Swiss Federal Railways (SBB)

Beautiful, scenic, stunning, exquisite, marvelous, thrilling and simply breathtaking – Switzerland is a place that will leave nobody indifferent or unaffected. Thus, it comes as no surprise that this country is constantly on top of all kinds of ratings, from the most visited to the most picturesque, and is number one honeymoon destination for newlyweds. Actually, it’s number one destination for lots of people as it is able to offer plenty of things for everybody.

With such scenery, it is understandable, why Switzerland is a shooting location for many countries’ movies. What takes by surprise, however, is that this list includes India! Apparently, its own rich nature doesn’t suffice, for the majority of Bollywood films are shot here.

Gorgeous scenery peppered with beautiful houses and small rustic cottages, on the background of magnificent forest or snow covered mountains; blue, crystal clear lakes with majestic castles on their scenic shores; intricate bridges and head spinning passes, even cows peacefully eating grass on lush meadows, as you pass by, Switzerland will take your breath away no matter when you come and no matter which means of traveling you choose – by car, by train, by boat or by bus.

View on Lake Walensee
View on village Soglio

Why is Swiss Federal Railways so special?

Well, the railway stands out a little bit more since it doesn’t just offer splendid views on the terrain where you travel, but is also very comfortable, clean, easily accessed, fast and convenient because you, having bought a Swiss Travel Pass, can hop on any train/trains you like (or even change your mind and choose a bus at some point) and cover all the interesting sights that you want in one fell swoop with a nice opportunity to adjust your route and timetable according to weather, mood or any other circumstances. Besides, Swiss Federal Railways is known as the world’s most on time type of transportation, so you surely won’t get late anywhere.

“SBB” or “CFF”? or maybe “SBB CFF FFS”?… What’s the difference?

Swiss Federal Railways have got several names. More often it is referred to as SBB, which is comprised of the starting letters of its German name Schweizerische Bundesbahnen. Seeing as there are 4 national languages in Switzerland – French, Italian and Romansh in addition to German – in French it is called CFF derived from  the initials of Chemins de fer fédéraux suisses  and FFS standing for Ferrovie federali svizzere in Italian. The Romansh name Viafiers federalas svizras is not officially used due to a small number of people speaking this language. Sometimes it’s also called SBB CFF FFS, which has combined all the names.

When and how was it founded?

SBB Historic A 3/5 express locomotive

The headquarters of the Swiss Federal Railways are located in Bern, a city, which is de facto considered the capital of Switzerland. Initially, the national railway used to be divided into separate railways owned by different private companies. But the clash of economic and political interests, caused by the construction of sometimes even parallel lines, led to insane competition among said companies, which peaked in the XIX century, resulting in many of them going bankrupt. Thus, the railway had become a government institution after the referendum on the 20th of February 1898, when the right to run the whole railway on behalf of the private companies was passed to the government, and remained as such till January 1st 1999, when the Swiss Federal Railway has been excluded from the Federal Administration and became a fully state-owned (the federal state owns 100% of all shares) limited company regulated by public law. It means that now its shares belong to the whole Swiss Confederation and its cantons instead of just government.

Historic Gotthard locomotive

The rail network is well widespread. In addition to the private ventures that were initially nationalized, more and more companies joined and still continue to do so, thus further extending the network. Now SBB cooperates with other private railway companies in Switzerland.

How much has it changed since then?

Ae 4/8 SBB electric locomotive

Swiss national railway has undergone several notable changes both prior to and since the day of its first train’s run on the night of New Year’s Eve in 1901 (the following 1st of January 1902 is considered as the birth date of Swiss Federal Railways):

  • June 3, 1956 – the abolishment of first class compartments and reclassification of second and third class accommodation as first and second class, respectively;
  • 1982 – the introduction of the Taktfahrplan (“clockface timetable”), which greatly simplified train running schedule and increased the frequency of trains (for certain destinations) leaving every 60 minutes;
  • December 12, 2004 – the implementation of the first phase of Bahn2000, a program improving connections and intensifying travel schedule, that resulted in 90% of the timetable changes, infrastructure modification, many stations rebuilding and was the largest reform since the Taktfahrplan.
  • 2002 – the foundation of the Stiftung Historisches Erbe der SBB (“SBB Historic”), which takes care of the historic rolling stock and runs a technical library in Bern, document and photographic archives, and the SBB poster collection in order to maintain Swiss railway heritage.
Geneva railway station

How is SBB structured?

