Travelling by train in Switzerland


General information


Welcome to our guide how to save money, time and confusion when travelling in Switzerland by train, it will tell you the less obvious things that are worth knowing about trains, stations and both buying and using tickets and rail passes.

Click the links below for instant access for the info you need.

Or take time out to discover all you need to know about making your Swiss train travel experience as fabulous as possible!

TRAINS      l         RESERVATIONS


SCENIC MAINLINE TRAIN JOURNEYS


STATIONS
      l         TICKETS      l         USEFUL LINKS


SWISS MOUNTAIN RAILWAYS


Exploring Switzerland by train is inevitably fabulous with a plethora of incredible journeys to be experienced.

If you would like help with planning a train journey within or to/from Switzerland, or want to add some Swiss destinations to a European train travel itinerary, take a look at ShowMeTheJourney's new Concierge Service.

For a comparatively small country, Switzerland has a high number of quirky aspects to its rail system that can initially bewilder - hence the info below.

Swiss Trains - The 13 things that are particularly good to know:

1. Key to understanding the Swiss rail network is that it’s essentially a combination of two railway systems:

(i) Standard mainline trains that link its major towns and cities - most of which are operated by national rail operator SBB.

BLS is the primary other mainline train operator in Switzerland and it operates local and regional trains on most routes from/to Bern.

However, even when these mainline trains are not operated by SBB tickets can be booked on the SBB website, at SBB stations and from SBB ticket machines.

Therefore it doesn't particularly matter whether you will be travelling on a BLS train, so we haven't singled them out. 

When ShowMeTheJourney references SBB tickets, the info also applies to journeys by BLS trains.

(ii) The independent railways --  including the lines which ascend up into the mountains.

SBB doesn’t serve some key destinations in Switzerland including the majority of ski resorts, instead these are served by the independent railways.

Hence our GUIDE to travelling to Swiss ski resorts by train.


Some of these independent companies operate extensive networks, while others just have one or two branch lines.

We have also published a GUIDE to using these independent/private mountain railways - the info you can access includes links to each of these respective company's websites.

2. SBB's express trains fall into two categories:

(i) IC Train Services: 

Aside from speed, the key distinguishing feature of these trains is that they convey restaurant cars

Most IC train services are double-deck, but some are single deck – at busy times of the day additional single deck coaches can be attached to the double deck trains..

New 'LD' double deck IC trains will be entering service during 2019 

The existing double deck trains are beginning to show their age.

The tilting ICN trains are still in service but are now also branded as IC services.

(ii) IR train services:

Different types of services are designated IR.

On the Geneve – Sion – Brig route they are the fastest trains and are no different to the single deck IC trains – except for the fact that they don’t convey restaurant cars.

On some routes the IR services are slower than IC services - but  the standard ticket price won't be any cheaper 

Some IR trains convey 1st class observation cars in which ordinary 1st class tickets are valid.

3. A yellow band above the doors indicates that a coach is 1st class.

4. Trains usually operate to a regular ‘clock face’ timetable with hourly trains operating on most express train routes – though on some routes the service only operates every other hour.

5. SBB has introduced route numbers for its IC and IR services - see the SBB IC/IR Trains Route Map below

The IC train routes are now numbered as follows:

IC 1 = St Gallen - Winterthur - Zurich Flughafen - Zurich HB - Bern - Fribourg - Lausanne - Geneve - Aeroport

IC 2 = Zurich - Zug - Arth Goldau - Bellinzona - Lugano

IC 3 = Basel - Zurich HB - Landquart - Chur


IC 4 = Zurich HB - Schaffhausen

IC 5 = St Gallen - Winterthur - Zurich Flughafen - Zurich HB - Olten - Biel/Bienne - Neuchatel - Lausanne 

and

Zurich HB - Olten - Biel/Bienne - Neuchatel - Geneve - Geneve Aeroport

IC 6 = Basel - Olten - Bern - Thun - Spiez - Visp - Brig

IC 8 = Romanshorn - Winterthur - Zurich Flughafen - Zurich HB - Olten - Bern - Thun - Spiez - Visp - Brig


IC 21 = Basel - Luzern - Arth Goldau - Bellinzona - Lugano

IC 51 = Basel - Delémont - Moutiers - Biel/Bienne

IC 61 = Basel - Olten - Bern - Thun - Spiez - Interlaken Ost - Interlaken West


6. Swiss national rail operator SBB does not provide wi-fi on its trains in the conventional sense - meaning that passengers can't log on to a SBB portal for wi-fi.

