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Entrepreneur sends smoke signal to railways

Will he or won’t he have to butt out?

(Keystone)

A prominent businessman has put forward a plan to bypass a decision by the Swiss Federal Railways to ban smoking on all trains as of December.

Airline entrepreneur Moritz Suter says he is willing to finance privately operated smokers’ carriages on intercity lines – an idea which has left many smokers and non-smokers in a haze.

The man who launched Crossair in the 1970s, which became Europe’s leading regional airline, has asked the railways to allow him to operate two completely separate smoking carriages on key intercity stretches – one each in first and second class.

"If the Federal Railways doesn’t go along with my plan, then it will lose important customers like myself who will choose to travel by car instead," the cigar-smoking businessman told the French-language Hebdo magazine.

Many carriages on intercity trains still have both smoking and non-smoking sections, and most of the smoke is kept from wafting into the larger and much more crowded non-smoking section by a thin glass wall and swinging door.

But over the past couple of years, the Federal Railways has been steadily reducing the number of smoking compartments.

Even so the decision in June by the railways and other public transport companies to ban smoking completely by the end of the year came as a shock to many, and led to Suter’s highly-publicised proposal.

Protect passengers

The rail operator has promised to give Suter a response "within the next few weeks", but spokesman Roland Binz told swissinfo little was likely to change.

"The decision to ban smoking on trains has already been taken. This is in order to protect passengers and railway staff from second-hand smoke," he said.

Binz added that he found it odd that a man who runs an airline – Suter’s most recent venture is the charter company, Hello – which doesn’t allow smoking, should demand that people be permitted to smoke on trains.

"You sometimes have to spend 19 hours in the air without smoking, so I can’t understand why anyone would have a problem not smoking for a couple of hours on a Swiss train," he said.

"The overwhelming majority of our passengers are non-smokers," Binz stressed. "There are also a lot of smokers who already prefer to sit in non-smoking compartments."

What price?

Oddly enough when swissinfo conducted a straw poll of passengers’ views on the ban, the main opposition came from... non-smokers.

"It wouldn’t bother me if they left a couple of smoking compartments on each train," said Yvonne Kuhn, a non-smoker employed at a health-insurance company in Zurich.

"I like Suter’s idea because we shouldn’t rob people of their right to smoke when they want, especially when travelling long distances," she said.

"The railways’ decision is yet another move to limit individual rights," added a non-smoking lawyer, who chose to sit in the smoking section during her journey from Zurich to Fribourg on the busy north-south line that connects the financial capital with Bern, Lausanne and Geneva.

"We’ve got more room here to stretch our legs," she said, adding that she was in principle opposed to radical ideas such as Suter’s.

"The railways should not be so dogmatic," commented Charles Clerc, a former television newsreader, while waiting for his train in Zurich. He gave up smoking more than 20 years ago.

Live with ban

The majority of smokers, however, said they could live with the ban and would not support a price hike to travel in a separate carriage.

"The railways are always putting up their prices and it’s already expensive to travel by train, so I don’t think they should try to make more money at the expense of smokers," said Brigitte Häfeli, as she prepared to board a train to St Gallen.

"I wouldn’t pay more, I’d rather sit in non-smoking and chew gum instead," commented Christoph von Känel, who commutes to Bern each day where he works as an apprentice for an insurance company.

"I can live with the railways’ decision," said smoker Urs Schenk, an engineer travelling to Bern.

Only IT specialist Luis Garcia said he would be willing to pay more to ride in a separate smoking carriage, though "not at any price".

"I don’t think the railways’ decision is very fair since a third of the population smoke," he said.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

In brief

Smoking will be banned on all Swiss trains, buses and ferry services from December 11.

Businessman Moritz Suter has asked the Federal Railways to let him operate privately funded smoking carriages on main intercity routes.

About one-third of Switzerland’s adult population smokes – one of the highest rates in western Europe.

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