If it hadn't happened twice in the same day, I might not have thought it newsworthy First in the Alpine town of Brig and then two hours later in Bern I found myself on Swiss trains that pulled out of the station late. One was five minutes behind schedule, the other eight. Anywhere else in the world I wouldn't have taken notice, but in a country where punctuality is taken seriously I was, you'll pardon the pun, alarmed.
My suspicion is that both trains were late because they were waiting for connections from outside Swiss borders, from Italy or France, perhaps. The point is that Swiss trains are everything they're cracked up to be, a conclusion I reached after having spent considerable time in July hopping off and on a variety of conveyances -- intercity specials, narrow-gauge, cog-rail, cable cars -- from southern lake country to the high Alps and up to Zurich, with its handy train-linked airport.
One thing Swiss trains do not have is high luxury, Switzerland is a democratic country, has been for ages, and the difference between first and second class is hard to ascertain until you learn to spot the big "1" or "2" painted on the outside. Generally, too, the coaches are not divided into little compartments with facing divans and sliding glass doors that open onto corridors. This may seem to take some of the adventure out of rail riding (what European mystery novel of movie hasn't included a scene set in such cubicle?), but it also frees you from a cramped, eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with five strangers. Instead most cars are open, with rows of single and double seating.
Nor should you expect plush sleeping cars, not in a country that can be crossed, Geneva to Zurich, in a few hours. If I missed anything, it was the chance to dine on the rails. Here again I suppose the distances are too short to justify full-scale dining cars. You are left with snacks and beverages sold by a rolling vendor. Even with the dollar faring so well against the franc these days, a soft drink costs a buck.My answer, one afternoon in Zermatt, was to come aboard with bread, cheese, sausage, partry, and juice and to picnic in my seat on the lovely ride down the valley to Brig.
What Swiss trains have are cleanliness, almost unflaggingly courteous service , wide-windowed scenery that defies you to keep your head in a book (it was my impression that even the Swiss themselves don't read on trains), and punctuality that will spoil you for any other rail system on earth. Still, there is a certain rhythm or scheme to riding trains that takes the newcomer a day or two to master, something the Swiss know as reflexively as they know which drawer in their bureau contains the socks.
It took me a day or two to discover how to locate connecting trains, an important move in a clockwork system in which you usually have only a few minutes to make a switch. There were no big arrival and departure boards to scan, so I got in the habit of relying on the nearest man in railroad uniform. It finally dawned onme to use the small yellow printed sheets posted on station walls and pillars, listing times and track numbers in the clearest form possible. Another lesson to be learned is that connecting trains don't necessarily leave from the station itself but from a track on the place, platz,m or piazzam out front.
I was not aware of this when I got off a train one warm July afternoon in Locarno heading west for Brig and the mountains.I wandered about the station looking for my train, then asked an old conductor on the now-empty platform. "It's the blue-and-white train on the square," he said. "In three minutes." How many times had he made that precise utterance, I wondered, as I bolted for the train, which looked more like an elongated trolley. Once seated, I flashed my Swiss Holiday Card, a cousin of the Eurailpass, which gets you on trains, postal coaches, lake steamers, and just about every other form of transport with seldom more than a nod or glance from the conductor.
Switzerland specializes in stunning upland train rides, but in its modest, narrow-gauge way the two-hour Locarno-Domodossola run through the Centovalli is unmatched. I wonder if Walt Disney took this ride before he built his make-believe world at Anaheim. Centovalli means 100 valleys, and though I didn't count that many, our straining trolley puttered past one beautiful gorge after another. I sat on the right, but the left had even better views: waterfalls tumbling out of narrowly cleaved valleys, a deep emerald-green lake that so moved the woman across the aisle -- I thought she was Italian but she turned out to be Chilean -- that she shouted to me, "Hey!" and I bounced up in time to see it.
We made a brief excursion into ITaly and the cultures changed accordingly. There were stone huts, their roofs piled with slabs of slate as carefully balanced as Connecticut stone fences. In an outdoor cafe by the tracks men in shirt sleeves were playing bocce,m a workingman's version of lawn bowling. It was a scene I have seen transplanted almost identically to a shaded minipark on Houston Street in lower Manhattan.
All along, the little train was hooting and whistling through the valleys, past stone churches with frescoes painted above the doors, picture-book chalets, and more waterfalls. Then we started the long descent to Domodossola, an international connecting point via the Simplon Tunnel to Brig and beyond.
We were five minutes late, but what dit it matter? There came an announcement that the Brig train which would take us back across the border to Switzerland was 20 minutes late, then 40 minutes late. When the tardy train finally appeared, I noted that it was a big somber international special. It had un-Swiss compartments with facing sofas, probably a string of sleeping cars, maybe even a snack car, Switzerland, with its modest little trains and gentlemanly conductors, was only a few miles away, and it would be good to get back.