I just heard on the news that Britain is having its coldest few days in almost 30 years. The children will be having fun building snowmen, but the world of the grownups has ground to a standstill. Closed roads, no schools, no flights and no trains.
Although it’s an exceptionally cold winter over there, it all sounds too familiar.
During the seven years we lived there, the British railway system never failed to disappoint, even when there was no snow on the tracks.
Unlike here in Switzerland, five minutes late is not considered a delay at all. People only start to be grumpy after they’ve waited for several hours.
I remember one day, on the train from Birmingham to London. The train manager made his announcement over the loud-speakers. The difference was that this time the usual simple greeting was followed, not only by a detailed timetable of when we would be arriving where, but also by a breakdown of how much all the various available tickets cost.
I joked with my husband: “I bet this train attendant is Swiss.” Later, when he came to check our tickets, we glimpsed at his name badge. Bingo! A surname that couldn’t have been more Swiss. It may have been a coincidence, but that day the train arrived on time.
I feel certain that the secret of the success of the Swiss railway system is the efficiency and strictness of the Swiss people. If the British only imported enough Swiss rail workers, there would be no more delays.
The British love to dream about the Swiss trains: Modern, reliable, clean, always on time, and with beautiful views outside the window. They have a travel television channel which dedicates half of its schedule to a programme called ‘Swiss Railway Journeys’ (it’s just hours of Swiss landscapes filmed from a train).
Even Jeremy Clarkson, the enfant terrible of British motor journalism, swapped his 4×4 for the train when he was travelling through Switzerland on one of his programmes. On this occasion, he called the Swiss public transport system ‘the enemy of all car manufacturers’ (and coming from him, it wasn’t meant as praise).
The British leap at the opportunity to gloat when things do go wrong for once. In 2005 the Swiss trains stopped running for a few hours because of a power cut. The British comedians couldn’t get over it for days.
You get the railways you deserve. But maybe it also works the other way round: The state of public transport shapes the personality of the people. Waiting for months, even years of their lives on draughty platforms, for trains which never seem to arrive, the British have become a tolerant and funny bunch. Nothing brings people together more than facing common adversity.
In Britain, people get to know each other by exchanging bitter jokes and tragic stories involving rail travel. Such conversations may lead to friendship, business opportunities, and – who knows – love.
On the short and ultra-efficient Swiss train journeys, people hardly exchange a glance, but just bury their heads in a newspaper or iPhone.
When we still lived in the UK, we used to come to Switzerland regularly to visit my husband’s family. One of the things I looked forward to every time, was to take a Swiss train. I knew there would be a free seat, the train would go to where it said it would go, and I would arrive at my destination on time.
Now that I am living in Switzerland for good, the novelty has worn off slightly. Sometimes I am beginning to miss the jokes about the rubbish trains, and the friendly conversations to be had with random strangers. But would I give up the Swiss train system for that? Certainly not!