Instead SBB has equipped its IC trains and most IR trains with signal amplifiers to enable enhanced connectivity with local mobile networks.

The coaches/cars equipped with this equipment have symbols by the doors - and SBB suggests that passengers who wish to access wi-fi during a journey, should travel in these coaches in order to access these 'hotspots'.


7. To facilitate an hourly service, in hours when there is no direct train service, connections between trains are built into the national timetable.

8. Connections between trains are designed so that the waiting time between trains across Switzerland is less than 10 minutes – and the private railways also usually follow this pattern.

9. Trains in Switzerland are VERY rarely more than 5 minutes late, so connections are usually guaranteed.

10. Though to ensure connections, trains can often spend up to 10 minutes waiting at stations and still depart on time.

11.  International daytime trains to and from Switzerland also fit into this regular timetable, when travelling between destinations in Switzerland.

For example, some of the hourly trains between Basel and Interlaken are ICE trains, which have travelled from Germany, and not SBB’s regular IC trains.


12. For journeys within Switzerland, international trains have the same terms and conditions as Swiss trains.

Meaning that reservations aren't compulsory for journeys WITHIN  Switzerland by Lyria trans, or on the EC trains which have travelled to and from Italy.


13. Passport checks can be carried out on board international trains to/from Switzerland.

Travellers are singled out apparently randomly, so don't be offended if the customs staff ask to see your passport, but ignore your fellow passengers.
Keep your passport in your hand luggage.

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Seat Reservations - The 4 things that are particularly good to know:

1. Reservations are available, but not compulsory, on SBB’s IC train services.

Though reservations can be a good idea if you will be travelling long distances in 2nd class TO major cities at business hours and FROM major cities at business hours.


When booking tickets online with SBB the seat reservation won't be included - you have to book it separately on the website, app or at a station.
 
2. Seats don’t have to reserved when travelling between Swiss cities on EC and TGV trains.

3. Reservations are also optional on all express (IC, ICE, EC and Railjet) trains between Switzerland and both Austria and Germany.

4. In contrast reservations are mandatory on all the international express (EC, Lyria and TGV) trains between Switzerland and both Italy and France.

There also mandatory on all overnight trains from Switzerland.


Seats will automatically be assigned when booking tickets for these services with compulsory reservations online, but rail pass users will need to reserve prior to boarding.

If you have a rail pass a 11CHF booking fee will be applied per reservation if booked at a Swiss station, so it's best to book these seat reservations online.


How to do do this is explained on our GUIDE to using rail passes in Switzerland.

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Scenic MAINLINE Journeys:

You don't have to travel on one of the independent railways to experience stunning Alpine landscapes by train.

Regular SBB trains take these highly scenic routes through the mountains:

(i) Zurich and Luzern - Erstfeld


(ii) Erstfeld - Bellinzona - Lugano
(iii) Belllinzona - Chiasso
(iv) Thun - Interlaken Ost


(v) Bellinzona - Goschenen - Erstfeld


(vi) Thun - Visp - Brig via Kandersteg (the route of The Lotschberger trains)
(vi) Lausanne - Montreux - Aigle - Bex - Martigny - Sion - Sierre  - Visp - Brig
(vii) Zurich - Sargans - Chur/Buchs 

More videos will be added soon.

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Swiss Stations - The 9 things that are particularly good to know:

TRAINS FROM BASEL   TRAINS FROM GENEVA

TRAINS FROM ZURICH


1. In Switzerland ticket inspections are carried out on the trains, so there is no need for stations to have barriers, or gate-lines.

As a result the stations are open to the surrounding streets with multiple access points,, so you usually don't have to pass through station buildings in order to access the trains, or to transfer between buses and trains.

However, normally the short-cuts into the station can only be used if you already have a valid ticket.

If you need to buy a ticket look out for the ticket symbols on any signs that you see - the ticket desks and machines may not be in what looks like a main station building.

Often they're in the passage way beneath the tracks or are housed in the middle of a station.

2. At Swiss stations the electronic departure screens, the paper timetable posters and the station announcements  all normally DON'T include every station that a train will be calling at.

Sometimes only the next two or three stations that a train will be calling at are shown on the electronic indicators, along with the final destination of the train.

SBB also doesn’t use a system of train numbers on its information indicators or tickets, so being aware of the final destination of your train can help save time and confusion – hence we have striven to include it on our journey guides.

