Four ways American travel could live up to Swiss standards

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
  I returned just over a week ago from my first extensive experience with intercity travel outside of North America. I was spoiled to have at my disposal for two weeks the Swiss Travel System, perhaps the world’s densest interconnected system of public conveyances. While it may be unrealistic to expect that America’s public transportation network will ever grow to truly rival — in size, scope and quality — that which the Swiss enjoy, I will share a few areas in which I feel I have the right to expect the world’s richest country to do better.
Several friends have told me that it’s useless to try to compare the transportation systems of European countries to that of the US. Many argue that the US is too geographically spread out and culturally different from countries with more robust passenger train networks that are better integrated with other public conveyances on land and sea. It is said that Americans cherish the freedom to come and go as we please, not bound by train schedules and routes, that comes from the automobile’s proliferation and the infrastructure that makes it possible to drive nearly anywhere at any time. But in Switzerland, whose car ownership rate ranks it number 21 amongst the world’s 192 countries (the US is number 4), users of the public travel network are arguably more free than drivers, as there are many places that trains, buses and boats go that are not easily accessible by car, and the vast majority of public conveyances run at least hourly throughout the day and seamlessly connect with one another.Here are four aspects of transportation convenience in which Americans stand to learn a lot from the Swiss:

1. Interconnectivity: Not only do trains, boats, buses and even funiculars (even though they are operated by separate companies) work together as a system — timed so that the wait between when one arrives and the other leaves is never more than 20 minutes, and almost always less than 10 minutes — but they are also ticketed, marketed, and conceptualized as an integrated whole. All of their schedules are housed within the national railroad SBB’s reservations system, which allows users of its website or app to look up schedules and buy tickets from any given point in the country to any other point, without having to consult each individual operator’s schedule. The trips I was able to plan using the SBB app in earlier days would have required consulting multiple schedule books to figure out the timing of connections.

Swiss residents can buy fares and multi-ride passes good on the entire network of their region, and the railroads offer interline tickets to buses, boats and funiculars. And visitors to Switzerland can take advantage (as my aunt and I did) of the amazing Swiss Travel Pass, which is good for unlimited travel on the entire network (both intercity trains/buses/boats and the local transit systems of most cities or regions). No reservations or special arrangements needed (except for on the handful of popular tourist-oriented trains where seat reservations are either required or strongly encouraged) — just get on board and show your pass to the conductor or operator upon request.

Imagine if the likes of Amtrak, Greyhound, Megabus, the numerous regional motorcoach lines, and even airlines started thinking of themselves as partners in mobility rather than as competitors or as islands to themselves — or perhaps as both partners and competitors simultaneously? In Switzerland, each regional or cantonal railroad and bus line has its own brand and identity, but interacts symbiotically with the national railroad (SBB) and intercity bus network (PostAuto). Obviously, the leaders of these companies do not see this collaboration as in any way detracting from their own revenues or customer base. American operators should be commended for the bit of bridge-building that has already been done (such as Amtrak’s Thruway bus network), but this should become more the rule than the exception.

2. Frequency: As a corollary to interconnectivity, and key to what makes for short wait times and convenient transfers, Americans in all corners of the country deserve buses and trains (and boats, where possible) that run more than once daily. As noted transit planning consultant Jarett Walker put it, “frequency is freedom,” an aphorism that applies in both the intra- and intercity contexts. While it would be hard to justify hourly service on routes like the entirety of the California Zephyr, every intercity train route should be served by at least three daily frequencies, and as travel demand grows between pairs or strings of destinations, frequency should increase up to hourly (a service level those on the Northeast Corridor, Capitol Corridor and Pacific Surfliner routes already enjoy). And intercity buses should offer corresponding levels of frequency.


3. Locals, limiteds, expresses and request stops: In the early 20th century, every little town on a rail line had a depot, and was served by an all-stops local train that connected it to the next larger town or city, where connection could be made to a limited or express that offered a quicker ride over a longer distance by making fewer stops. The Swiss still enjoy this level of service: main lines host intercity trains (stopping only at bigger cities) as well as RegioExpresses (making all but a few small stops) and locals. The latter two types of trains make extensive use of what in the US are called “flag stops,” where the train only comes to a stop at a given station if a passenger pushes the stop request button or the operator sees passengers waiting on the platform. (I became quite accustomed to hearing the German phrase “halt auf verlangen,” meaning “request stop,” as these stops were announced by the automated PA system.)

4. Break down needless divisions between states: In terms of the sub-national government’s constitutional relationship with the national government, Switzerland’s 26 cantons have, in some respects, more autonomy than US states. And similarly to how the states plan for and maintain their roads using federal funds, and financially support and oversee their short-distance Amtrak routes, the cantons are chiefly responsible for supporting their own internal networks. Yet there are major differences between states in terms of the level of transit service they support. Traveling between Swiss cantons (and even between different parts of the same canton), you connect between different systems and notice different local flavors and distinctness, yet you don’t notice a difference in political priorities between cantons as far as transportation is concerned. In line with goal number 1, our federal and state transportation policies should solidify the notion that this is the United States of America, not an amalgam of 50 different fiefdoms.

Building up the kind of travel system Americans ought to expect in the 21st century will actually mean rebuilding a lot of what we had, at least on the rail side. There used to be a number of small regional railroads that provided freight and passenger service, interconnecting with the large trunk lines that crisscrossed the country. Places like tiny Orbisonia, PA (to name one example), which housed the shops and head office of the narrow-gauge East Broad Top Railroad. While primarily a coal hauler, the EBT operated passenger trains that allowed Orbisonians, by connecting to a Pennsylvania Railroad local at Mt. Union, and then perhaps to a limited or express at Harrisburg, to be in Philadelphia in a little over four hours, and in New York in just under six, and to leave and return at a number of times throughout the day.


That was possible in 1925, and I was able to make a similar kind of journey in Switzerland in 2015. Maybe in 2060 or so, I’ll again be able to enjoy that kind of connectivity to American places big and small, near and far, without the hassle or expense, not to mention the statistically much greater safety risk, of driving.

But I shouldn’t, nor actually want, to wait that long.