Public transport in Switzerland - everything you need to know

Public transport in Switzerland has one of the densest networks in the world. The railroad is the most important means of transport. There are more than 5300 km of railroad network in Switzerland. In addition, there are buses, streetcars, mountain railroads and passenger ships, with which you can easily reach almost every corner of Switzerland.

To open this article, we dare to take a self-generated thesis. We claim that the quality of a country's public transport can be measured by how the population reacts when a train is slightly delayed.

Or would you feel sorry in a country outside of Switzerland when you hear the announcement: "We are currently running three minutes late. We apologize for any inconvenience."?

Believe it or not, but in this country this minimal delay can already cause red heads and increased heart activity. From the reactions that can be observed time and again in Swiss stations and trains, you will inevitably conclude that public transportation in Switzerland must be phenomenal.

And there is definitely something to that.

In hardly any other country is the public transport network as dense and well developed as in Switzerland. That's why we will devote this article entirely to public transportation, while other articles will cover detailed information on the available train tickets in Switzerland and tourist passes for your train trip in Switzerland.

Zurich station concourse (Photo: Seraina Zellweger)Zurich station concourse (Photo: Seraina Zellweger)
Zurich deep station (Photo: Seraina Zellweger)Zurich deep station (Photo: Seraina Zellweger)

Trains in Switzerland

When it comes to train travel, Switzerland is a country of superlatives.

No nation in Europe covers as many kilometers by rail as the Swiss. In 2019, we put a whopping 2400 km per capita under our wheels. That's about as far as from Rome to Stockholm or from Vienna to Madrid.

In addition, Switzerland has been the proud owner of the longest rail tunnel in the world since 2016: the Gotthard Base Tunnel. This masterpiece of construction replaced the Seikan Tunnel in Japan, which successfully defended its podium position for 28 years. Thanks to the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the travel time between Zurich and Lugano has been reduced by 30 minutes, or 20%.

By far the biggest player in the Swiss rail universe is SBB, short for Swiss Federal Railways. Of the total Swiss rail network, which amounts to over 5300 km, SBB operates a total of 3236 km. However, SBB is by no means alone in the pack. In 2015, 73 other railroad companies carried their passengers from Geneva to St. Gallen, from Lugano to Basel and on all other routes in between.

Swiss Activities Tip: Switzerland is not only known for its many trains, but also for its beautiful landscapes. Fortunately, these two can be perfectly combined in the form of panoramic trains. Read more about the 5 most beautiful scenic trains in Switzerland here.

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Train travel in Switzerland (Photo: Swiss Travel System)Train travel in Switzerland (Photo: Swiss Travel System)
Landwasser Viaduct in Graubünden (Photo: Swiss Travel System)Landwasser Viaduct in Graubünden (Photo: Swiss Travel System)

Traveling in the two-class system

Anyone traveling by train in Switzerland has the choice between traveling in 1st or 2nd class. The two classes differ mainly in the following respects:

  • Price-wise, the two classes differ quite a bit. The difference is a considerable 75%. A trip from Basel to Zurich costs 34 CHF in 2nd class without discount, while the price in 1st class is 60 CHF
  • The space in 1st class is quite a bit more comfortable. Apart from rush hours, there are significantly fewer people traveling than in 2nd class. And those who appreciate a certain amount of legroom, a more comfortable seat, or more peace and quiet in general will prefer a 1st class trip.

Swiss Activities Tipp: A good opportunity to travel by train at a reduced price is the limited availability of SBB Supersaver tickets. It may happen that the 1st class fare is lower than the 2nd class fare. It is rare, but when booking a Supersaver ticket, it may be worthwhile to compare the 1st class price as well.

Traveling in first class (Photo: Swiss Travel System)Traveling in first class (Photo: Swiss Travel System)
Glacier Express (Photo: Swiss Travel System)Glacier Express (Photo: Swiss Travel System)

The different trains in Switzerland

In Switzerland, there are three types of trains: Intercity, Interregio and regional trains. At the SBB you can have a look at an overview map, which shows the public transport in Switzerland.

The fastest way to travel is by Intercity trains, which stop at only a few stations. So it is possible to get from St. Gallen to Lausanne with only 10 stops. For comparison: The Interregio already stops six times between St. Gallen and Zurich alone.

Interregio trains run between major cities, but stop at key stations along the way.

The regional trains run the slowest and make a stop at (what feels like) every station. Sometimes they run with stops on demand. This is mentioned either on a digital display on the train or during the announcement. So if you are traveling on a regional train, also known as "Bummler", you may have to press a button to get off at your desired stop.

The punctuality of Swiss railroads

Entire doctoral theses could be written, heated discussions held and complex studies drawn up on the punctuality of public transport in Switzerland. For the sake of simplicity, we'll confine ourselves for the moment to a somewhat casual statement that will interest you above all if you're pressed for time.

Basically, trains in Switzerland are very punctual

Roughly speaking, the punctuality of the SBB is around 90%. Playing poker and hoping that the train will wait for you will only lead to a pleasing result in 10% of cases.

Trams in Switzerland

Only four cities in Switzerland have significant streetcar networks: Zurich, Geneva, Bern and Basel. The streetcars are on the one hand responsible for the fine development in the cities and on the other hand for the development of the surrounding agglomerations. They often run at very frequent intervals - sometimes every two minutes - and in the case of Basel, they even extend beyond the national border.

