Train detectives sniff out untidiness
A team of independent test customers will soon be taking to Swiss trains to check – among other things – for levels of cleanliness.
Swiss Federal Railways, considered by some to have a spotless reputation, are reacting to complaints that trains and stations are not as tidy as they should be.
There are already five cleanliness detectives in operation on the Zurich S-Bahn commuter train network. From mid-April their numbers will rise to 16 to cover the whole of Switzerland.
"They will have the point of view of normal customers, of what they are experiencing when they take the train," Frédéric Revaz, Swiss Federal Railways spokesman, told swissinfo.
The team, which comes from a private company to ensure independence, will pass on their observations to Swiss railways, who will in turn be able to decide where the problem areas lie.
This could, for example, lead to extra cleaners being drafted in to a certain line, says Swiss Federal Railways. The test customers will also note where customer information and security could be improved.
"We already have some market research which shows us where the problems are, where we could improve, and with these new views from test customers we'll be able to make some bigger improvements for train customers," Revaz said.
Foreigners might be surprised that Swiss trains, praised for their efficiency, would need a clean-up inspection. "The level of cleanliness is good but we can always improve," Revaz said.
A customer survey published earlier in April revealed that levels of rubbish in trains and stations – cans on the floor, overflowing bins – were among the top three complaints in 2008.
Edwin Dutler, president of the Pro Bahn public transport users lobby group, welcomes the initiative.
"We from Pro Bahn support anything that helps improve comfort and wellbeing and that is good for the customer," Dutler told swissinfo.
Dutler, who uses trains almost every day, said regional lines were the worst affected by cleanliness problems and that the dimensions were akin to those in big cities in Britain.
"Pro Bahn is of the opinion that you need staff to run a railway and in regional trains there is no staff. I was recently in London and I saw that they have gone back to having more personnel and we would like to see more staff on the trains as well," he said.
Dutler called for littering perpetrators to be held to account and for train video surveillance to be stepped up.
Cameras are currently in operation in some greater Zurich areas, but are not automatically installed in Swiss trains. Video surveillance is not totally accepted in Switzerland and has been subject to a big debate about personal freedom.
Revaz said Federal Railways was working on the issue of cameras and that the test customers would also be giving their opinions on surveillance effectiveness. The company has previously said that cameras should be in all regional trains by 2012.
For their part, train unions have also reacted positively to the clean-up detectives, although some have raised concerns that staff might feel spied on. Revaz told swissinfo that employee service quality would not be assessed.
Dutler says that often Switzerland is a little bit behind other countries when it comes to certain problems, preferring to wait until rather than being proactive.
"Swiss railways are on the right way, but they need to get up a bit more steam," he said.
swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson
Swiss Federal Railways
Swiss Federal Railways transport 322 million passengers and 54 million tonnes of freight each year. It has more than 3,000 km of track.
Figures from the International Union of Railways show that last year Swiss railways trains were 95.8% on time, one of the best rates in the world.
According to figures released by Federal Railways on April 2, customer satisfaction was very slightly down in 2008 (76.5 out of 100 possible points in customer surveys) compared with 76.8 points in 2007. Not enough seating, cleanliness and lack of air conditioning in older trains were all points customers wanted improved.
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