For Swiss Federal Railways, the new year has already begun. In addition to introducing new timetables on Sunday, it has stopped selling tickets on board.
This policy translates into hefty fines for passengers who fail to buy their tickets prior to boarding – either because they forgot or because they were in too much of a hurry.
“Of course you need a ticket when you take the train – it shouldn’t be that fare dodgers are encouraged,” Sara Stalder, head of the Swiss Consumers Association, told swissinfo.ch.
“But what we don’t find so good is that you don’t have the chance to buy a ticket if you were unable to buy one due to a lack of time,” Stalder said, citing delayed connections as a legitimate reason why someone might fail to purchase a ticket.
The new policy requires ticketless passengers to pay a SFr90 ($96.50) fine on top of the regular ticket price.
“There are always a few passengers who are a problem because they don’t have tickets or they behave improperly… one of our conductors was even bitten in the nose this year,” Federal Railways head Andreas Meyer told the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday.
It is still possible for passengers to pay for a route change or an upgrade from second to first class after they have boarded a train.
Swiss Federal Railways has said that its conductors will have more time for passengers now that they do not have to sell tickets. Yet some busy routes will no longer be accompanied by conductors at all.
“We find the reduction in staff very problematic. This will lead to increased costs in the long run,” Stalder said, pointing out that unsupervised trains were targets for littering and reduced security. In the Zurich area, suburban trains recently had to re-introduce conductors after 9pm to discourage misbehaving passengers.
The latest round of price hikes is another cause for complaint among consumer groups and passengers.
On Monday morning, the Swiss Association for Transport and Environment distributed more than 8,000 packets of tissues at train stations all over the country. The idea is that passengers can use them to dry the tears they shed over the increasing price of rail travel.
The latest price rise amounts to 1.2 per cent on average. But that figure is expected to increase dramatically over the next few years – and by 2018 prices could be 27 per cent up on what they were last year. These figures are based on calculations by the Public Transport Association.
“It’s not good that prices are going up and that the level of service is going down,” Swiss Association for Transport and Environment spokesman Gerhard Tubandt told swissinfo.ch, expressing concern that people would favour their cars over the train if it is cheaper for them.
“If people decide to drive rather than take public transport – or to drive more often – then CO2 emissions will increase and that is not in keeping with sustainable transport policy,” Tubandt said.
Stalder also expressed her dismay.
“I don’t think it’s right that consumers already have to pay more even though it is still unclear how the costs of rail transport will be shared over the next few years…
"It’s all still open. We should have the political debate first, figure out who’s paying what and then decide. But now there’s already talk of two-to-four per cent price hikes per year,” she said.
New trains, new toilets
In his NZZ am Sonntag interview, Meyer defended the price hikes.
“I really don't understand why customers have the feeling that we are reducing service. In fact we are trying to implement the improvements that customers really want,” he said. He listed new trains, new electrical sockets, WLAN and increased personnel presence as examples.
New toilets are also up for discussion, but not aboard trains. In response to the demand for more free public toilets, Swiss Federal Railways is looking into making them available in the stations starting in 2012.
Currently, many passengers hop aboard parked trains to use their toilets and avoid the SFr2 fee.
“In places where we don’t have our own personnel employed at the stations we will still have to work out a deal on how the toilets will be cleaned,” Meyer told the newspaper.
Cleanliness, security and the availability of toilets are all on Stalder’s list for improvements.
“We have good public transport, but there are some problems… We have the impression that it’s got worse rather than better in recent years,” she said. “The Federal Railways shouldn’t lose its public service aspect – it seems to be getting more commercial, and that’s not right.”
The Swiss are the world champions when it comes to taking the train. In 2010 they travelled on average 2,258 km per person by rail, according to figures of the Swiss Information Service for Public Transport.
But this was down from 2,291 on 2009.
Only the Japanese came close to the Swiss total at 1,910 km.
In Europe, the Danes travelled 1,322 km, and the French 1,320.
The Swiss topped the European list in terms of number of trains they take per year: 50. But the Japanese led the world rankings at 69.
The figures are supplied by rail companies which belong to the International Union of Railways. In Switzerland this does not include private lines, which account for about 13 per cent of passenger traffic.
Around 9,000 trains travel the Swiss Federal Railways network every day. 1,000 trains arrive at and depart from major stations daily and heavily used track sections count 500 trains a day.
Federal Railways says that its network has the highest density of traffic in Europe. Nevertheless, it says that 19 out of 20 passenger trains arrive at their destinations within four minutes of the scheduled time.
The company reported a nearly 27 per cent rise in profits for the first half of 2009 to SFr132.8 million. Operating expenses fell by SFr201.2 million, it said in September.