The head of the Swiss Federal Railways says the revamped winter timetable, which was launched on Sunday, will usher in a new era in rail travel.
Benedikt Weibel told swissinfo that the change - the biggest shake-up in many years - was a major step towards attracting more travellers onto public transport.
The winter timetable sets down new departure times for 90 per cent of trains in Switzerland and forms part of the first phase of the Rail 2000 project.
Weibel says that the aim of the revamp is to provide a faster and more frequent service for passengers.
At the heart of Rail 2000 is a 45-kilometre new stretch of line between Mattstetten, north of Bern, and Rothrist near Olten, which will eventually allow trains to reach speeds up to 200 kilometres per hour.
Weibel says that this will cut journey times considerably. In addition, a hub system will operate at some of the larger stations, with trains and buses arriving either shortly before the full hour or half hour, or at 15 and 45 minutes past the hour, and leaving shortly afterwards.
swissinfo: How much is the ending of the first phase of Rail 2000 and the opening of the new Rothrist- Mattstetten line going to revolutionise rail travel in Switzerland?
Benedikt Weibel: From December 12, we in Switzerland will have the densest timetable in the world. Long distance trains will run at half hour intervals. In the larger railway stations, they will practically arrive together and will leave a few minutes later, again almost at the same time.
As a result optimal connections are guaranteed. For customers that means a better rail offer, with even more trains and better connections.
swissinfo: The aim of Rail 2000 is to help attract more people to public transport. But according to a survey, the car is still tops with commuters (42.9 per cent) and only 21 per cent use public transport. How convinced are you that this will now change?
B.W.: Eighty per cent of travellers between Zurich and Bern take the train. In the Zurich area, more than 50 per cent of commuters travel to work by public transport. Those examples show that attractive offers on public transport are successful.
That is what we are aiming to provide. On the roads, traffic jams are becoming increasingly longer. As a result, time is on our side.
swissinfo: How will you react at the start of the winter timetable if there are major problems on the network?
B.W.: We are introducing the Rail 2000 timetable overnight from December 11 to December 12. It is good for us that it’s taking place on a Sunday because there will be fewer travellers than on a weekday. Our experts have prepared for this big step really well.
Naturally, not everything will be perfect on the first day. But we will make every effort to keep possible disruptions for travellers to a minimum. We are well prepared for that. I have a lot of confidence in the timetable change and I am looking forward to it.
swissinfo: What is your worst nightmare?
B.W.: Our experts tell me that the worst scenario would be if half a metre or more of snow falls overnight. When I heard that, I was relieved. The likelihood of that happening is extremely small.
swissinfo: Benedikt Weibel, what are you going to be doing exactly on the big day, December 12?
B.W: I am going to visit the Swiss Federal Railways’ three main operation centres in Lausanne, Lucerne and Zurich and in between I will be on trains a fair amount. As you can imagine, media interest is high, so I will not exactly be travelling on my own.
swissinfo: Some people have complained that there are, at times, not enough seats available on trains. What is your reaction to that?
B.W.: I can only tell you this. Full trains are the nicest kind of problem for a railway boss. We are going to create more seat space by increased half hour services and more carriages at peak times when seats are in short supply. Added to that, more and more double-deck trains are being introduced, which offer 40 per cent more seating. But the truth is that in some trains, we will not be able to offer every passenger a seat at certain times.
swissinfo: Many swissinfo readers are Swiss abroad and there is no shortage of other people who take a particular interest in the Swiss railway network. What is your message to them?
B.W.: Come to Switzerland and try us out! You don’t only travel well between the big centres, but also into the holiday regions of Switzerland. From Zurich Airport for example, the journey time to canton Graubünden will be 20 minutes shorter, and to the Bernese Oberland or canton Valais, you save a good quarter of an hour.
swissinfo: What are the rail plans for the future, since this is the end of only the first phase of Rail 2000?
B.W.: The next big step will follow in 2007, with the opening of the Lötschberg base tunnel. The new Gotthard base tunnel is due to open in the middle of the next decade. After that, there are many open issues because financing has not yet been guaranteed.
swissinfo-interview: Robert Brookes
Benedikt Weibel has been with the Swiss Federal Railways since 1978.
He is by far the longest serving head of any major European railway.
Weibel is also president of the International Union of Railways (UIC) in Paris and is a member of the board of French Railways (SNCF).
The public transport network of Switzerland is the most heavily used in Europe.
With the new timetable, the popular Bern to Zurich journey time will be reduced from the current 69 minutes to just under an hour.
The Mystery Park in Interlaken will be two hours away from either Basel or Zurich, without changing trains.
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