My Turn: East-west rail and the wonders of Swiss transit 

By Jonathan Kahane

Published: 01-29-2023 8:23 PM

Grüezi mitenand. After a three-year hiatus, I find myself back in Switzerland again visiting family and friends. Before Covid, I would come here to enjoy camaraderie, alpine vistas, skiing, hiking, chocolate, watches, cheese, it’s touted “purist democracy in the world,” its neutrality, its cleanliness — the list goes on. Don’t get me wrong, this country has its problems like every other one. (For example, this “purist democracy” recently ran amok when a town voted to not grant a Swiss passport to a woman who opted to buy her croissants from a bakery in a neighboring village.)

No, I’m not going to discuss any of these topics, not even the opportunity to view the Northern Lights. Ooops, I confused Switzerland with Sweden as my local post office once did. They also one confused it with Swaziland. Well, it is a small country.

Rather, I will talk about its spectacular public transportation system and concentrate on its sensational railroad lines. One can traverse this land by train (electric, diesel, steam), bus (electric, gas), tram, boat, and even by gondola. Virtually every town, regardless of size or geographical position, is connected in some way to the scheme. There is one station at about 11,500 feet. The arrangement follows a precise time schedule upon which you would not miss an appointment if you set your watch to the arrival of your train. There is a large Mondaine clock at every station, and its second hand pauses at the number 12 for two seconds and then pops ahead to make up the time.

“Why?” I hear you ask. It’s in order to synchronize with every other clock in the system, not once per day, not even once per hour, but every minute. There is a directory at every station monitoring when the next conveyance will appear and you can count on it. Don’t fret. If you miss your train, bus, tram, boat, or gondola another will appear in five minutes. If a problem occurs anywhere along the line, an apology is proffered and directions are broadcast to tell passengers what alternatives are available. In addition, you will not be riding through “the graveyards of the rusted automobiles” but rather through some of the most beautiful panoramas you will ever lay your eyes on. The biggest problem that I can see is that the system is so complicated it’s impossible to purchase the correct ticket on the machines at the station. In places where agents are present, usually they are at a loss as well. Luckily, tickets are rarely checked. If by some chance you pull the short straw and a conductor comes by to check your fare, if there is a problem you may be punished by having to eat a slice of Appenzell cheese.

There are local, inter-city, and international trains with first and second class options. There are yearly passes and half fare passes available for the entire country or various cantons. You can get cheaper passes if you travel between particular time intervals. The fares are reasonable.

At this juncture, a reasonable question might be why I chose to write about this topic of all the more inviting ones available? I moved to the Pioneer Valley in 1972. One of the topics periodically covered in the local news was talking about a study looking at the feasibility of an east-west rail line in Massachusetts. For more than 50 years, I’ve been reading about it. The latest article I saw online was published on Jan. 26 where it stated that state Rep. William Straus was late for a meeting on the topic. Too bad he couldn’t take the train and get there on time.

I have heard the argument that a rail system is all well and good for a small country like Switzerland. I will counter with the fact that Massachusetts is about half the size of Switzerland. Let’s start here. I’ve been called a “cynic,” a “curmudgeon,” and many other names as well. I’m old enough not to care about that anymore.

Finally, I’m admitting that I have absolutely no evidence for the following statement, but my cynicism is taking charge. I can’t help but think that the powerful bus companies, limo companies, cab companies, and car rental companies are fighting the proposal of a rail system from Boston to Pittsfield. Just saying. The train might even help to clean up the air around here.

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To answer the above question directly — why I chose to write about this topic now — I’m returning from Switzerland next week and would like to purchase an inter-city train ticket from Logan to Springfield to Northampton and a local train ticket from Northampton to Westhampton — first class.

I like to make people laugh. Tschuss.

Jonathan Kahane lives in Westhampton. ]]>