5 things I loved about my car-free journey through Switzerland 

written by Heather Kang May 30, 2024

Coming from Canada where passenger rail travel leaves… a lot to be desired… getting a taste of the Swiss system was a breath of fresh mountain air.  

It wasn’t until I got home from Switzerland that I realised that I hadn’t set foot in a car during the eight days I spent travelling between cities and towns, up mountains and along valley floors. Every leg of our trip was by train, and between the airport train into Zurich to the over-a-century-old rail route to Europe’s highest train station in the Alps, I barely saw a road.  

The Swiss rail system’s reputation precedes it, but it lives up to it, too. I live in Canada, and our national passenger rail system has nothing on the extensiveness and efficiency of the Schweizerische Bumsbahnen, aka the SBB, aka Swiss Federal Railways. Here are just five of the reasons I fell in love Swiss trains on Intrepid’s Best of Switzerland trip. 

1. The trains really do run on time  

You’ve probably heard the rumour that Swiss trains are so punctual you can set your watch to them. I haven’t set a watch in years, but I did pay close attention to our departure and arrival times and didn’t catch a whiff of a delay in all my journeys. In reality, the SBB reported that 92.5 per cent of trains ran on time in 2023 (though, full disclosure, they consider on time to be anything less than a three-minute delay). Compare that to my home country’s latest passenger rail punctuality data from 2022, coming in at a rickety 57 per cent.  

In fact, Switzerland is so confident in its punctuality that one of its rail engineers designed it its own clock back in the 40s. Every station uses the official Swiss railway clock with its minimalist face. Station clocks are synchronised with a master clock that advances the minute hand by one minute at the top of every minute on all of the station’s clocks simultaneously. Yes, they sell replicas of these clocks, and yes, I bought one and hung it in my kitchen, and no, nothing in my house runs on time. 

2. There’s a train for everything  

Switzerland came down with what they call ‘mountain railway fever’ in the late 19th century when it seemed like everyone who owned a pencil and a napkin had an ambition to build a railway.  

The effects of that live on and, as a result, the number of things on rails that could take me places blew me away, and it goes well beyond getting between cities and towns. They go up and down mountains, too, simply because there’s something to look at up there.  

We rode the world’s steepest cogwheel train up Mt Pilatus where you can look out over the lakes and valleys around Lucerne. A cogwheel track adds a toothed rail in between the running rails, which helps hoist the train cars up the steep track. The Pilatus track has a max gradient of 48 per cent, and the train cars are built on an angle to accommodate it (so the passengers don’t have to). Why did they build it? Well, I gotta say, the view from up there really is something else.  

The view from the observation deck atop Mt Pilatus as a cogwheel train approaches the summit.

Deeper into the Alps, we all opted to head up to Jungfraujoch, aka the Top of Europe. From the village of Lauterbrunnen, we hopped on a train as the sun rose over the peaks and rode across the valley and up the other side to Kleine Scheidegg and then transferred to the Jungfrau Railway, which took us to the highest train station in Europe, at 3454 metres.  

Most of the railway runs inside the mountain, including the terminus station. Construction – which some describe as boring – began in the late 19th century, driven partly by economic opportunity and partly by, well… I mean, the views up there. Come on. 

Today, a well-touristed visitor centre sits atop the mountain, alongside one of the world’s highest astronomical observatories, the observation deck of which you can reach by elevator for sprawling glacier views. If the prospect of boring a tunnel through a mountain at the turn of the 20th century doesn’t wobble your mind, consider what went into building a multi-storey visitor centre inside the mountain (featuring restaurants, multimedia exhibits and a Lindt store, of course). I still have so many questions. 

The view across Aletsch Glacier from the Sphinx Observatory atop Jungfraujoch.

3. Population density pays off 

I’ve been dropping the phrase ‘population density’ into my rave reviews of Switzerland a lot more than I care to admit. Switzerland has over 50 times more people per square kilometre than Canada (though, to be fair, even though we technically have the space to spread out, we tend not to, and Montreal and Zurich have about the same density).  

But because Switzerland is so small (relatively speaking), its dense population can support way better infrastructure like all these railways. Plus, the populations that have sprinkled themselves throughout the mountains have created some really picturesque vistas where farmland has to creep up mountainsides outside towns and cities because there’s nowhere else to go. Not to mention all the back gardens you get to peer into from the train as you weave behind and between villages, giving you great insight into everyday Swiss life and garden gnome trends. 

4. Perfectly placed train stations in town centres 

Save for a few fixtures of the heyday of Canadian rail travel, a lot of train stations sit outside of the downtown core, especially in smaller cities and towns. Not so in Switzerland. Hauptbanhofs had prime real estate in every city, town and village we rolled into, and each was within strolling distance of our accommodation. Even if we couldn’t immediately check-in, we could drop our luggage and head right back out for an orientation walk in the middle of the action. Speaking of luggage, though, I learned the hard way that backpacks are the perfect luggage choice for these European city strolls – just ask the wheel that broke off my ageing wheelie duffle and now calls Lucerne home. 

5. Walkable mountains 

Much as I love being on top of a mountain, I’ve never felt any great inclination to climb up them. Beyond the trains that’ll take you to and up the mountains, there’s a whole network of cable cars and gondolas picking up the slack to take you further. My favourite day in Switzerland involved taking a cable car from across the road from the train station in Lauterbrunnen up to Grutschalp for an easy and flat alpine stroll between car-free villages and fields of bell-adorned cows. Had that been too much, there was, of course, an option to take a train across instead. I returned to the village via another cable car and an easy stroll across the valley floor.

A lot of Canada’s best views require a self-propelled approach, and while some may say that makes the view that much better, let me ask you this: have you seen the views in Switzerland?   

Heather travelled on Intrepid’s Best of Switzerland trip, now part of Intrepid’s new rail theme, which brings together our favourite trips that feature incredible rail journeys. 

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