Image of Swiss punctuality ‘in danger’

Timeless: for some people the red second hand apparently makes the difference between catching their train or not Keystone

The iconic Swiss Federal Railways clock stands for precision, punctuality and reliability – a symbol not only of Swiss trains but also of the country. However, the red second hand is increasingly disappearing from station clocks around the country.

This content was published on February 20, 2014

The reason is cost: when a clock breaks – and of the three hands, the second hand is most likely to do so – it’s cheaper to remove the second hand than to fix it.

“The red second hand disc is a characteristic part of the Swiss Railway clock,” emphasised Swiss Railways spokeswoman Lea Meyer.

She said station clocks were regularly checked, but admitted that a few were kept running – minus second hands – for cost reasons. “But as soon as the clock dies, we get a new one – with second hand.” A new clock costs CHF3,250 ($3,650).

This policy is criticised by Kurt Schreiber, president of Pro Bahn Switzerland, a public transport lobby group. “Swiss Railways are here taking the path of least resistance,” he said.

“It’s not right to not fix the second hand immediately for cost reasons, because these are essential for commuters. They help you decide whether you need to sprint or not.”

A marketing expert from Interbrand also had concerns, pointing out that internationally the railway clock symbolised Swiss punctuality and that this could be in danger if Swiss Railways “squandered its emblem”.

‘Outstanding design’

The railway clock was created in 1944 by Swiss electrical engineer and designer Hans Hilfiker. The red second hand is in the shape of the disc which controllers previously used to signal to train drivers that they could leave.

The clock was lauded by the Design Museum in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York as an example of outstanding 20th-Century design.

US computer company Apple had used the Swiss station clock design without permission for its mobile operating system iOS6, launched in September 2012 – it was then dropped for iOS7 a year later after Swiss Railways took legal action.

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