Swiss Main Line Train Services from the 1980s

Notes by Alan de Burton compiled in August 2015


This article describes the development of prime Swiss train services from the introduction of the first nationwide Taktfahrplan (regular interval timetable) in 1982 to the present. It also looks towards the further developments planned for the next few years. It primarily covers daytime standard gauge train services of an InterCity nature, although changes to main line services inevitably affect more local services and private railways. I haven’t distinguished between services by the national operator SBB or the main line services operated by BLS till 2004. I have ignored nominally international services worked by SNCF into Genève. These are worked as part of services internal to France. I have also ignored night services, partly because of their complexity in earlier years when many were just through sleeping and ‘Liegewagen’ cars attached to other trains. Most night services became dedicated ‘EuroNight’ branded trains from May 1993 and are now heading towards extinction.  Curiously the night service from Paris to Milano and Venezia crosses Switzerland but doesn’t call.

I have presented most of the information as an annual table. My main information sources were Cook’s and recent European timetables, an article in the French magazine ‘Rail Passion,’ both Tomes of the La Vie du Rail publication ‘Trains d’Europe’ and many issues of Today’s Railways (latterly Today’s Railways Europe). Information for the earlier years may be less reliable than in the 21st century.

1982 to the 21st Century

One of the most fundamental changes to the services of any national railway took place on 23 May 1982 when the Swiss introduced their first nationwide Taktfahrplan (regular interval timetable) after several years of planning and investment in relevant infrastructure. Train-kms increased by 21%. In practice much of the infrastructure development concerned local railways which had to build passing loops on single track sections to enable suitable connections with main line services at junctions. In the first few years afterward, service changes were mainly consolidation of the 1982 timetable in the light of experience and further investment.

At this time international services between Switzerland and its neighbours France, Germany, Austria and Italy were rather a hotch-potch which were adapted to the new Swiss timetable. The InterCity brand was applied to many of the better services from 1981 onwards. Only 2 examples of the 1st class only TEE services first introduced in 1957 continued to serve Switzerland. The ‘Cisalpin’ between Paris and Milano was worked by French hauled stock while the ‘Gottardo’ between Zürich and Milano was worked by Swiss multi-system emu.

In January French TGVs replaced international loco-hauled trains from Paris Gare de Lyon via Vallorbe to Lausanne saving well over an hour. Immediate connections at Lausanne replaced through trains from Paris to the Rhône Valley and Italy via the Simplon Tunnel including the TEE ‘Cisalpin’ already mentioned. Through portions between Paris and Bern were replaced by connections at Frasne, between 1989 and 1993 worked by Swiss ex-TEE emus.

Train-kms expanded by another 17%. The branch to Genève Aéroport opened. An extra prime route ran hourly from Genève Aéroport and Genève avoiding Lausanne to Neuchâtel and Biel / Bienne, continuing alternately towards Basel or Zürich as part of existing services. French TGVs began operating from Paris Gare de Lyon through to Neuchâtel and Bern.

In May 1987, the best international services in western Europe still mainly loco-hauled were rebranded ‘Eurocity’ and had to meet certain quality standards, notably air-conditioning, multilingual train crews, adequate catering and border controls administered during the journey rather than during often protracted station stops. About 30 of these services served Switzerland; their destinations were as follows: France 8 (of which 5 were TGVs), Belgium 1, Luxembourg 1, Netherlands 1, Germany 15, Austria 3 and Italy 9. There is some double counting because of trains which served more than one country outside Switzerland. As subsequent text shows, these trains have mostly been replaced over the years by electric unit trains of various sorts while a few have been downgraded. Through TGV services from Paris were transferred to a joint Franco-Swiss company and branded ‘Lyria.’

In a referendum, the Swiss approved the Rail 2000 project for a major nationwide improvement in train services. In practice the cost was seriously underestimated and timescales lengthened but the main elements were introduced in December 2004.

In September 1st class only TEE ‘Gottardo’ Zürich – Milano worked by a Swiss emu train was converted to 2-class and these units covered some other trains on the Gotthard route from summer 1989 until August 1994.

International electrification was completed between Schaffhausen in Switzerland and Singen in Germany. In May limited use began of new underground platforms at Zürich HB. See also below.

