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The day the trains stopped running...

The railways breakdown came as a shock to commuters Keystone

The Swiss are somewhat traumatised by the collapse of their famously reliable rail network for several hours on Wednesday, if commentators are to be believed.

This content was published on June 24, 2005 - 16:21

You can set your watch by a Swiss train, is a common, if inaccurate, cliché about the rail service in this nation of train lovers.

The qualities that define the Swiss Federal Railways are the same as those frequently associated with Switzerland - punctuality, reliability and superior service.

With such high expectations, the failure of the national rail network on Wednesday came as shock to many, and prompted some newspaper commentators to draw parallels with the collapse of Swissair in 2002.

Writing in the Tages-Anzeiger, Helmut Stalder speaks of "an emotional blow". "No-one would have believed this possible," he writes.

But while the power failure threatens to undermine the public (and perhaps foreign) perception of this most Swiss of companies, it seems unlikely to spell the end of the Swiss love affair with trains.

The Swiss use rail transport more often than anyone else bar the Japanese, with the average person making 41 train trips a year.

Dispelling the myth

Stalder makes a distinction between those who have swallowed the myth about Switzerland’s railways and the regular commuters who know that delays and overfull trains are a reality here as in other countries.

Political analyst Julian Hottinger believes it will take more than one breakdown – major though it was – to turn the Swiss off their trains.

"Some people might say I’m fed up and I’m going to take my car but the truth is, the way the cities are built and with the lack of parking space, in the long run you’re bound to be making your life more difficult [by driving] and you will gradually come back to the train," he told swissinfo.

"If there are no new incidents, gradually confidence will rebuild. It just takes a bit of time."

Grounding

Newspaper articles on the rail chaos used the word "grounding" to describe the three-and-a-half hour power outage – a word which entered the national vocabulary with the demise of the national carrier, Swissair, in 2002.

While recognising that the facts of the two cases are completely different, Stalder argues that both Swissair and the Swiss Federal Railways are symbols of Swissness.

"As with the grounding of the Swissair fleet it was not just a transport company that was brought to the ground but an institution that has come to symbolise the nation."

Le Temps shares this assessment and warns: "Switzerland had to survive the grounding of Swissair. It cannot permit the Federal Railways to suffer the same fate."

But Hottinger says the two issues cannot be linked. "Swissair was perceived as a luxury, and even though probably used by our citizens every so often when they went on holiday, it wasn’t like the railway system that is the densest in the world and is extensively used by most people."

"It’s not as if we’re going to see the Swiss railways going broke or disappearing overnight or someone having to buy it to save it. It’s not the same issue."

swissinfo, Morven McLean

In brief

Swiss Federal Railways blamed a short circuit for a power outage on Wednesday that lasted almost four hours.

Around 200,000 passengers and 1,500 trains were affected.

1,000 staff were brought in to keep passengers informed about developments.

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