The Swiss Federal Railways, or SBB/CFF/FFS, boasts one of the world's densest transportation networks. Trains and stations are clean and, as you'd expect, service is extremely prompt. Trains described as Inter-City or Express are the fastest, stopping only in main towns. Regionalzug, train régional, and treno regionale mean "local train" and make frequent stops.
In addition to the federal rail lines there are some private rail lines, such as the GoldenPass and the Rhätische Bahn. Most private lines are integrated into the main network and generally accept discount rail passes or offer other reductions on the price.
If you're planning to use trains extensively, you can download the official timetable (Kursbuch, horaire or orario) at www.fahrplanfelder.ch. The comprehensive Swiss Federal Railways website allows you to work out itineraries, including suburban trains, trams, and buses, and buy tickets online.
Tickets aren't available on board any trains, so make sure to buy them in advance. Fines for riding without a valid ticket are a painful 90 SF.
If you are eager to read or get some work done on the train, look for the quiet zone compartments, available on a number of routes in Switzerland. Travelers are asked not to use cell phones, listen to music, or engage in loud conversation. Most Inter-City and Express trains feature power outlets in both first- and second-class cars. If you need Internet access, you will need to hotspot your phone, as Swiss trains generally do not have Wi-Fi on board. Swisscom does offer Wi-Fi hotspots at 31 stations.
If you happen to suffer from motion sickness, note that the Swiss ICN trains—and the German ICE, the French TGV, and the Italian Cisalpino—all use "tilt technology" for a less jerky ride. One side effect, however, is that some passengers might get "seasick," especially if the track is curvy (as it is between Biel/Bienne and Geneva). An over-the-counter drug for motion sickness should help. Also, close the shades and avoid looking out the window.
Consider a first-class ticket only if the extra comfort is worth the price. The principal difference between first and second class, the only two options, is space: first-class cars are less crowded. Seat size is also larger, upholstery fancier, and you usually will be delivered to the track position closest to the station.
If Switzerland is your only destination in Europe, there are numerous passes available for visitors. The Swiss Travel Pass is the best value, offering unlimited travel on Swiss Federal Railways, postbuses, Swiss lake steamers, and the local bus and tram services of 41 cities. It also gives reductions on many privately owned railways, cable cars, and funiculars. And it gives you access to 480 museums in the country.
The card is available from Switzerland Tourism and from travel agents outside Switzerland, including Rail Europe. You can get a card valid for 4 days (272 SF second class; 435 SF first class); 8 days (393 SF second class; 629 SF first class); 15 days (476 SF second class; 762 SF first class); 22 days (552 SF second class; 883 SF first class); or one month (607 SF second class; 971 SF first class). There's also the Swiss Travel Pass Flex, offering the same for three to six days in a 30-day period at the user's convenience (260 SF–414 SF second class; 416 SF–662 SF first class). There's a 10% discount on the Swiss Travel Pass and the Swiss Travel Pass Flex for two or more people. With both passes, reservation fees may be applicable on certain routes.
The Swiss Family Card is available at no cost to nonresidents of Switzerland and Liechtenstein. With this card, children under 16 accompanied by a parent travel for free.
Within some tourist areas, regional holiday passes are available. Their discount offers vary; prices vary widely, too, depending on the region and period of validity. Passes are available from Switzerland Tourism and local tourist boards, as well as the train stations, but to be on the safe side, inquire well in advance.
Switzerland is one of 24 countries in which you can use a Eurail Global Pass, which provides unlimited first-class rail travel in all the participating countries. If you plan to rack up the miles, get a standard pass. These are available for 15 days ($823), 21 days ($1,061), one month ($1,305), two months ($1,841), and three months ($2,272).
If your plans call for limited train travel, look into a less-expensive Eurail Select Pass. You get a set number of travel days during a specified time period. For example, a two-month pass allows between 5 and 10 days of rail travel; costs range between $582 and $846. Keep in mind that the Eurail Select Pass is good only for four countries that border each other.
In addition to standard Eurail Passes, ask about special rail-pass plans. Among these are the Eurail Youth Pass (for those aged 12–25) and the Eurail Saver Passes (which give a discount for two or more people traveling together).
Many travelers assume that rail passes guarantee them a seat. Not so. You should book seats ahead even if you are using a rail pass. Seat reservations are required on some European trains, particularly high-speed trains, and are a good idea during busy seasons and on popular routes. You also will need a reservation if you purchase sleeping accommodations. Whichever pass you choose, remember that you must make your purchase before you leave for Europe. The Swiss Federal Railways has a user-friendly site that lets you check fares and schedules. You can also call its hotline, which has information in English.
GoldenPass. 021/9898190; www.goldenpass.ch.
Jungfraubahnen. 033/8287233; www.jungfrau.ch.
Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn. 0848/642442; www.matterhorngotthardbahn.ch.
Rail Europe. 800/622–8600; 800/361–7245; www.raileurope.com.
Rhätische Bahn. 081/2886565; www.rhb.ch.
Swiss Federal Railways. 0900/300300; www.sbb.ch.
With the Channel Tunnel completing a seamless route, you can leave London around noon on the Eurostar and (thanks to connections via Paris–Lyon on the French train à grande vitesse, or TGV) have a late supper in Geneva. Note that the TGV tracks connecting Geneva and Paris are a bit bumpy, which can be unsettling for sensitive passengers.
Switzerland makes the most of its Alpine rail engineering, which cuts through the icy granite landscape above 6,560 feet, by offering special trains that cross over spectacular passes with panoramic cars. The most popular sightseeing itineraries take 4–11 hours' travel time. For information on these and other scenic routes, contact Swiss Federal Railways or Railtour Suisse, Switzerland's largest train-tour company.
For more information on scenic routes, see the Scenic Journeys feature in Chapter 1.
Scenic Tour Information
Railtour Suisse. Bernstr. 164, Zollikofen, 3052. 031/3780101; www.railtour.ch.
Swiss Federal Railways. 0900/300300; www.sbb.ch.