If you’re not sure what train you need to board check at the information desk or ticket office.

3. At the main stations there are electronic indicators on the  platforms/tracks, which indicate in which zone of the platform the 1st class, 2nd class and restaurant car coaches will be located, when the train arrives.

They don't indicate in which zone a specific coach number will be located and they are also not particularly accurate - in our experience.

What they are particularly useful for is working out at which end of a train the 1st class coaches will be located.

4. If you will be changing trains at larger stations, seek out, what can be hard to find, paper departure posters that you can find on the platform.

They list all train departures in consecutive order so you can use then to check which platform/track/gleis/voie, your onward connection will be leaving from.

If you're in luck you'll be able to remain where you are.

5. The larger stations will have coin operated left luggage lockers, which can be accessed at any time.

When depositing bags you must pay for an initial 24 hours - even if you will be only depositing a bag for a couple of hours.

Then on collection you pay the balance - the charge will rise per day, but keep in mind that you may have pay in excess of 20 francs in coins, you can't use cards or notes.

Though change machines are usually available, though at the larger stations, with lockers in multiple locations, only one location can have a change machine

6. If you are going to be touring Switzerland then you can forward your luggage between stations, you don't have to take it on the trains.

This can be a particularly useful service if you will be entering and leaving Switzerland at different locations.

These luggage desks tend to be in a different part of a station to a left luggage office - it's easy to confuse the two.

7. Elevators and particularly escalators can be rare at Swiss stations - especially in the middle of the platform/track (gleis/voie).

Instead step free access is provided by slopes that connect the platform/track/gleis/voie to passage ways which are located beneath the railway tracks.

If you have luggage etc there is always an alternative to using the stairs.

8.  At most stations the platforms/tracks/gleis/voies are used by multiple train departures per hour.

So wait for your train where you can see the electronic displays which show the details of the next train to leave.

9.  Also keep the departure time front of mind.

It's not unusual for SBB express trains to be timetabled so that they spend up to 10 mins at a station between arrival and departure.

So you often don't have to rush and board by the first door you see - most people do.
But if you use the time to move further along the train you can have a greater chance of finding spare seats etc.

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SBB Train Tickets - The 12 things that are particularly good to know:

More info is available by clicking the green 'Tickets & Passes' button below.

Buying tickets for Swiss train journeys is particularly quirky if you're not resident in Switzerland, so if you're new to Swiss train travel, we particularly recommend taking a look at our full guide.

Amongst other things it explains how visitors to Switzerland can obtain Half Fare Cards.

1. For reasons, that are explained in detail on the full 'Ticket & Passes’ guide that can be accessed below, if you don't have a Swiss Half-Fare card, you can ignore the prices you will initially see when looking up tickets on SBB.

You won't be aware of the price you will actually pay until you have selected a specific ticket.


2So if you will be using the Timetable functionality on SBB, to compare prices of Swiss train journeys to buses/flights, you will need to take the first couple if steps of the booking process, in order to see the train ticket prices.

3. Limited numbers of discounted 'Supersaver/Sparbilletter' tickets are now available on all of SBB’s express (IC and IR) train routes.

However, when searching for tickets, they MAY not be available on all departures, so you may need to search through the departures on a particular day to find them.


4. Whether 'Supersaver' tickets are available on a specific departure, is indicated on the SBB website by the presence of a % symbol on a black triangle.

5.These 'Supersaver/Sparbilletter' tickets can sell out fastest on the direct trains - so for some journeys these 'Supersaver/Sparbilletter' tickets are more likely to be available if you’re prepared to change trains.

6. These discounted tickets are unlikely to be available less than 48 hours ahead

7. SBB sells tickets for journeys within Switzerland up to a month ahead of the travel date.

8. SBB online booking system sells tickets for most journeys that involve a combination of SBB trains AND the trains of the independent operators.

9. SBB also sells a range of additional tickets including City-to-City tickets, which include journeys by public transport.

10. Limited numbers of discounted tickets are also made available on all long distance express trains FROM and TO Switzerland, so you can make savings if you book ahead.

11. SBB discontinued its long standing 'Swiss Transfer tickets at the close of 2018.

12Our Guide to Using Rail Passes in Switzerland - it will help you choose the right pass for you, and explain why Switzerland can provide fantastic money-saving opportunities for users of InterRail and Eurail 'Global Passes'.

Other great sources of information:

The Swiss Travel System website is a great source of both practical info and inspirational articles.

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