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Swiss main stations

by DoDo Thu Mar 27th, 2014 at 11:43:14 AM EST

In this train blogging diary, I portray three main stations in Switzerland, with photos from my two holidays last year, and my usual side stories and observations. The three are: Zurich main station, which is Europe's busiest by the number of trains; Arth-Goldau, a junction station along the Gotthard railway; and Lucerne, which is my favourite among main stations I visited for its special atmosphere.

Looking along the middle one of the five naves of Lucerne station

The three stations are north of the Alps in central Switzerland, and, in one sense or another, each of them can be said to be at the centre of the Swiss rail network.

Rail map of central Switzerland. Adapted from the Map of Switzerland at Railways through Europe

Zürich HB (Zurich main station)

In the realm of rail passenger transport, Zurich main station is a main node for international long-distance trains, the biggest node for the network of domestic long-distance trains, and the centre of Switzerland's biggest rapid transit network. All this traffic has to use the 16 stub tracks under the 7½-nave station hall (built in 1933), two stub and four through tracks underground, and four temporary stub tracks which will be replaced by four more, in-construction through tracks underground.

Above: SBB RABDe 500 034 "Gustav Wenk" and (in the shade) a sister, a pair of tilting trains of the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), stand ready for departure on a domestic ICN service to Lugano in southern Switzerland

Below: Budapest-bound railjet semi-high-speed puss-pull train of the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) with driving trailer "Spirit of Hungary" and ÖBB 1116 207 at the other end on the left and Paris-bound TGV POS unit #4417 high-speed train of the French State Railways (SNCF) on the right share a platform. These two connecting services are the modern replacement for the famed through service of olden times, the Arlberg-Orient-Express

With almost three thousand trains arriving and departing every day, there is truly constant movement on the approaching tracks.

Three arrivals within seconds: on the right edge, the end of a domestic InterRegio (IR) push-pull train from Biel/Bienne; on the left, an ICE1 high-speed train of the German Railways (DB) from Hamburg; and at centre, a Siemens-made SBB class RABe 514 double-deck S-Bahn train on the ramp to the underground through platforms

Following a referendum in 1981, Zurich's commuter rail services were organised into an S-Bahn rapid-transit network. This required several network enhancements, above all the underground platforms and two connected longer tunnels providing for through services. Opened in 1990, and enhanced several times, the system grew into a monster, carrying over 400,000 passengers a day (in a metro region of 1.5 million inhabitants) with an ever increasing number of double-deck trains.

The then brand-new SBB RABe 511 023 double-deck train, the Zurich S-Bahn version of the KISS double-deck train platform of Swiss maker Stadler, in unusual role as IR to Schaffhausen

To increase capacity, a second tunnelled bypass for through connections (grey line curving to the north on the map) with additional platforms under the main station is in construction (for completion this summer). The construction site marred the view on the street-side station front, belonging to the 1871 single-nave terminus building. Since the 1933 reconstruction, the latter is in use as a spacious concourse; last October, a third of it was occupied by a loud beer tent trying to bring Munich's Oktoberfest to Switzerland.

Luzern (Lucerne)

Lucerne's 1896 terminus was one of the most beautiful in the world, also because of its geography: its five naves look south at approaching tracks that turn sharply in front of a hill, making for a special light effect. The concourse part of the 1896 building, however, burnt down in a major fire in 1971, subject of the 16-minute Swiss-German documentary below (move forward to 4:35 for the most spectacular part):

Only the central entrance remained as memento, while the new station front (completed in 1990) is further back. Inside, there is an upper level with a restaurant with 'panoramic view' (I made the photos above the fold and further down from its balcony), I dined at a cheaper restaurant on the underground passage level, though.

A decade or two ago, the advocates of rail privatisation often pointed to Switzerland, where per capita train rides are the highest, service the most reliable, yet a large part of the network was operated by private railways. They forgot to add that almost all of those "private" companies were majority- or fully-owned by local or canton or national governments, and they didn't compete with each other but cooperated to run an integrated system. Still, after half a century with little changes, the last 15 years saw a major consolidation phase: almost all major normal-gauge railways became part of either the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), or a major semi-private railway in the west majority-owned by the Canton of Bern (BLS), or a similarly semi-private major railway in the north-east (SOB); and the last three of the six main metre-gauge mountain networks got a single operator each (including the one I showed here). Lucerne is the meeting point for all three big standard-gauge operators as well as the Zentralbahn, one of the big metre-gauge operators (which is two-thirds owned by SBB and uses the lower-case acronym zb).

