SBB: getting you there, but ever so slowly

Many people in Switzerland commute and most of them use SBB to do so. The only catch: SBB has no interest in being fast: “Not as fast as possible, but as fast as necessary.”

This means that for a typical commuter between Zurich and Basel, SBB thinks it is acceptable to waste 20 working days(!) per year. Moreover, they claim it is not necessary to save that time. This is what I call excellent customer service and customer orientation. But let’s look at the numbers how they waste that time.

First of all, SBB trains travel slow. While the trains themselves can be faster (the “Einheitswagen IV” or EuroCity has a maximum speed of 200 km/h, see here or in any train), they connect Basel and Zurich (82km) in at least 53 minutes (this already is the fastest connection they offer!). This gives a blazingly fast 93km/h on average. To set this into perspective: the German ICE connects Berlin and Cologone (560km) with 138km/h on average – and makes six stops on the way! Or for a nonstop connection: Berlin S├╝dkreuz – Halle (170km) at 154 km/h on average.

Secondly, SBB has a particular concept about their schedule. They call it clock-face scheduling (part of the project Bahn 2000) and it sounds great: for major stations, most trains should arrive at shortly before the hour and leave shortly after such that you have short connecting times. They typically do this twice per hour (in both Zurich and Basel it’s at 00′ and 30′). This was designed such that you don’t have to wait too long for your next train. But to say it with TopGear: that’s ambitious, but rubbish. Mainly because you trade time you sometimes spend at the train station to wait for a connecting train for more time you always have to spend in the train. This also means that you have more trains running at any given time, which is taxpayers money being wasted. So instead of getting everybody to the next station as quickly as reliably and safely possible, SBB decided to have people sit in a train for close to integer multiples of 30 minutes.

And for some routes, this is bad news: to do Zurich-Basel in a bit less than 30min such that it fits into the clock-face scheduling, you would need to run the train at about 190km/h on average, which might not be possible, since part of the track crosses urban areas at either end of the journey (interestingly, SBB keeps the data hidden: you can only buy the RADN tables with the relevant speed limits while they give you a list on what types of roofs you can find on the platform for free). But doing the 82 km in a bit less than one hour is easily doable.

If you now assume 154km/h on average as it is possible in other countries (Germany and France) of similar tracks and trains, then the connection would take 32 minutes, shaving off 21 minutes per direction(!). For a daily commuter, that’s 2 trips per day * 21 minutes per trip * (52 weeks per year * 5 working days per week – 24 vacation days and public holidays) = 165 hours a year. That’s more than 20 working days a year wasted – for no benefit whatsoever.

What does SBB say about that? I contacted them. They have three claims:

  1. Speed limit on the track
  2. German railways uses only separate dedicated tracks for high-speed trains.
  3. German railways uses separate stations for long-distance trains and regional trains.

Interestingly, the first one cannot be proved without SBB internal documents – and the other two are plain wrong: High-speed trains and regular trains share the route Berlin-Cologne I used as an example, since there are famously only two tracks for most of the way. Even cargo is on the same track. This sharing of the track is one of the common reasons for delayed trains in Germany. Also, every single one of the six stops on the way between Berlin and Cologne has both regional trains and long-distance trains in the same station. In the best of cases, these two statements of SBB are strongly misleading.

If we look at countries that have dedicated tracks for their high-speed trains, then we should look at Japan. The shinkansen connects e.g. Maibara-Kyoto (63km) in 19 minutes including passing through urban areas. This is 215 km/h on average. At this speed, Basel-Zurich would take a mere 23 minutes.

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