For those of you not used to public transportation, the Swiss public transport system is possibly the best way to learn its mechanics. I primarily use the public transport in Geneva, but the Swiss are highly repetitive when it comes to necessity, so public transport should be the same everywhere in Switzerland.
- TPG (Les Transports publics genevois)
- SBB CFF FFS (Swiss national train system)
- SBB (German : schweizerische bundesbahnen)
- CFF (French : chemins de fer fédéraux suisses)
- FFS (Italian : ferrovie federali svizzere)
- There are Super Saver Discount tickets for advanced purchases
- Swiss public transport is never late
- The metal containers on the side of the train next to your seat are trash bins
Things you may need:
- SwissPass (half-fare card for train tickets)
- Unireso (city pass)
- A watch
Trams and buses are not the same thing: trams use the railway in the roads and are connected to wires above the railway, while buses rely on wheels and are sometimes connected to the wires above. Trams are also not the same thing as trains; trams drive alongside cars, and trains have their own rail lines altogether away from civilization. So, if you buy a two-hour bus ticket, it might not be applicable or a tram. You would have to check the canton number your ticket applies to, which is on maps around tram and bus stops.
The TPG is the bus and tram system in Geneva; it’s what everyone uses to get to the mall, grocery store, train station, etc. You can buy tram and bus tickets from the TPG automated machine, or you can get a monthly pass for CHF 45 at Gare Cornavin in the SBB offices that will allow you to use any transport system in the city.
SBB CFF FFS is the train system, which I will refer to as SBB to make explaining quicker. One pass that you might want to invest in is the SwissPass, which gives you half price on all train tickets. You can get it at the SBB offices for CHF 165, and it will be valid for a year. If you get the pass, you must have it with you when you board the train, otherwise you will be fined. If you don’t have the pass, then do not get the ½ fare option (you will see the ½ mark when you purchase a ticket) because you will be fined a hefty amount when the train ticketer validate your ticket. The SwissPass is only applicable to the person who purchased it, so do not try and lend it out for someone else to use.
Trams and Buses (TPG):
Trams arrive every six minutes at your selected tram stop and buses every half an hour, so you will be able to coordinate tram and bus times effectively. There are time tables at every TPG stop to let you know what time, day, and exact minute the public transport will arrive. If you miss the tram by a few seconds, which might happen because the driver will not wait for you, then it takes about six to seven minutes to walk to the next tram stop—if you feel like walking. Sometimes it’s the best option if you’re in a rush because you won’t waste another two minutes, and you’ll get some exercise out if it as well.
The timetables provided at every stop are useful for future planning. It’s also a fantastic tool to use f you think the trams are running late. When you look at the timetable, it will give you the exact time in a 24-hour format. For example, if you need to catch tram 14 around 8:30pm on a Saturday at Palladium to go to Gare Cornavin, you’ll have to find the column labeled ‘Samedi’ and find the row labeled ‘20h.’ You will see that the tram will arrive at 20h27 and 20h34, so you can schedule your transportation accordingly.
TPG workers do occassionaly check tickets, so be wary of that. But they don’t check tickets that often. I’ve studied here for almost half a year, and have only been checked three times. Trams and buses are more based on the honor system than trains are. However, if you have your monthly, Unireso pass, then you just need to present to them that ID. If you have the pass, but forgot it, then just let them know. You will be written up and given a ticket, but you’ll just have to go to the canton office to get it wavered. All it will be is a headache and a long wait (the canton offices are always crowded and slow. Think of it like the DMV in the States).
Trains (SBB CFF FFS):
For the actual trains, a handy app to download is SBB Mobile, which gives you a list of all the possible routes, platforms, and times to your destination. For example, if I want to go to Lausanne from Geneva on April 4 at 10:00am, I would input that in the timetable option. Afterward, it will give me a list of times and platforms, as well as occupancy information in first and second class. If you want more information, then select the time that seems best for you, and it will let you know of any connections you might need to take to get to your destination, what platforms you need to be at and at what time, and how long your layover will be.
If you buy your tickets early enough, SBB usually offers super saver discounts, which means roughly 30% is deducted off the ticket price. It can be combined with the half fare card, so make sure you buy your ticket as far in advanced as you possibly can to save money. Super saver tickets are limited according to train times, which means they are on a first come, first serve basis.
As the Swiss are particular about times, you don’t need to worry about missing your train due to it being early. If SBB says the train will leave at 11:00am, then it will leave at 11:00am sharp. For example, I was going on a day trip to Bern from Geneva, which makes a one way ticket, with the half fare and without the super saver discount, about CHF 50. My train was scheduled to leave at 10:34am, and I got to the train at exactly that time. When I tried to press the button to open the door, but it wouldn’t open because he locked the doors. the driver could have let me on, but he didn’t because I got there a few seconds too late, which meant I had to spend CHF 50 for another train ticket. If you miss your train, SBB will not give you a refund unless it’s their fault.
Public transport etiquette is another thing entirely in Switzerland. Let me list it out for you:
- It is forbidden to speak.
- It is forbidden to listen to loud music.
- It is forbidden to make eye contact.
- It is forbidden to hold the door for longer than ten seconds.
- It is forbidden to talk on the phone.
- It is forbidden to text with sound on.
- It is forbidden to play apps with the sound on.
- It is forbidden to have your phone volume on.
- It is forbidden to stand in front of the door that’s next to open.
- It is forbidden to take up an extra seat for your bag.
- It is forbidden to have a pet take up an extra seat.
- It is forbidden to put your feet on the seat.
- It is forbidden to smoke.
- It is forbidden to make small talk.
- It is forbidden to communicate.
- It is forbidden to disturb anyone in any way.
I might be over exaggerating this a tad bit, but this is the type of annoyance and distaste I have seen and experienced on separate and several occasions. From what I noticed, the Swiss reserve public transport time for quiet and peace. You can get on a tram in the mid-afternoon filled with people, and the only thing you will hear is the tram moving. Nothing else can be heard besides the occassional cough or shuffle–it’s creepy.
There are exceptions, as with anything, like being able to be a little bit rowdy during high traffic hours. One thing to be wary about is this is the time when pick-pockets strive, as everyone is huddled together and cannot effectively watch their things. This is also relevant within the actual train station, so be sure to put your things in front of you, like a backpack or suitcase, when you are buying your ticket or waiting for someone.
The important lessons to learn for Swiss public transport are definitely:
- Be on time
- Always be wary of your surroundings
- Watch your volume
- Run if you have to
Just like every transportation system, it will be confusing at first. However, the more you use it, the more understandable it becomes. My only hope is this article will help you function the transport system properly without looking too much like a tourist.