Sometimes they seem to come out of nowhere, which can be dangerous, especially for the country bumpkins of this world. Especially near the main station, it's worth taking a second look behind before you cross the street. Streetcars have the right of way over pedestrians and accordingly prefer to ring the bell instead of braking. In the past, this has caused one or the other near cardiac arrest for me.

If you are aware of this, however, you should be able to live in peaceful coexistence with the streetcars.

Streetcar in Zurich (Photo: Seraina Zellweger)Streetcar in Zurich (Photo: Seraina Zellweger)
Streetcar in Switzerland (Photo: Seraina Zellweger)Streetcar in Switzerland (Photo: Seraina Zellweger)

City buses in Switzerland

Switzerland's 125 bus companies are responsible for regional services. The buses usually have one or more points of contact with rail traffic or with other bus lines. These points of contact are usually coordinated in terms of timetables, which makes it relatively easy to get from one place to the next in Switzerland without a car

In terms of frequency, the schedules vary widely. In the city centers, certain lines run every two minutes, while in less densely populated areas they run every 15, 30 or even every 60 minutes.

Postbuses in Switzerland

One of the most typical means of transport in Switzerland is the Postbus. Squeaky yellow and in single or double-decker versions, they reach even the furthest corners of the country. The more remote you are on the road, the greater the chance that you will encounter a Postbus somewhere.

They are especially common in hiking areas, but they also make their way through the traffic in city centers or agglomerations. The postbus network covers over 1600 km, which is equivalent to the distance from Anchorage in Alaska to La Paz in Bolivia.

As the name suggests, post buses were once responsible for transporting mail. In addition, postbuses also transported people, but at some point it became difficult to reconcile the different needs. Therefore, towards the end of the 20th century, the decision was made to completely separate passenger transport from postal transport. In remote areas, it can happen that the popularly used "Posti" still occasionally transports truths. As a rule, however, you are the only reason why the post bus is fetched from the garage.

Swiss Activities Tip: Postbuses are perfect if you plan a hike with different starting and finishing points. Often you can reach your starting point by public transport and at the end of your hike you can get on another post bus line. This way you don't have to choose a round trip or do the same route twice. It is best to check the timetable in advance, as the post buses do not always run regularly in remote regions.

Postbus in Switzerland (Photo: Swiss Travel System)Postbus in Switzerland (Photo: Swiss Travel System)
The Postbus is perfect for a hike with different starting and ending points (Photo: Swiss Travel System)The Postbus is perfect for a hike with different starting and ending points (Photo: Swiss Travel System)

Long-distance buses in Switzerland

Since the Swiss travel mostly by train, long-distance buses within the country are rather a side effect with a very meager offer. There are indeed several larger bus companies such as Flixbus, Eurobus and Eurolines, which operate without restrictions across the border. But within Switzerland, it is not quite easy to cover a distance by long-distance bus.

For example, international bus lines are not allowed to carry passengers who do not have their starting point or final destination abroad. And even within national borders, services are only permitted if they do not significantly compete with existing public transport. Whatever criteria are used to determine this..

Bus companies have to comply with a few more rules, which often prevent them from offering connections within Switzerland at all. For you, however, these rules are not relevant. Unless you are interested in the labor law requirements for bus drivers.

Sometimes you can find certain offers between bigger Swiss cities on Eurobus, but even then they only run a few times per day.

Cable cars in Switzerland

Strictly speaking, few cable cars belong to the public transport system and are not co-financed by the state like trains, buses and post buses. Nevertheless, they are an important element for transportation. Especially in the tourist mountain areas you will often find them, because they offer a good opportunity to cover certain strenuous ascents or descents during your hiking in Switzerland with much less muscle power.

Most railroads accept the common railway passes and train tickets - such as the Swiss Travel Pass, the Interrail, the Half-Fare Card or the General Abonnement (GA) - to a certain extent.

There are indeed cableways that are completely assigned to public transport. These are those that provide access to areas that cannot be reached in any other way, such as by a post bus line or by train. A list of all Swiss cable cars that are fully part of the public transport network and are within the validity range of the GA and the Swiss Half-Fare Card can be found in this overview.

Rotair Titlis (Photo: Titlis Bergbahnen)Rotair Titlis (Photo: Titlis Bergbahnen)
Convertible cable car on the Stanserhorn (Photo: Seraina Zellweger)Convertible cable car on the Stanserhorn (Photo: Seraina Zellweger)

Passenger ships in Switzerland

You can get around Switzerland not only by land, but also by water. Most Swiss lakes and rivers have passenger ships, which means you can take a boat trip. These ships are often used for recreational activities, as they travel much slower than a train or bus.

However, there are exceptions, such as the ferry between Meilen and Horgen. This is quite interesting for commuting, since the connection across the lake is much faster than a train or car ride around the lake. Otherwise, the general rule is: use the ship if you have time, want to enjoy a beautiful view or you have always wanted to travel on a historic paddle steamer.

Swiss Activities Tip: Even though a ride on the ship is wonderful when the weather is nice, a rainy, overcast day also has its charms. First, there are usually fewer people on the road during bad weather, and second, the mystical atmosphere brought by low-hanging clouds and dark mountain sides can be very impressive.

Steamboat on Lake Geneva (Photo: Seraina Zellweger)Steamboat on Lake Geneva (Photo: Seraina Zellweger)
Steamboat on Lake Brienz (Photo: Seraina Zellweger)Steamboat on Lake Brienz (Photo: Seraina Zellweger)

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