Swiss transportation: anywhere you wander

A friend of mine couldn't find the ticket she'd purchased for Lausanne, Switzerland, when the train conductor came around. "I have it right here, Madam ," he said, pulling the cardboard slip from his pocket. She'd apparently left it at the ticket window, and the ticket-seller had sent it up to the conductor of the Lausanne train.

"Only in Switzerland!" exclaimed my friend, a Frenchwoman, on recounting this story. Her remark applies to many other aspects of the transportation system as well.

Efficiency, variety, and convenience characterize the integrated network of trains, boats, buses, mountain railways, and aerial cable cars in Switzerland. Combined with the wealth of descriptive literature, this system helps to make Switzerland an easy place to visit. Getting around is part of the fun.

The essence of the Swiss character is apparent in the awesome punctuality of departures and arrivals, and the synchronization of timetables among various forms of transport. You will recognize it in the elaborate system of tunnels and mountain roads carved in rock and the narrow, curving elegance of an overpass in the Alps.

The Official Timetable exemplifies the Swiss attention to detail and is rewarding for people who enjoy planning their itinerary. Available for about $3 at train stations, it includes altitudes, distances, and much useful information in English and other languages.

If you are traveling from Switzerland to another country, a night on the train will save you hotel expense and is a good way to meet people -- if not the best way to sleep. Unless you have a regular (nonstudent) Eurail pass, which provides first-class accommodations and, often, room to stretch out on your seat , you may want to reserve a bed in a couchette.

The couchette car has four to six bunks to a compartment for first or tourist class. As only the wagon-lits (or sleeping cars), which add two-thirds to the cost, provide complete privacy, there's no distinct advantage to first class. In either case, you're bound to learn something of life in a submarine.

A few tips on couchete etiquette. Liquids consumed in the upper bunks can be dangerous in a sudden stop. Thus I made enemies with my lower neighbor, who didn't want a yogurt facial. Dangling feet can also produce international confrontations.

The major Swiss lines are complemented by branching smaller railways. One such train leaves Nyon, just outside Geneva, for a winding climb into the Jura Mountains. This is a favorite area for hiking and skiing, especially cross-country, and the antique narrogauge train carries an athletic cargo. It has a special car for skis and for carrying old-fashioned milk cans down from mountain pastures, as well.

It is truly a trip to the past in this red wooden train, the interior of which is also of warm yellow wood. It creaks comfortingly as you climb into the quiet mountainside.

Another good way to explore the heights is via postal bus (car postaux), which carry the mail, but are desaigned also for passengers. These buses cover 4,700 miles in a country twice the size of New Jersey. They are known for their reliability, which is nice to remember on the perilous route over the St. Bernard PAss.Their drivers are authorized to give orders, when appropriate, to drivers of other vehicles on the road. The postal buses, which announce themselves by sounding the first three notes of the William Tell Overture, offer access to more remote areas of Switzerland.

The postal system prints pamphlets which detail walking and skiing tours to correspond with their routes. While the schedules are listed in the Official Timetable, further information is available at major post offices.

Some of the most remote locations in Switzerland can be reached, even by residents, only by funicular, which is a grounded cable car, or by telepherique, an aerial type.If you've planned a long walk and it's pouring rain, you may find a pleasant temporary shelter in a private automatic funicular like the one which climbs the hill above Montreux.You'd better not get out your picnic, though, unless you know the length of the trip. The last time I tried it, I had time only to spread the mustard. I tried to appear nonchalant as I gathered my provisions under the frown of the official at the other end.

From June through September, steamers cross Switzerland's many lakes, offering a change of pace.The five-hour trip from St. Gingolph to Geneva includes a closeup of the Chillon Castle, distant views of changing mountain ranges, and the prospect of miles of vineyards adn chateaux. If you happen to be out when a storm comes up, you can switch to a train at the next docking, using the same ticket.

A number of special tickets are offered to the tourist. The Swiss Holiday Card, designed for periods of eight days, 15 days, or a month, covers all travel by rail, steamer, and postal bus, and provides discounts for the mountain railroads adn aerial cable cars. A Half-Fare Travel Card and a Senior Citizen Half-Fare Travel Card are also available. All of these cards, as well as the Eurail Pass, must be obtained before arrival, through a travel agency or Swiss Air.

Transportation facilities within Swiss cities are typically well-documented and simple to use. They're worth getting to know, as taxis are expensive. Banks publish and freely distribute maps, which commonly include the bus routes.

Most bus stops provide a lighted map and a schedule. A bus ticket, valid for an unlimited number of trips in an hour, can be obtained from a machine at each stop. This ticket must be held throughout the ride, in case of the rare roving ticket-checkers happens to hop your bus. A remarkable discipline in the populace is reflected in this system, under which a frequent rider might be asked to show his ticket only once in a nine-month period.

For those who enjoy a more exerting form of transport, I should note that many railroad stations in Switzerland rent bicycles by the hour, and will hold your luggage while you're gone.

Regardless of how or where you travel in Switzerland, it's hard to go wrong. If you arrive at the platform 30 seconds late to find you've missed your train, you needn't despair. You can do as a friend of mine recently did -- go to the ticket counter and say, "Send me anywhere!" He enjoyed himself greatly that day.

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