What Metro-North can learn from the Swiss

Just back from 12 glorious (and outrageously expensive) days in Europe, I have some train tales to tell, and some advice for America’s railroads.

Despite its small size, Switzerland boasts some of the best trains in the world. Not the fastest (that would be France), but certainly the most dependable. Here are a few things Metro-North could learn from the Swiss railroads.

On time means on time: Metro-North defines “on time” as being within five minutes and 59 seconds of schedule, an industry standard in the U.S. When I explained this to a conductor in Switzerland he laughed and asked “How can a train be late and still be on time?” Exactly. In this tiny country you can set your watch by the trains coming and going.

Timetables on steroids: Arrive at a Swiss station to catch a train and you consult a timetable prepared weeks ago, arranged by hour. Catching the 10:07 to Basel? That’s always on track 12; on that track you’ll see a chart showing every car on that train, which are first class, where the restaurant and quiet cars will be and where, exactly, those cars will stop on the platform. Catch the same train from Grand Central and the track may be different day to day as might be the length of the train.

On the Swiss train you’ll be given a list of the stations you’ll stop at, which track you will arrive on and the time and track number of all connecting trains. Arrive at Stamford looking for the New Canaan connection and it’s always different — and sometimes a bus.

Treat the customers with respect: In Europe the on-board announcements (in three languages) always start with “ Meine Damen und Herren” (Ladies and gentlemen). The formality of the culture carries over to the national railroad and customers are respected. On Metro-North some conductors yell at passengers, call them children and mock them on the PA system.

Frequent, clean trains: The heavily traveled corridor along Lake Geneva from Geneva to Lausanne and Montreux is 58 miles long. That compares to the 82 miles from Grand Central to New Haven. On our Connecticut line there are three trains an hour at rush hour and just one an hour during the rest of the day. On the Swiss line there are trains every three to eight minutes, even on weekends. Some are locals, others expresses and still others long-distance trains just passing through Switzerland. But they are all spotless, even the bathrooms.

Take the plane to the train: Most major cities in Europe offer high-speed rail from their big airports to downtown and beyond. At Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport you can hop a 200-mph TGV to anywhere in the country. Flying out of Geneva or Zurich, you can even check your bag at the train station and pick it up when you land, or vice versa. Compare that to JFK’s AirTrain which will take you to the subway or Long Island Rail Road, but no farther.

Book and ticket online: If you want a ticket for Metro-North you can order it on the web and you’ll probably have it in a couple of days by mail. Book a ticket online in Switzerland and you print it on your home computer and hand it to the conductor who scans the QR code on the train, and you’re done.

Bar cars and more: What passes for a meal on a Metro-North bar car (if there is one on your train) is probably a bag of chips and a beer. On most Swiss trains there’s a lounge car serving food and drink or at least a cart that moves between the cars selling everything from fresh brewed coffee and sandwiches to adult beverages. And they accept credit cards.

Selling the scenery: Taking a cog railroad through the Alps is, of course, different than riding Metro-North. But both pass through some incredible scenery. On most intercity Swiss trains there is a Panorama dome car, enjoyed even by the locals. On Metro-North or Shore Line East you’re lucky if you can see through your window, let alone enjoy the beautiful view of the coastline.

America is not No. 1: Ever notice that the people who shout “the USA is the greatest country in the world” have often never been outside our borders? Until he was elected President, George W Bush had never even been to Canada or Mexico!

When it comes to railroads, the U.S. is abysmal. Amtrak’s Acela is a joke compared to high speed rail in the EU and China. And Metro-North may be the No. 1 commuter line in the U.S., but it pales in comparison to any of dozens of regional lines in the EU.

I just wonder: Has anyone from Metro-North has ever been to Europe and seen what is possible?


Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 20 years. He is chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor Transportation Investment Area and the Darien Representative Town Meeting, but the opinions expressed here are his own. You can reach him at [email protected] or trainweb.org/ct.

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