Looking along the westernmost nave. On the left: SOB's VorAlpen-Express train from Romanshorn (on the shore of Lake Constance); on the right: a BLS RegionalExpress (RE) train from Berne; behind both, you can make out SBB double-deck push-pull trains waiting for departure as IR trains to Basle resp. Zurich. All of these services are hourly

The narrow-gauge part is the easternmost nave. Operator zb was born from the 2005 merger of a larger SBB-run railway to Interlaken Ost (at the foot of the Bernese Oberland tourist region) and LSE, a smaller semi-private railway to Engelberg (a resort town), both with rack sections. This resulted in the use of old rolling stock in non-ancestral areas, but there are a lot of newer vehicles. The first of these came with the 2004 establishment of the Lucerne-centred S-Bahn Mittelschweiz network (which is marred by the postponement of a tunnel for through services, but a 2009 referendum approved funds for planning), more came recently.

Above: zb ABeh 160 002, a brand-new unit of a type nicknamed "FINK" (finch), as IR to Interlaken Ost; in front of zb ABe 130 003, of a type nicknamed "SPATZ" (sparrow), which arrived on an S-Bahn service. The contrast showcases the in-house development of Swiss maker Stadler over eight years

Below: zb (ex SBB) HGe 4/4II 101 965 (built in 1990 as a member of a powerful standard type for several Swiss metre-gauge rack railways, see others here) with an express train to Engelberg in front of the building of a vocational school


Arth-Goldau station, situated on the watershed between two large pre-Alpine lakes, is the northern gateway to the Gotthard railway: the lines from Lucerne and Basel resp. from Zurich meet. It is also the endpoint of the SOB mainline, a node of the S-Bahn Mittelschweiz network (which includes a line run by SOB), the endpoint of a rack railway from the Rigi mountain, and there are several sidings for freight trains. Currently, passenger trains from all directions, including ones of different class along the same route, are scheduled to meet at the same time with enough time for transfers.

From left to right: an SOB VorAlpen-Express from Romanshorn to Luzern (with SOB [ex BT] Re 456 096 at the end), an SBB IR from Luzern to Lugano (with the advertisement-clad SBB 460 003 in front), an empty track on which a late SBB ETR 470 tilting train will arrive as EC from Zurich to Milan, SBB RABDe 500 043 "Harald Szeemann" as an ICN from Zurich to Lugano, and a brand-new SOB class RABe 526 commuter EMU (a Stadler Flirt) as S31 to Biberbrugg

SOB's VorAlpen-Express trains are actually operated in cooperation with SBB, and the south-western end of the route, the tracks from Arth-Goldau to Lucerne belong to SBB. When I wanted to go to Lucerne, I wondered whether my rail employee free ticket for SBB is valid for the trains or not, but couldn't figure out from info material at the station (and there was a line at the help desk). What's more, the VorAlpen-Express that arrived had an SBB loco, and the car next to me lacked a SOB designation, so I said what the hell and boarded it. When the conductor came, he told my ticket is not valid in spite of the joint operation and the SBB tracks, but he shut an eye for a colleague and was very helpful to explain the situation. Which was mostly what I already knew (that SOB is not the SBB and I could have requested a different rail employee free ticket for it), but I didn't interrupt him :-) Inside, the SOB cars were especially luxurious: lots of leg freedom and desks for all seats even on 2nd class.

The hourly IR service along the Gotthard railway is actually the combination of two-hourly services from/to Lucerne and Zurich. On the first day of my first trip (which was a day of heat records), the train I took from Salzburg to Zurich was an hour late (most likely due to an accident in Hungary), so I had to board an ICN and change trains in Arth-Goldau.