The Zürich S-Bahn was introduced in May 1990 associated with new S-Bahn underground platforms at Zürich HB and the new Zürichberg Tunnel. This didn’t materially affect main line train services.

BLS completed doubling the south ramp of the Lötschberg route in May 1992. German ICE1s were introduced from Hamburg to Zürich as a single train pair in September 1992 and were extended to other services including Interlaken Ost in stages to 1995; a service from Berlin commenced in winter 2002 / 03.

1992 – 1996
SBB introduced class 460 electric locos capable of speeds of 200 km/h. In 1993 – 94, the Swiss former TEE emus briefly worked between Zürich and Stuttgart in Germany.

In May the Grauholz deviation east of Bern on the way towards Olten was opened, and inter alia permitted opening the Bern S-Bahn. In winter seasonal through TGV services operated from Paris to the Rhône Valley.

From 1996
In September 1996 the Swiss / Italian Cisalpino joint venture introduced 9 x class ETR 470 tilting Pendolino emus on services from Milano via the Simplon Tunnel to Genève and via the original Lötschberg Tunnel to Bern and Basel and in summer 1997 via the Gotthard route to Zürich. In both cases services were accelerated by half an hour or more although reliability has always been low. Part of the time savings achieved by these unit trains compared with loco haulage rested in avoiding time lost in loco changes at Domodossola, Chiasso and Singen.

Significant service improvements were branded ‘Impulsion 1997’ when half hourly service was introduced on some prime sectors, extended to Zürich – Luzern in 1999. The Basel S-Bahn was introduced. In September 1997 Paris Gare de Lyon – Bern TGV service was extended to Zürich. End-to-end journey times were no better than previous loco-hauled services via Basel and fares were much higher because of extra distance! Bi-level IC2000 coaches capable of 200 km/h began entering regular scheduled service in January 1998.

A Swiss referendum approved a number of major investments, notably the construction of the Lötschberg and Gotthard Basis Tunnels. In September 1998 there was a major redeployment of the ETR 470 Cisalpino units with more working on the Gotthard route. 2 train pairs had already run on from Zürich to Stuttgart from March that year. Train services on both Simplon and Gotthard route through trains to Milano had become a mix of loco-hauled and unit trains achieving quite different end-to-end timings and so remained.

In April DB introduced tilting ICE-T class 415 emus between Stuttgart and Zürich. The frequency of the Genève – Milano and of the TGV Paris – Lausanne services was improved.

The Adler Tunnel was opened in December but with little change to journey times. It is on the route between Basel and Olten and relieves the southern exit from Basel

ICN tilting emus capable of 200 km/h were introduced on services from Genève to Zürich and St. Gallen on accelerated schedules after limited use from the previous year. By then almost all the route between Yverdon and Neuchâtel had been doubled in a number of schemes over the previous years. The timetable period ran for 18 months from June 2001 till December 2002.

DB briefly introduced ICE-TD tilting class 605 dmus between München and Zürich but use was short lived because of availability problems.

The Zimmerberg Tunnel between Zürich and Thalwil was opened in June 2003 relieving the southern exit from Zürich but with little change to journey times.

The Rail 2000 Timetable of December 12 2004 onwards

This timetable had 4 main features:

1)    Based on a number of major infrastructure improvements, most notably the new high speed line from Mattstetten and Rothrist (between Bern and Olten), a spur at Zofingen for faster trains from Bern to Luzern, a new tunnel at Vauderens between Fribourg and Lausanne permitting double deck IC2000 stock to work on the main route between Zürich, Bern and Genève, and a 3rd track from Genève to Coppet in the Genève suburbs. Trains working over the high speed line had to be fitted with retention toilets and passenger alarm systems which didn’t stop trains in tunnels.
2)    Timetabling around connections half-hourly on the hour and half-hour at Zürich, Winterthur, St. Gallen, Chur, Basel, Delémont, Olten, Bern and Luzern and at 15 and 45 minutes past the hour at Biel / Bienne and Lausanne.
3)    14% increase in train kms.
4)    BLS withdrew from operation of InterCity trains and concentrated on regional services from Bern.