Swiss Federal Railways is divided into three divisions and two groups:

  • Passenger traffic
  • Freight traffic (SBB Cargo AG)
  • Infrastructure
  • Real estate
  • Core services (finances, personnel)

Passenger traffic branch in turn provides such services:

  • R: Regio (Regionalzug): stops at all stations;

  • S: S-Bahn (commuter train): organized as a rapid transit system around major agglomerations, with several lines and generally high frequent service;
  • RE: RegioExpress: local trains to access the region;
  • IR: InterRegio:  main trains of Swiss transit, connecting different cantons;
  • IC: InterCity: are long-distance passenger trains serving most of Swiss cities and providing direct connections from Zurich and Geneva airports;
  • ICN: InterCity Tilting Train: a category using tilting trains (instead of standard/double-decked trains) for lines with many curves that are electric multiple units without a locomotive;
  • CityNightLine: specially equipped night trains to other countries;
  • EXTra: Charter or additional trains when very heavy traffic is expected.

Some of the most beautiful railway routes it can offer

View on Lauterbrunnental

Swiss railroad is known for its multiple companies’ cooperation. Some lines owned by one company are often used by another. No matter which train you go, all of them run through very beautiful places. There’s a list of special routes that offer the opportunity to see the most dramatic parts of Switzerland. But aside from being a tourist route, this is an ordinary railway route and all the trails are used by ordinary trains as well, so you don’t necessarily need to buy a ticket for tourist express. Let’s take a look at some of the most scenic and unusual routes Swiss railroad has got.

While the Gothard Express can put up some serious competition, the Glacier Express & Bernina Express are Switzerland’s two most scenic train journeys.

The Bernina Express route

Bernina Express

It’s arguably the most scenic Swiss train ride of all – although the Glacier Express competes for the title. Indeed, it’s one of the most scenic train rides in Europe and the world. It runs from Chur & St Moritz in eastern Switzerland south to Tirano, just across the border in northern Italy (where you can board the Bernina Express bus continue your journey through the Veltlin to Lugano).

Bernina Railway

The route leads through lovely meadows up to rugged peaks and glaciers, along lakes and passes through different climate zones and the Canton’s three different language regions in a matter of just over four hours. This is the highest-altitude rail route in Europe. 144 km in total, it is comprised of 67 km of the Albula Line, which is a UNESCO World Heritage railway line, running across 144 bridges, through 42 tunnels and galleries, and the Bernina Line crossing 52 bridges, and running through 13 tunnels and galleries. This route also includes masterpieces of architecture, such as the 65 meter high Landwasser Viaduct at Filisur and the unique circular viaduct at Brusio.

Val Poschiavo, Bernina railway

The Glacier Express route

Glacier Express

The Glacier Express is a regular scheduled year-round train service between Zermatt at the foot of Matterhorn and St. Moritz in the Engadin skiing area.

The famous Glacier Express is truly classical and belongs to the world’s most impressive train routes. This Alpine train runs through some of the most spectacular landscapes. The 8-hour journey on board the slowest express train in the world takes passengers through 91 tunnels, amongst them a few impressive spiral ones, and over 291 bridges including the Landwasser Viaduct that makes your head spin just from a look at it. The route lies through the already mentioned before Albula Valley with its Albula LineUNESCO World Heritage railway line and the Rhine Gorge, Switzerland’s very own Grand Canyon.

Glacier Express near Oberalpstrasse

The Gotthard route

This line is second highest standard railway in Switzerland. It is an unforgettable journey with the Gotthard Panorama Express (SBB) by the Swiss trans-alpine railway, which was incorporated into the Swiss Federal Railways in 1909, from northern Switzerland to the canton of Ticino.

The express runs through the world-famous Gotthard route, in which the train spirals up from 470 m to 1100 m. It also passes through the Gotthard Tunnel, which was opened in 1882 and penetrates the Alps at 1,151 meters (3,776 ft) above sea level, the imposing Reuss Valley, Göschenen and Airolo, through varied Mediterranean countryside till you reach Ticino.

Gotthard interregio train after Gurtnellen

Some Interesting Figures

Passengers carried per year (all figures from 2013): 365.9 million
Freight per year: 48.3 million tons
Length of railway network: 3175 km in standard gauge and 98 km meter gauge
Stations open to passengers: 792
Stations with freight traffic: 193
Employees: 30,977
Customer Punctuality: 87.5% of all passengers reached their destination – measured from departure station including any necessary changes – with less than 3 minutes of delay (either 2 or 1 minute delay, or on time)
Connections made: 97.3%
Passenger-kilometer per inhabitant: 2,194 km
Percentage of electrified routes: 100%

Some Interesting Facts

Why is the Swiss Federal Railways clock so special and how did Apple still the national icon?