But what I call attention to on the above photo is the smoking girl: while Swiss trains are non-smoker-only, there are no nationwide restrictions on stations. German and Austrian stations had those for years, and a total ban for all passenger areas of all public transport was introduced in Hungary two years ago. While these bans are violated regularly by defiant morons in all three countries, they still make a big difference, which got me de-acclimated, thus when I set foot in Zurich HB for the first time, the all-permeating stench produced by dozens of smokers spread out in the big hall hit me like a wall. As for restaurants, comprehensive smoking bans are limited to specific cantons, and the one Arth-Goldau is in (Schwyz) lacked one, so I was again unpleasantly surprised upon entering a kebab restaurant.

The latter brings me to another observation: if measured by simple spending items like a kebab or a cola or a bus ticket and using official exchange rates, Austria's price level is almost twice that of Hungary, and the places I have been to in Switzerland are again almost two times that.

I close with two photos made in the dusk. As a general observation, locals seem accustomed to, and mindful of, train photographers: even dozens of metres away, they walked out of the picture without asking.

Above: My IR from Zurich on the first day of the autumn trip stopped at Arth-Goldau, with the then brand-new SOB RABe 526 052 as S31 to Bieberbrugg at the other platform

Below: a VorAlpen-Express from Lucerne to Romanshorn with SOB Re 446 015. This is the former SBB Re 4/4IV 10101, the first of four prototypes of a famed class never built in series, because their then new technology (DC motors fed without switching by thyristors) was eclipsed by the now universal technology of asynchronous AC motors and AC–DC–variable-AC converters

:: :: :: :: ::

In the final diary to utilise photos of my two holidays last year across Switzerland and Austria, I shall return to the northern section of the Gotthard railway (sometime in the coming weeks).

:: :: :: :: ::

Check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.

While referendums approving tax increases for investment in the public good (like for S-Bahn Zurich) are positives of Swiss direct democracy, there is also the dark side, especially the referendums won by xenophobes, whom I have a little story about.

The main instigator and beneficiary of the current xenophobia wave in Switzerland is the right-populist and neo-liberal SVP party, led by billionaire demagogue Christoph Blocher (a mix of Austria's Jörg Haider and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi) and supported by a network of indirectly-owned or friendly tabloids. (A Swiss speciality pushed by these tabloids is to change the SVP's adjective from ausländerfeindlich = "foreigner-hostile" into ausländerskeptisch = "foreigner-sceptic".) So when someone left a tabloid paper in an S-Bahn train I rode with a headlined article on a guy leaving the neo-Nazi scene, it caught my eye and I read it.

I felt the article was quite sinister, though. The initial narrative was of a mother fighting to get her son out of a dangerous subculture. But it transpired that the ex-neo-Nazi merely went through a sort of coming of age: he was no more hot on the outward things and the direct violence and could entertain the thought that some foreigners were decent chaps, but by no means did he ditch his xenophobia (merely moved on from ex-Yugoslavs to Muslims) and was unrepentant vs. his former victims ("arguing" that most of them were militant leftists just as much out for a fight as he was). What's more, the reader is supposed to applaud that he moderated his views from seeing the SVP as too soft to positioning himself a bit right from the SVP and supporting their referendums.

(Of course, let's not forget the near-50% who voted No on the referendum or who treated me well as customer and not like Oprah.)

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In the next comments, I post my usual extra photos without trains.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Mar 21st, 2014 at 07:05:15 PM EST
Zurich is at the outfall of Lake Zurich, on the Limmat river. Looking upriver from the Rathausbrücke (Townhall Bridge) towards the lake here, you see the twin towers of the Grossmünster, which was the birthplace of Swiss Reformation: it was where Huldrych Zwingli preached. Like all Calvinist churches, it has a rather austere interior with all Catholic ornaments removed. The top part of the towers is neo-Gothic. The river-front building in front is the Haus zum Rüden, a guildhall.

View across the Limmat at the Schipfe, the old craftsman quarter on the western shore

View back at the eastern shore from an arcade in the Schipfe

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Mar 21st, 2014 at 07:06:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Lucerne is at the outfall of Lake Lucerne, on the Reuss river. Its most famed sight is the Kapellbrücke, a covered wood bridge. The baroque church in the background is the Jesuitenkirche (Jesuit Church), which is quite beautiful inside.

