A tale of two policies



Chur Station, Switzerland. Photo Wikipedia Commons

(Click to see enlarged picture and details of licensing.)

There’s no other country in Europe which treats public transport with the flair and imagination of the Swiss. An excellent example of Swiss transport policy in practise is Chur Station where the local authority has just constructed a concrete deck over the station with a magnificent steel and glass roof. The new construction will provide a weatherproof interchange between the trains and the postal buses. Just outside in the street one of the Rhaetian state railways lines reaches the station via a track that runs down the middle of the highway.

The two extracts below illustrate the difference between transport mindsets in England and Switzerland better than anything that I could write myself. First part of a longer article in the The Economist on-line edition of December 18th 2008.

The Department for Transport spent £4.4 billion last year subsidising private railways, a number roughly four times larger than the subsidy paid to British Rail, the state-owned firm that ran the railway until it was privatised in the mid-1990s.

Alarmed by the cost, ministers have decided that passengers must bear more of the burden. Total subsidies are forecast to fall to £3.3 billion by 2009-10, and to keep falling thereafter. To fill the gap, fares will continue to rise by more than inflation (a 7% increase is scheduled in January).

That will provoke howls of protest, and reinforce the impression (which surveys by Passenger Focus, a travellers’ watchdog, show are widespread) that railways are a rip-off for those who use them. But it is far from clear that trains deserve the state support they get. Rail journeys account for just 6% of total travel (roads for 84%), but subsidising rail consumes around 20% of the government’s £21 billion transport budget. Using an average price for road-building over the past decade, the £9 billion spent on the west-coast railway line could have added an extra lane to around 450 miles of motorway—roughly the length of the M1, M3 and M4 combined.

Admittedly, cost-effectiveness is not the only consideration. Rail travel is usually cleaner, greener and faster than travel by car. And it is hard to see roads offering an alternative means of shuttling millions of commuters in and out of built-up large cities, a niche that trains dominate.

As for apportioning the cost of rail, David Leeder, vice-chairman of the Commission for Integrated Transport, a state-funded think-tank, points out that businessmen and commuters are exactly the sort of people who can most easily afford to pay higher fares. “Currently, we have rich people from the south demanding that poorer people in the north subsidise a service that, by and large, they don’t use,” he says. “I’m not sure that makes a lot of sense”.

The complete article can be found here. Thanks to W-wa Jeziorki blog editor, Michael Dembinski, who sent in a comment with the link. Another way of looking at transport priorities can be found on the Swiss Info website.

Although many Swiss are car fanatics, they use rail transport more often than anyone else bar the Japanese, and public transport infrastructure covers the country.

There is now a car for practically every second Swiss man, woman and child. But annual new car sales now at a low of 260,000 reflect a lack of economic growth, as does the average age (ten years) of a third of all cars on Swiss roads. At the same time, the average Swiss makes 40 train trips a year.

Switzerland has one of the densest rail networks in the world, most of it operated by the Swiss Federal Railways, which has been nationalised since the early part of the 20th century. In addition, there are many mostly narrow gauge private companies operating regional and local services. Cantonal and local authorities are usually shareholders.

In mountainous areas there are countless funiculars, cog railways, and cable cars to the highest summits.

Swiss transport policy wants to get freight traffic off the roads and motorways onto the railways – largely for ecological reasons. This applies in particular to transalpine traffic between northern and southern Europe. The existing Gotthard and Lötschberg lines have been undergoing reconstruction at lower altitudes, resulting in new 57- and 35-kilometre-long tunnels permitting high speed passenger and goods trains. The Gotthard should be completed in 2012, while the Lötschberg was opened in 2007.

In December 2004, the main stretches of the Rail 2000 project were inaugurated. Switzerland’s early participation in the “rail fever” of the mid 19th century means many rail lines meander between villages rather than forming direct links between cities. Thus one of the Rail 2000 projects sees a straightened Zurich-Bern line partly parallel to the motorway, permitting a running time of under an hour for the 125-kilometre trip.

Bus lines, often operated or subcontracted by the Post Office, assure transport where there are no rail lines. Competition is avoided as, in many cases, services are partly subsidised.

The complete text can be found here. Now which country’s transport policy makes more sense to you? Do please let us know.

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