is a fascinating country? Swiss army knives, Swiss cards, Swiss watches, Swiss cheese, Swiss fondue, Swiss chocolate, Swiss banks, Swiss Alps, Swiss yodellers, Swiss neutrality--these are just a few not-so-random things that come to my mind when I think of Switzerland.

I spent 3 1/2 weeks in Switzerland in the summer of 2000--my first trip to this beautiful country. Among cities, I visited Bern and Lucerne and briefly stopped in Interlaken, Basel and Zurich, the latter on the day of the Street Parade--the second biggest techno party in Europe after Berlin's Love Parade. The majority of my time I spent in the Bernese Alps--in Gimmelwald and surrounding hiking areas.

Each of the aforementioned places deserves a review of their own, but this time I will concentrate only on the link that connects all the aforementioned places--the Swiss transportation system, which leaves many travelers, myself included, puzzled with the question, "How'd they do that?" If there is a better system in the world than Swiss I haven't found or heard about it yet.

I recently read Jon Krakauer's bestseller, "Into Thin Air", where the author interestingly noted, "Having paid princely sums to be escorted up Everest, some climbers have then sued their guides when the summit eluded them. Some people don't understand that an Everest expedition can't be run like a Swiss train."

I've been trying to come up with a good analogy here, but in fact, I can't think of anything that runs as good as a Swiss train. (Comments are welcome!). I must have taken over 30 trains in Switzerland if I count every connection, and I was never late to my final destination. Reliability is the name of the game here. Using New York's subway I often hear these announcements: "We are being temporarily delayed by the red signal," "We have a congestion ahead of us. Please be patient. We hope to start moving shortly," "Ladies and gentlemen, this express train will now be making local stops." Then I realize that time in New York is measured by sold-on-every-corner fake $10 Rolex watches while in Switzerland time is measured by genuine Swiss watches.

It takes 3 hours 27 minutes, 6 connections, which include 3 trains, a walk, one bus and one gondola, to get from Zurich to Gimmelwald--my home base in the heart of Swiss Alps. Sounds complicated. And in New York it certainly would be. But not in Switzerland where everything runs as smooth as silk. 8:03am--you are in busy Zurich full of people and just as many banks. 11:30am you are in hiking paradise with very few people, many cows and plenty of cheese. Guaranteed!

Let's put this sample itinerary, which I have done several times by now, under the microscope to fully comprehend the efficiency of the Swiss system. 8:03 we leave Zurich. Arrive in Bern at 9:14. Change trains. 12 minutes later we are under way to Interlaken. Arrive in Interlaken at 10:20. Change trains. 15 minutes later we are on a train to Lautenbrunnen where we arrive at 10:55. Walk 1 minute to the bus station. At 11:05 the bus leaves for Stechelberg. We arrive there at 11:17. Walk up to the gondola station and take the 11:25 gondola to Gimmelwald where we arrive 5 minutes later. It's 11:30. We are there. On time. Guaranteed!

When it comes to national transportation networks, it's comforting to know for a change that in Switzerland the left leg knows what the right leg is doing, i.e. you wouldn't arrive to a station to find out that your next connecting train had left 15 minutes ago and there wouldn't be another one for several hours. In Switzerland, there are scheduled connections with as little as 2 minutes apart.

Perhaps the only thing that is more impressive than the reliability and frequency of Swiss transport is the views from a window. Statistics show that over 60% of the country is mountainous and a quarter of it is covered in forests. Though relatively small in size, this country is blessed with the best natural sights in Europe, including the Top of Europe-Jungfraujoch--the highest train station on the continent (3454 meters/11332 feet) and a "drop-dead" view of Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau from Schilthorn peak (2967 meters/9734 feet), which can be reached by the cableway (the longest in Europe) of the James Bond fame.

I urge you to experience the best public transportation system in the world for yourself, and you will see that following the traditions of the legendary national hero of Switzerland, William Tell, who shot an apple off the head of his eight-year-old son, the Swiss don't miss.