As my other post described, taking the train to Switzerland can be a rewarding, if challenging, journey. Obviously, once you get yourself to the Swiss Alps for a meeting, you have to get back again. Taking the train across France would have been fine but with my sense of transport adventure, I decided to explore my alternatives. A quick, last minute search on Kayak narrowed this down to one choice: a flight back from Geneva was likely to cost over £300 so I opted to book a flight from the Swiss capital, Bern.
Returning to the rails, on my return route, I was able to take the cable car down from Verbier to the station at Le Châble. This was more humorous than you may think, as the cable cars are tiny and I had to climb over my suitcase to get in it. Alas no photos of that dignified journey!
I had decided to spend the night in Bern so that I did not risk missing the flight to London, as such I needed to buy a ticket only to Bern that day. Ticket office at Le Châble was more of a bar, cafe, newsagent and post office rolled into one. I wasn’t sure where to buy the ticket but I did end up buying an orange juice in the process. It made the station seem quite central to the small community and certainly beat waiting on a cold platform.
As there was a queue inside the office, I used a machine to buy the ticket. I was presented with 2 route options (one via Lausanne and one via Visp). The route via Visp was about twice the price of the route via Lausanne but there didn’t seem to be any obvious reason for this, both had similar journey times. As I had come via Lausanne, I decided to travel the other way, via Visp, to see what was worth the higher fare. I later decided that this was down to the InterCity service that operated on the route.
At Martigny, I changed from the St Bernard Express to a fairly normal train along the valley to Visp. On the platform, there was hardly any passenger information: There was no signage to reassure a passenger of the direction of travel, only the central departure board which I found to be lacking in information, as it only had space for the destination station; it was therefore impossible to know whether the approaching train was definitely going to Visp. As it was, I looked quickly on Google Maps to see that the train’s destination, Brig, was beyond Visp and so I jumps on board.
On board information stated the destination station, Brig, and the next few intermediate stations but until a member of staff passed through the carriage, I had no certainty that this train would take me to Visp. Thankfully, for my journey, I was on the right train.
Changing at Visp, the calm, quiet journey along the valley was interrupted by congestion and crowding with the arrival of the InterCity service to Bern. It became obvious the InterCity service commanded a higher fare due to its on board service and the fact that the route tunnelled straight under the mountain up to the capital region.
Despite the length of the train, most passengers tried to board in the centre. This was in large part due to the small diagram on the departure screen showing that the layout of the train meant that the central section would be the second class area, close to the buffet car.
Once we had boarded and secured a seat, I was able to look around and see the facilities available on this InterCity service. The low ceilings on this double-deck meant that passengers were required to store luggage in the small racks in the vestibule area, however, were not large enough so luggage was left in the aisles of abandoned downstairs.
The InterCity did offer passengers free wifi and power sockets, plus a very welcoming bistro car providing table service to all passengers.
Surprisingly, the train appeared to be running late as we arrived into Bern and the dwell time was so short that I barely had time to step onto the platform before the door warning sounded. As it happened, all the waiting passengers had not yet boarded so there was panic on the platform as the doors started to close – the picture below shows that one passenger was forced to grasp the door to prevent it crushing a boarding passenger: a pretty bad example of the timetable trumping passenger safety.
As mentioned, I stayed overnight in Bern and was provided with a free tram/rail pass by the hotel which included a trip to the airport. The following day, I returned to Bern station to travel to the airport station at Belp. I knew that I needed to travel to Belp as I had looked online in advance; however, there was no mention of the airport on the platform or the departure board.
It was only when arriving at Belp station that an aeroplane symbol was shown on the station signage. A short bus shuttle took passengers to the airport terminal, for an additional fare. There was an enormous ticket machine on the bus for anyone who had forgotten!
My lasting impression of Swiss Railways is the implicit assumption that a passenger can navigate the railway without assistance. As a visitor, I had to take some risks and just board a train, hoping that it went to the right place. This can make a journey unsettling as you are forced to check at each opportunity whether you can see a sign with your station on it. You’ll probably be staring out at the mountains anyway so it’s not too much of a distraction.
Author: Liam Henderson