Designed by Hans Hilfiker, the clock, aside from its trademark red second hand, allows all station clocks to stay synchronized. At the end of each minute, it stops for just a second to wait for a signal from the master clock which sets it going again — thus keeping all the clocks in sync.

Apple Inc. liked the image of this clock so much, that copied it (without prior permission) and used in the iOS 6 clock application on Apple devices. Of course it didn’t go unnoticed by the Swiss Federal Railway service, which sued Apple for unauthorized use. In the end, Apple was bound to pay more than 20 million Swiss Francs for its use of the clock design.

When did SBB start to run on electricity?

Due to the coal shortages during the First World War, steam engines were substituted by electric locomotives. The complete electrification of the network started 1919, but the first electric trial runs using single-phase alternating current were made in early 1903.

What is the anthem of the Swiss Federal Railways?

In 2002 SBB started a new TV advertising campaign “Unterwegs zu hause”, which can be translated as “On the way home”. Prior to this, in January a contest “We are looking for talents” was announced among the staff members of SBB, in which 53-year old locomotive machinist Hans-Peter Zweifel and 22-year old office worker Selina Beiler had won.

They recorded a song “Welcome home” together, used as the musical background for the promotional video. The song was so liked by Swiss audience that it soon burst into the top-10 country’s musical chart. Hans-Peter and Selina later starred in the musical video for this song, which was constantly broadcasted on TV.

Railroad workers themselves loved it so much, that made the song the anthem of the Swiss Federal Railways, shooting a new video with all those whose life is connected with the railroad, starting from booking-clerks to railway engineers.

Did you know that?

  • Switzerland, despite its small size, has more than 1600 locomotives, more than 4000 passenger coaches and more than 13000 freight wagons!
  • Switzerland’s Aarau railway station holds Europe’s second largest clock face – measuring 9m in diameter, only the railway station clock in Cergy, France is larger (10m).

  • Switzerland’s Gotthard Base tunnel is the longest in the world – measuring 57km in length, located 3km under the Alps, it is 7km longer than the Channel tunnel between England and France. It took 17 years to complete and, with a total cost of some EUR 11 million, it’s also the world’s most expensive tunnel. It cuts 45 minutes off travelling between Zurich and Lugano and boosts the Rhine-Alp corridor that stretches from Rotterdam in the Netherlands, crosses Germany and connects the port of Genoa in Italy.
  • The Sonnenberg tunnel in Lucerne is able to house up to 20,000 people for an extended period of time as a fallout shelter. It serves as the world’s largest nuclear bomb shelter.
  • All main tunnels, roads, bridges and railways (with the number of at least 3,000 locations) are ready to be demolished at a moment’s notice in case of an attack or invasion, in order to cut off the access into the country. This is one of Switzerland’s main defense strategies.
  • To make it easier for foreigners at stations, signs are usually in English as well as German, French & Italian, or easy-to-understand pictograms are used. Announcements for local trains are made in the local language. On-train announcements on long-distance trains are often made in English too.

  • Swiss fares are expensive, even in 2nd class. And a 1st class ticket costs 75% more than a 2nd class one. You don’t really get anything extra in 1st class on Swiss domestic trains. So the majority of travelers stick with 2nd class.
  • If you do go by 1st class, a yellow stripe above the windows or door indicates a 1st class car on Swiss trains.
  • You can eat while on a train, either your own food (which is allowed) or the food served in a bistro car (which most long-distance trains have) such as tea, coffee, wine, beer & snacks from a counter, with some tables nearby if you’d want to eat and drink in the bistro car rather than take it back to your seat. Some Swiss long-distance trains have restaurant cars with a proper sit-down waiter-service, but they are not cheap.

  • You can take your dog or other pet of any size with you on a train. You just pay half the 2nd class fare or buy a Dog Day card, which can be cheaper. Small dogs up to 30cm high at the shoulder can travel free if they are in a carrier.
Montreux railway station
  • There’s a new SBB Mobile app., that provides real-time data in almost every corner of Switzerland and allows to buy tickets, make timetable enquiries or seek customer information.