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According to several people and this website, the train timings are so good in Switzerland that they use it to set their watches. (Not the other way around.)

Traveling in Switzerland is relaxing and easy; it is also legendary when time is concerned. The Swiss don't run their trains by the clock; it's vice versa - they set their Swiss army watches by the arrival and departure of the train!

Ignoring the humour is it true that Switzerland has exceptionally good train timings, compared to other countries? Or is it just an urban myth?

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    … so their trains run on thyme? – Konrad Rudolph Jul 23 '11 at 11:08
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    Love the circular logic - Use the trains to set the clocks, and of course the trains will never be "late"! – Adam Davis Jul 23 '11 at 20:34
  • @Adam Presumably that would fall down if there was a large distribution. i.e. trains arriving both late and early over a large range of time. – Thomas O Jul 23 '11 at 20:42
  • @Thomas That would presume that the distribution centers around the correct time. I would expect that late trains are more common than early trains - but of course have no data to back it up, so I could easily be wrong. – Adam Davis Jul 23 '11 at 20:56
  • @Adam Davis, In which case, everyone's watches will be early, but there will still be a jitter, of sorts. – Thomas O Jul 23 '11 at 20:57
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Is it (still) true?

Old question, just wanted to point out that at the very least Swiss trains are not exceptional by a European standard. The punctuality grade cited by Thursagen does not include either a year, nor a qualifier (e.g. 3 minute mark, 5 minute mark or even more).

Now, for Switzerland one can find for last year, 2013, the punctuality was 87.5% at the 3 minute mark, as per this and this article. And for 2011, the original year of this question it was 89.9% as per this article. Comparing that with another European nation with a similarly long rail track (3,138 km vs 2809 km), The Netherlands, one will find punctuality rates of 88.4% and 90,1% respectively).

Origin of the notion

Searching on I found this Dutch article - describing the Swiss trains as the most punctual of Europe. - which seems to explain where this notion originates from: in the period surrounding 2007 it was indeed the case that the Swiss trains where more punctual than other European trains (although comparisons are made at the 5 minute mark, not the 3 minute mark).

Some thoughts

Additionally an interesting observation that needs to be made is that punctuality can be directly manipulated by allowing for greater or smaller leniency in the train schedule itself. In other words, if you have a train that has to wait for 5 minutes at every station it won't be hard to get a 100% punctuality, so train punctuality should in no way be taken as a qualifier for how good the train system in a nation is in the first place. Similarly Luxembourg has the highest train punctuality of Europe for the simple reason of having just a single rail track. Offsetting train punctuality against train speeds and waiting times is exceptionally hard however, but after having spend quite a bit of time reading about this in the past year I feel confident claiming that it works out to be extremely similar for most wealthy nations.

  • Not sure why this question is getting a lot of views recently, but as people are reading it just a note: last two years I believe the Swiss have been doing better than the Netherlands again in punctuality. – David Mulder Nov 27 '15 at 10:48
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Yes this is true. According to CSC, the Swiss did this:

A superprecise dispatching system designed and implemented by the Swiss Federal Railway (SBB) with CSC is helping them run like clockwork. The Rail Control System (RCS) was developed over four and a half years by a team of about 100 rail and technology experts. CSC’s Matthias Krista, Benedikt Soom, Frédéric Auberson and Gilles Iachelini played key roles in the architecture, business analytics and software implementation.

RCS is a powerful solution for analyzing complex interactions between trains and providing fast, accurate operational data to dispatchers, ultimately keeping trains on time and passengers happy.

The results of RCS can be seen here:

RCS provides near-real-time information on the current operational status of approximately 2,000 trains and 3,000 kilometers of track, and their corresponding switches and signals in the Swiss Federal Railways system. Overall punctuality has improved from 94 percent to 96 percent, making Switzerland the leader in international punctuality statistics.

So, as you can see, they are the most accurate and precise train system in the world. Apparently, Swiss people are generally very punctual, and it has been said that they only lose one minute of time per year. I generally lose one minute an hour, being late to most things, including going to bed.

Enough of that, Swiss trains are accurate, and that's for sure. To help you visualize this, try looking at this:

http://www.swisstrains.ch/

That is the train tracker of SBB. It is a realtime tracker of the trains around Zurich.


References: http://www.csc.com/features/stories/48346-controlling_the_swiss_rail_system

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    “Swiss people are generally very punctual, and it has been said that they only lose one minute of time per year” – that’s a ridiculous claim. But good info on the train system, this is extremely interesting, not least because a lot of nations (Mussolini, see comment above) have already made similar claims without delivering. – Konrad Rudolph Jul 23 '11 at 11:10
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    How does this compare to other countries? The statistic means very little unless comparisons are given. – March Ho Nov 26 '15 at 12:01

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