Using Swiss public transportation in Bern

Swiss Public Transportation: Pros and Cons

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If we had a nickle for every time we’ve heard someone say how amazing the public transportation system is in Europe, we’d have enough money to buy our own island. So what’s our take on Swiss public transportation? Is it really all it’s cracked up to be? Like everything in life, it has its pros and cons.

The Pros of Swiss Public Transportation

First, our praise. The buses and trains we’ve taken so far in Germany, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, and Switzerland have been very similar. Since we live in Switzerland, we’ve had the most experience with trains here than elsewhere in Europe.

The upside? Swiss trains and buses tend to

  • be clean and punctual’ish (the buses less so than trains)
  • provide an eco-friendly way to travel with fewer CO2 emissions than car or plane travel (CO2 = bad)
  • offer a network of routes that service even our little farming hamlet in BFE
  • be a reliable DD when you’ve had a few too many bottles of wine at your friend’s house (Swiss wine is really, really good)
  • provide the convenience of not having to try to find or pay for parking, which can be nearly impossible, especially in bigger cities.

Those are all big pluses – like the Swiss flag!

Unfortunately, every coin has a flip side. While there’s no doubt that Swiss rail travel has its charm, public transportation isn’t incentivized and seems best suited for residents who commute. We continually struggle with the stifling lack of flexibility and high cost of Swiss public transportation. Here’s the skinny, as we see it.

The Cons of Swiss Public Transportation

Convenience

Swiss public transportation tends to be the most convenient for people in cities. If you happen to live in a rural area or off the bus line, your only option for getting around might be a car.

We don’t live in a major city and though we’re only 11 km from Fribourg, we have limited options to get to town. We have 2 bus stops, both within a 5-minute walk from our house, but the bus schedule only offers a handful of direct routes from these bus stops into Fribourg throughout the week. Very few late night or weekend routes are available.

The second option then is to take the bus to Rosé, a small town about two km from here. From there, we can catch a train into Fribourg. If a bus isn’t available from here to Rosé, we can – and have many times –  walked the two km to Rosé to catch a train.

The lack of routes limits our ability to travel not just into or home from Fribourg for a late-night dinner with friends (or their ability to come to our house) but also our ability to travel in general. Without a car, we’re at the mercy of the public transportation schedule.

Using Swiss public transportation on the train platform in Fribourg
The sun rises over the nearest train platform in Rose, two kilometers from our house.

Time

Often even high-speed trains take longer than driving when you count the total journey time from departure point to final destination.

For us, it’s great that once we get to Rosé, our train ride is only 10 minutes into downtown Fribourg. But a single one-way route from our house to that station typically takes between 30 minutes to an hour, depending on a number of factors.

For example, a recent trip to town to have dinner with friends looked something like this:

  • 5 minute walk to bus stop
  • 11 minute wait at bus stop (bus 7 minutes late)
  • 6 minute bus ride to train station
  • 1 minute flat-out run from bus station to train platform (only to realize I’d missed the train because the bus was late)
  • 30+ minute wait for next train
  • 10 minute train ride to Fribourg Station
  • 15 minute walk to final destination.

It took an hour and 15 minutes to travel a minimal distance that would have taken 15 minutes by car. Most of the time, this same route wouldn’t take nearly as long, but it’s actually quite common for the buses to be late, which means missing the train connection.

How much is your time worth?

Cost and Restrictions

If officials really want to encourage public transportation, it should be cheap – and I mean cheap.  For it to truly be an attractive means of travel for the masses, it should cost less than other modes of travel, particularly if travelers have to sacrifice things like time, comfort, and convenience. On this point, the Swiss public transportation system falls short.

Not only have we found it to be more expensive than other European countries and the US, but rail lines offer a confusing and vast array of ticket options. You can buy discounted or full-fare tickets, travel cards, or travel passes for kids, youth, students (but only between the ages of 25-30), adults, or seniors. 

Will your travels be just for a day, monthly, or annually? Do you need it for a single zone, or multi-zone? This requires knowing the zones where you’ll be traveling before you can even determine that. If your travels will take you outside the borders of Switzerland, you’ll need a different travel pass than if you just want to explore the country.

Feeling addlepated yet?

One option for frequent travelers within Switzerland who want to simplify buying fare is the annual “GA travelcard.” It comes with the rather ripe price of 3550 CHF ($3700), but it allows travel anywhere in Switzerland on trains, buses, trams, and even boats – with exceptions, of course.  With the purchase of a GA travel card, your partner can buy one for “only” 2490 CHF.

If this option is beyond your budget or doesn’t meet our needs, you can also consider a “Half-Fare travelcard.” This is what we chose.

Annual 1/2 fair Swiss public transportation pass with SBB
The SBB offers a Swiss annual 1/2 fare train pass.

For 175 CHF per person annually, the card allows us to travel anywhere in Switzerland and only pay half the price of a ticket. Even with this discount, it costs us about 75 CHF ($78) to travel round trip to Geneva, which is only 125 kilometers away. 

For commuting to work, Trav also bought a second annual pass that only allows him to travel through three designated “zones” from our house to Fribourg. The cost? Almost 1000 CHF!

Want to take your dog on the train? If he’s bigger than 30 cm, you’ll need to buy him a ticket or purchase the annual pet pass for 760 CHF.

Want to take your bike on the train? You’ll need to buy a separate partial-fare ticket for it.

Want to take your bike on the bus in Switzerland? It’s not even an option on the buses where we live in the village of Onnens, Fribourg canton. The buses aren’t fitted with bike racks on the front, so we’re out of luck. Riding a bike from our house to the train station then is two kilometers on a narrow country road with no sidewalk and no shoulders. In Oregon, Travis commuted 18 km round trip to work most days on his bike, which was free and safe on bike trails. The bus was also a great option with a bus stop in front of our house and a direct route to the university. Plus his monthly bus pass was free because he was a student.

Freedom

This is the hardest one to explain to folks who can’t or don’t drive or who grew up strictly in a culture of public transportation. A recent conversation with a fellow expat friend in Fribourg “drove home” how much driving is a part of someone’s culture. She also grew up in a culture of driving and understands how much we miss it since moving to Switzerland. Like us, she truly enjoys it – in and of itself – in addition to the benefits it offers.

I love to drive.  Love it!

It’s ultimate freedom!

It’s a trip to the ocean to go crabbing with friends, windows down to breathe in salty ocean breezes. It’s a day spent in the Idaho mountains bumping along ridiculous pot-holed dirt roads to go huckleberry picking with family.

It’s every road trip we’ve ever taken – to mountains, oceans, lakes, deserts, national parks, and places many folks never have the chance to experience.

It’s watching grizzlies and wolves at Yellowstone and having a free place to sleep in the desert after watching the bat flight in New Mexico. It’s a rig crammed with friends, feet hanging out the back window, on a rafting trip in Oregon. It’s a cheap restaurant with a cooler in the back and meals made from the front seat of the truck on the road. It’s heading out of town at 10 pm to see friends a state away.

We understand that driving is a big responsibility and a luxury not everyone can afford. For us, having a car is not a status symbol or an entitlement, and the single biggest benefit is intangible,  priceless. It’s freedom, pure and simple.

So where does that leave us?

Car shopping, that’s where!

But in the meantime, I’m off to catch a train.

Are you a fellow expat in Switzerland? These articles might be useful.

1. Buying a Car in Switzerland
2. Tips for Moving Overseas With Pets
3. 12 Tips for Driving in Europe

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