Monday, 1 January 2018

How Things are Done Elsewhere

We recently posted how one of our local MPs, Cat Smith, was trying to get the government to take action to implement its own legislation requiring bus operators to equip their buses with "next stop" audio-visual displays to assist ALL passengers. Read again here

Whereas in the UK a small number of bus companies have fitted a number of different systems, a recent visit to Switzerland showed how a different approach could succeed.

Every bus (or, at least, every bus we travelled on) was fitted with a screen (or more than one in larger vehicles) that showed the name of the approaching stop together with a diagram showing the next few stops with the time it would take to reach them as well as the ultimate destination of the bus.

This bus is on service 29 and is approaching the stop "Neuheim" in the village of Udlingenswil, where it is due at 14.48. It is on time as shown by the classic Swiss Railways clock graphic at the bottom right of the screen.
The two following stops are shown below and are 1 and 6 minutes away. The service terminates at "Root D4 Bahnhof" (which is a railway station in a large industrial estate/business park in the suburbs of Lucerne).

When approaching major stops and interchanges the display alternates with a screen showing available connections.
This screen shows that from "Udingenswil, Frohsinn", which the bus reached, on time, at 14.47 there are departures on sevice 29 to Root  D4 Bahnhof as well as connections in both directions on the 73 to Udingenswil or Luzern (Lucerne). Note that the first two 73 journeys are shown in real time as running 1 minute late!
Whilst there did not appear to be any audio announcements, a loud and clear gong was sounded at the approach to each stop to alert passengers. Fortunately, perhaps, stops on rural Swiss buses are rather farther apart than in the UK!

Your BUG representative spent a few days travelling around the Lucerne area by bus and train and can report the following further differences to the UK scene:

1. The vast majority of buses and trains arrived on time. 

2. Bad weather, including heavy snow, appeared to have no impact on the service.

 This bus, which was operating on a rural service that connected with a mountain funicular railway was actually three minutes late when it picked up your BUG rep, but was back on time when it reached the town of Schwyz fifteen minutes later.

3. Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day are treated as normal service days. A Sunday service operates, but that's not very different from a weekday one anyway. There is no early close down on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve. The bus in the small village where we stayed connected with trains from Lucerne right up until after midnight and again from 05:00 throughout the Christmas period as it does every day of the year.

4. Very few passengers pay cash, most having some form of pass or season ticket, although the high "walk-on" fares probably have a lot to do with this.

Overall, in Switzerland, one gets the feeling that one is using a properly planned and integrated system. Despite ownership being split between central government, local government and private operators there is a proper "network" with planned connections between buses and trains, buses and other buses and even buses and boats. Needless to say the fares are integrated and one ticket covers all operators and all modes of transport.  Information is easy to come by, both online and on paper and all stops have well-maintained, up to date and legible displays (county council please note) Even for someone unfamiliar with the language it is probably easier to find your way around than it would be in a strange city in the UK.  The only downside for a visitor is the lack of an overall timetable book and, as in Lancaster, one is expected to rely on individual service leaflets and just hope that you've managed to find all the ones you need.

Why can the Swiss do things so much better?  One is tempted to say that they just operate at a higher level of civilization, but clearly they, as a society, are prepared to put a lot more money into public transport than we are, both in terms of higher fares and higher contributions from local and central government. There is also a different approach in terms of politics. Public Transport is "non-political" in that there are no arguments over ownership. Buses and trains are publicly-planned but provided by a variety of public and private operators, and most rural and interurban bus services are run by the Post Office! Because systems are properly planned there is no issue with particular operators having a monopoly and no attempt to rely (unsuccessfully) on competition to improve things.  In short, buses are seen as a public service and one that is entitled to be funded to the necessary extent to ensure a high-quality operation. Because this is a view that prevails across the whole political spectrum there is no danger of a sudden change of approach upsetting the applecart and destroying what has been achieved.


  1. During 2016 and 2017 I have travelled by bus in 10 countries in mainland Europe and I have to say that nowhere did I find that the service overall compared unfavourably with the UK. Perhaps the Swiss system is the pinnacle, but many other countries come very close and on-bus display screens and audio announcements are commonplace, including in many of the former Eastern Bloc countries. The piecemeal approach to bus service provision in the UK is very obvious - a few places benefit from first-class operators which match the best in Europe, but most fall a long way short. It's hard to know quite why, but there has certainly been no political will to ensure that a good standard and level of service is uniformly offered. Unfortunately it looks very much as if things will only get worse, and as the vast majority of the population don't seem too concerned it's unlikely that bus services will move up the political agenda.

  2. Sadly, RLT's analysis is correct. We wonder whether Switzerland has - or needs - Bus User Groups!