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, I'll venture a self-generated thesis right away

I 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 in certain countries - to remain politically correct, I won't mention any names here - feel sorry for the announcement: "We are currently running three minutes late. We apologize for any inconvenience."?

Zurich station concourseZurich station concourse
Zurich deep stationZurich deep station

Believe it or not, but in this country this minimal delay can already cause red heads and increased heart activity. My humble self not entirely excluded

From the reactions that can be observed time and again in Swiss stations and trains, you will inevitably conclude that public transport 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 I'm going to devote this article entirely to public transportation, while other articles will cover detailed information about the available tickets and passports

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 2,400 kilometers 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 world's longest rail tunnel 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 Lugano and Zurich has been reduced by 30 minutes, or 20%

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By far the biggest player in the Swiss railroad universe is SBB, short for Swiss Federal Railways (CFF in French and FFS in Italian). Of the total Swiss railroad network, which amounts to over 5,300 km, SBB operates a total of 3,236 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

(Photo: Swiss Travel System)(Photo: Swiss Travel System)
(Photo: Swiss Travel System)(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.

Seraina's tip: A good opportunity to travel by train at a reduced price is the limited availability of SBB savings tickets. It may happen that the 1st class fare is lower than the 2nd class fare. It is rare, but when booking a savings 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 download an overview map, which shows the public transport in Switzerland, marked in red.

The fastest way to travel is with the Intercity trains, which stop only at a few stations. So it is possible to get from St. Gallen to Lausanne with only 10 stops. By comparison, the Interregio makes six stops 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 a "Bummler", you may have to push a button to get off at your desired stop, depending.

The punctuality of Swiss railroads

Entire doctoral theses can be written, heated discussions held, and complex studies developed about the punctuality of public transportation in Switzerland. For the sake of simplicity, I'll limit myself for the moment to a somewhat casual statement, which will interest you above all if you are short on time

In general, 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 responsible on the one hand 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 before crossing the street. Streetcars have 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.

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

Streetcar ZurichStreetcar Zurich
Tramway SwitzerlandTramway Switzerland

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.

On the overview map you can recognize the buses by the yellow lines. However, this network is by far not exhaustive and for more detailed representations it is useful to study the bus networks of the individual cities and regions in more detail.

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 farthest corner 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 more than 1,600 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

Postbus (Photo: Swiss Travel System)Postbus (Photo: Swiss Travel System)
Postbus (Photo: Swiss Travel System)Postbus (Photo: Swiss Travel System)

In remote areas, it can happen that the popularly used "Posti" still transports the occasional truth. As a rule, however, you are the only reason why the post bus is fetched from the garage.

Matching the appearance of the postbuses, they are marked in yellow on the overview map. Of course, this is not exhaustive, because otherwise half of the map would be marked in yellow. More detailed network maps can be found here

Seraina's tip: Postbuses are perfect if you plan a hike with different starting and ending 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._

Wandern in der SchweizWandern in der Schweiz
Wandern mit dem PostautoWandern mit dem Postauto

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..

The bus companies have to comply with some 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.

Seraina's tip: In my opinion, long-distance buses only offer a really noteworthy alternative to rail travel if you are traveling on an extremely tight budget and want to save yourself the more expensive train ticket with a bus trip.

Cable cars in Switzerland

Strictly speaking, very 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 and are shown in black on this overview map

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 hikes with much less muscle power.

Most railroads accept the common travel passes and season tickets - such as the Swiss Travel Pass, the Interrail, the Half-Fare Card or the General Abonnement (GA) - to some extent. We will talk about this in another article.

There are definitely ropeways 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 Half-Fare Card can be found here

Rotair Titlis (Photo: Titlis Bergbahnen)Rotair Titlis (Photo: Titlis Bergbahnen)
Convertible cable car StanserhornConvertible cable car Stanserhorn

Passenger ships Switzerland

You can get around Switzerland not only by land, but also by water. As you can see from this now well-known overview map, the larger Swiss lakes, as well as some rivers, have passenger ships. These are often used for leisure activities, as a ship travels 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 boat if you have time, want to enjoy a beautiful view or you have always wanted to travel on a historic paddle steamer.

Seraina's tip: Even though a trip on the ship is wonderful in nice weather, a rainy, overcast day also has its charm. First, there are usually fewer people on the road then, and second, the mystical atmosphere that low-hanging clouds and dark mountain sides bring can be very impressive.

Steamboat on Lake GenevaSteamboat on Lake Geneva
Steamboat on the lake of BrienzSteamboat on the lake of Brienz

Switzerland, public transport and you?

As you can see, Switzerland is well equipped with public transportation. Even though a car can give you greater freedom and flexibility in your travels, reaching the most remote areas is still very possible without your own vehicle.

This list is only a part of our series of articles about public transport. Other articles are dedicated to topics such as the rather complex ticket variety, the various regional and national travel passes and the most beautiful panoramic train rides in Switzerland.

I hope you're already mentally packing your bags and getting ready to shake your head vigorously at the station in case of a three-minute delay.

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