The bridge was built in 1365, but most of it had to be rebuilt after a fire in 1993. The old bridge had paintings between the roof beams along its entire length, a number of those could be rescued before the flames but those lost weren't replaced.

A bit further, there is a weir on the Reuss, and a second covered wooden bridge, the Spreuerbrücke. The current construction dates to 1566 and has paintings between the roof beams, too.

Looking upriver from the rail bridge (with both the Spreuerbrücke and the Jesuitenkirche in the distance), there is the second most famous landmark, the Museggmauer: a 600-year-old section of the old city wall with nine bastions that each have a unique design.

Earlier on Lake Lucerne, a gull settled on a pole for mooring ships.

The German name of Lake Lucerne is much more poetic: Vierwaldstättersee (Lake of Four Forest Cities). The view over it was also poetic when the clouds began to lift. (I actually waited for that bird to enter the picture.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Mar 21st, 2014 at 07:08:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
was unrepentant vs. his former victims ("arguing" that most of them were militant leftists just as much out for a fight as he was)

I once knew a member of the West Ham hooligan group, the Inter City Firm, who used to use exactly the same justification for the mayhem he created. This was the most obvious bollocks that it was actually insulting to hear him say it and I took great pleasure in pointing that out. He'd just grin at me in a "why are you talking cos I'm not listening" manner

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun Mar 23rd, 2014 at 06:23:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
smoking bans are limited to specific cantons, and the one Arth-Goldau is in (Schwyz) lacked one

I'm surprised. I was in Arth a few months ago, and I was about to go into a restaurant when I noticed a sign saying that only adults were allowed in, the reason being that they allowed smoking. I assumed this was a cantonal law: could there have been a sign at your kebab store that you missed?

I found the traffic on the street a bit disconcerting. The moment you even started to think about crossing the road, they all stopped. On the other hand, my hotel was right next to a church, and the bell rang the time every hour all through the night, plus once every quarter hour. I started thinking it would be a good idea to have a referendum to convert them to minarets; those things only go off five times a day.

by gk (gk (gk quattro due due sette @gmail.com)) on Sat Mar 22nd, 2014 at 03:57:42 AM EST
Regarding the smoking: when I wrote the diary, I only checked Wikipedia. Now I looked at the actual regulations of the Canton of Schwyz. They confirm that the canton doesn't have regulations more strict than federal law. In the federal law, however, there is indeed a ban on smoking in restaurants in principle, but with exceptions. I take the one that was applied in that kebab place was the "smoker bar" (Raucherlokal) exception. I find nothing about allowing only adults in, the conditions named are: an area less than 80 m², clear visual marking on all entrances (well I don't remember seeing one) and good ventilation (the door was open...), and employee acceptance recorded in the work contract. There is no special protection for children anywhere in the federal law.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Mar 22nd, 2014 at 01:54:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for this beautiful diary, which brings back memories of many train journeys of former years. I live in Vienna and sometimes had to attend UN meetings in Geneva. I always had to change in Zurich, and the distance between Zurick and Innsbruck usually seemed endless. In 1978 I went from Innsbruck all the way to Lisbon by train, and back; due to the special reduced student ticket I had to spend a whole day in Geneva each way, and another in Barcelona, no hardship. Even then the price level was much higher in Switzerland than in Austria, while Portugal was dirt cheap in comparison. Another favourite route of my younger years was Innsbruck to Paris with a Couchette, you could depart in the late afternoon and arrive in Paris the early morning, after traversing Switzerland overnight.
by Minerva00 on Thu Mar 27th, 2014 at 03:18:23 PM EST
Regarding the long Zurich–Innsbruck trip, have you seen my diary Autumn on the Arlberg railway?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Mar 29th, 2014 at 06:01:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
No, but thanks for the link. It's a great diary. I did admire previous train diaries you have done. I have travelled on the Arlberg route quite a few times, especially while I lived in Innsbruck during my youth. My next train trip will be Vienna-Dresden-Prague next week.  

I was travelling in the Philippines when the Arlberg diary appeared, without internet at times. Normally I would have seen it, as a longtime reader of the site.

Thanks again for sharing these unique diaries with us.

by Minerva00 on Tue Apr 1st, 2014 at 01:57:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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