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GETTING AROUND IS PART
OF THE FUN IN SWITZERLAND

by Bob Brooke
 

A woman couldn't find the ticket she just purchased for Luzerne, when the train conductor came around. "I have it right here, Madam," he said politely, pulling the cardboard slip from his pocket. She'd apparently left it at the ticket window, and the ticket clerk had sent it up to the conductor of the Luzerne train.

"Only in Switzerland!" she exclaimed. Her remark applies to many other aspects of the Swiss transportation system as well.

Efficiency, variety, and convenience characterize the integrated network of train, boats, buses, mountain railways, and aerial cable cars in this tiny country. Combined with a wealth of descriptive literature, this system helps to make Switzerland an easy place to visit. Getting around is part of the fun.

Traveling around Switzerland is almost like traveling on a life-size model railroad. It's almost as if one person is at the controls. Departures are punctual, and the synchronization of timetables among the various forms of transport is astounding.

The Official Timetable exemplifies the Swiss attention to detail and will be rewarding to you if you like planning your own itinerary. Available for about $5 in all train stations, it includes altitudes, distances, and much useful information in English and other languages.

If you're traveling from Switzerland to another country, a night train may be your best bet. You'll not only save on hotel expenses but you'll find it a good way to meet people. Unless you have a regular (non-student) Eurail Pass which provides first-class accommodations and, often, room to stretch out on your seat, you may want to reserve a bed in a couchette.

The couchette car has four to six bunks to a compartment in first or second class. As only the wagonlits (or sleeping cars), which add two-thirds to the cost, provide complete privacy, there's no distinct advantage to first class. In either case, you're bound to learn what life is like in a submarine.

Regardless, be aware of a few tips on couchette etiquette. Liquids consumed on upper bunks can be dangerous in a sudden stop, especially to your lower neighbor. Dangling feet can also produce international confrontations. If you're prone to using the bathroom in the middle of the night, try not to drink anything before you go to bed, as getting in and out of the bunks can be difficult.

The major Swiss rail lines are complemented by branching smaller ones. One such train leaves Lucerne and travels to Engelberg, one of Switzerland's prime ski resorts. Another leaves Nyon, just outside Geneva, for a winding climb into the Jura Mountains. This antique narrow-gauge train has a special car for skis and for carrying old-fashioned milk cans down from mountain pastures, as well.

You'll find that a trip on either train is truly a trip into the past, as both feature red wooden cars, with warm yellow wood interiors. Both creak comfortably as you climb the quiet mountainsides.

Another good way to explore the heights is by postal bus (car postaux), which carry the mail, but are designed for passengers, also. These buses cover 4,700 miles in a country twice the size of New Jersey. They’re known for their reliability which is nice to remember on the perilous route over the St. Bernard Pass. The Swiss Railroad Authority authorizes its drivers to give orders, when appropriate, to drivers of other vehicles on the road. The postal buses, which announce themselves by sounding the first three notes of the "William Tell Overture," offer access to the more remote parts of Switzerland.

In addition, the postal system offers pamphlets detailing walking and skiing tours that correspond to their routes. While you can find the bus schedule listed in the official timetable, further information is available at major post offices.

Some of the most remote locations in Switzerland can be reached, even by residents, only by funicular, which is a grounded cable car, or by telepherique, an aerial type. If you've planned a long walk and it begins to rain, you may find a pleasant temporary shelter in a private automatic funicular like the one which climbs the hill above Montreux.

From June through September, steamers cross Switzerland's many lakes, offering you a change of pace. The five-hour trip from St. Gingolph to Geneva includes a closeup of the Chillon Castle, distant views of changing mountain ranges and miles of vineyards and chateaux. If you happen to be out when a storm comes up, you can switch to a train at the next docking, using the same ticket.

As a tourist, you can take advantage of a number of special tickets. The Swiss Holiday Card, designed for periods of 8, 15, or 30 days, covers all travel by rail, steamer, and postal bus, and provides discounts for the mountain railroads and serial cable cars. A Half-Fare Travel Card and a Senior Citizen Half-Fare are also available. You’ll need to obtain all of these cards, as well as the Eurail Pass, before your arrival in Switzerland, through a travel agency or Swiss Air.

Transportation facilities within Swiss cities are typically well-documented and simple to use. They're worth getting to know, as taxis are expensive. Banks publish and freely distribute maps which commonly include the bus routes.

Most bus stops provide a lighted map and a schedule. A bus ticket, valid for an unlimited number of trips in an hour, can be obtained from machines at each stop. You must hold your ticket throughout your ride, in case one of the rare roving ticket-checkers happens to hop on your bus. The Swiss citizens show a remarkable discipline in this system, under which a frequent rider might be asked to show his ticket only once in a nine-month period!

If you enjoy bicycling, you can rent a bicycle by the hour at many railroad stations. They’ll also hold your luggage while you're gone.

Regardless of which method of travel you choose in Switzerland, you can hardly go wrong. If you arrive at the train platform 30 seconds late to find you've missed your train, you needn't despair. Just take the next train to anywhere in the country and you'll be sure to connect to your original destination.

For more information, visit the Swiss National Tourist Office.

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