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Turbulent times at Fribourg station

Fribourg station stands at the heart of the city

(swissinfo.ch)

Located at a point where Switzerland’s German and French language regions collide, Fribourg’s unpretentious railway station is a model of Swiss inscrutability.

As part of a series of reports on Swiss railway stations, swissinfo visits Fribourg.

The painter Salvador Dali was once quoted as saying that a railway station in Catalonia triggered an epiphany:

“I felt I’d unravelled the secrets of the universe, and the station became the centre of the world.”

But with five tracks, 168 trains daily, a handful of small shops, and a photo booth, Fribourg station seems to hold no such aspirations.

Apart from the grey platforms and walls, the only constant is change. Ongoing restructuring by the Swiss Federal Railways means that the station and its personnel are in a permanent state of evolution.

“These are turbulent times,” confesses Roland, who is the head of the rail yard.

Changing times

He should know better than most, having seen his former post of stationmaster disappear as part of an efficiency plan by the Federal Railways.

In his case, the company reviewed the operation at Fribourg and found that most of the station’s employees reported to Bern, 20 minutes down the line.

“I went from department head, to stand-in, then returned as the head of the rail yard,” says Roland.

And there are more changes to come: at the end of 2005, 12 regions will be merged into four, with automated systems allowing stations to operate with fewer employees.

Outside pressures are also being felt in other ways. The country’s rail network and stations have not escaped the increase in violence on the streets.

Attacks on staff rose by 25 per cent last year, and vandalism cost Switzerland’s main rail operator SFr8 million ($6.5 million) in repairs and cleaning bills.

Station stabbing

A year ago, a 34-year-old Congolese was stabbed to death at Fribourg station when he intervened in a brawl.

“Since the end of the 80s, we’ve seen a lot of violence,” explains Marie-Gertrude, owner of “Le Buffet” at the station. “But I haven’t had two minutes of trouble in my life.”

Trudi opened the restaurant in 1971, with her husband and parents-in-law. Except for short breaks, she has worked non-stop, ten hours a day ever since.

She indicates an elderly couple at a nearby table. “These two have been coming every day for more than 30 years.”

In a couple of years, Trudi will close the door on the world she knows so well, retire, and so bring to an end an era at Fribourg station.

As everywhere in Switzerland, the traditional station restaurant – with its tripe and pigs’ trotters – must pay the price of new management.

Coming and going

Out on the platforms, there are also plenty of comings and goings. Thibaud and Cassandre, faces aglow, show off their big Australian flag and a small Swiss flag with the white cross.

“We’re picking up my brother, Nicolas, who’s been living in Australia for four years. We haven’t seen him for a year,” says mum Nathalie.

Not far away, Barbara and Tobias are running on adrenaline. Their train is about to leave for Hamburg, a trip they’ve planned for two years.

But outside rush hour, the pace drops, and there are few browsers to be had at the WWF stand in the station entrance.

“I’ve been here for three weeks,” says Alain, 20. “The people are open, especially the young people. And if you’re not into saving the planet, the girls are pretty.”

swissinfo, Pierre-François Besson (translation: Elizabeth Meen)

Key facts

Fribourg station:
18,000 passengers a day.
168 trains daily, including 73 Intercity.
60 to 70 freight trains daily.
SFr27 million ($22 million) of ticket sales a year.
Rated 16th among Swiss stations, in term of sales turnover.

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