Many InterCity times were about a quarter of an hour faster. ICNs were now working hourly from St. Gallen and Zürich or from Basel to Biel / Bienne and Neuchâtel then on to either Lausanne or to Genève-Aéroport. Additionally they were working from Konstanz to Biel / Bienne. TGV services from Paris Gare de Lyon were now 4 per day to Lausanne and 2 to Bern and on to Zürich.

2007 Timetable Year

In December 2006 DB used tilting ICE-T sets to replace the 2 x ETR 470 Cisalpino train pairs between Zürich and Stuttgart. In June opening of the LGV Est in France provoked a major restructure of the TGV services now from Paris Est with 2 (later 3) TGVs from Paris to Zürich via Strasbourg. Previous Paris Gare de Lyon – Bern – Zürich TGVs were curtailed at Bern. Also from June 2007 ETCS signalling on the high speed line from Rothrist to Mattstetten and the spur to Solothurn now permitted 200 k/h operation.

2008 Timetable Year

Train capacity increased by a further 5.5%. From December 2007 trains equipped with ETCS using the Rothrist to Mattstetten line were accelerated by 3 minutes. The Lötschberg Basis Tunnel was opened saving 26 minutes for trains from Bern to Brig. In July 2008 7-car class ETR 610 the 2nd generation of Cisalpino tilting emus for international services to Italy first entered service on routes via the Simplon Tunnel from Genève and from Basel.

2009 Timetable Year

ICN tilting emus previously used between Konstanz, Zürich and Biel / Bienne were transferred to the Gotthard route primarily working every 2 hours on additional services from Basel to Lugano. Although not all 14 x ETR 610 Cisalpino tilting emus were yet in service, they took over some Gotthard route workings from Zürich to Milano.

2010 Timetable Year

In December 2009, the Cisalpino consortium of SBB and trenitalia was dissolved and the fleets of ETR 470s and ETR 610s divided between the two railways. ETR 470s now worked the Gotthard service to Zürich while the ETR 610s worked the Simplon services to Genève and Basel. SBB ordered some extra ETR 610s.

The service from Paris Est to Basel and Zürich increased from 3 to 5 train pairs. Improvements to the infrastructure via Vallorbe saved 15 minutes on the TGV timings from Paris Gare de Lyon to Lausanne. However, the number of train pairs from Paris to Bern was reduced from 2 to 1.

In March 2010, the loco-hauled trains replaced DB’s ICE-T tilting emus between Stuttgart and Zürich because of stock availability problems in the wider German ICE fleet. In June 2010, ÖBB replaced loco-hauled trains between Zürich and Wien by Railjet unit trains, adding another train pair in December 2012.

2012 Timetable Year

Trenitalia withdrew its ETR 610 units to internal services in December 2011. International services were rediagrammed as well as was practical but not entirely satisfactorily.

In a second major routing change within France, France opened LGV Rhin-Rhône in December 2011; TGVs which had been running from Paris Est to Basel and Zürich now ran from Paris Gare de Lyon. This saved about half an hour and the number of train pairs increased from 5 to 6.

2014 Timetable Year

The St. Gallen S-Bahn commenced operation. The remaining TGV train pair from Paris Gare de Lyon via Frasne and Neuchâtel to Bern was withdrawn and replaced by Swiss shuttles between Frasne and Bern. In June 2014 the Gotthard route service between Zürich and Milano service was slowed and tidied up to improve reliability.

In June 2014 the first stage using of 4 new ‘Löwenstrasse’ underground platforms at Zürich HB and the associated Weinberg Tunnel commenced with major improvements to Zürich S-Bahn services.

2015 Timetable Year

A through TGV was introduced from Paris Gare de Lyon via Genève to Lausanne.

Changes Expected from December 2015 till c. 2020

2016 Timetable Year

IC trains through Winterthur at present reversing at Zürich HB will use the new through ‘Löwenstrasse’ tracks at Zürich HB without reversal saving up to 18 minutes.

2017 Timetable Year

The Gotthard Basis Tunnel will fully open in December 2016 although there may be some introductory services from June 2016. While trains from Basel will save half an hour, those from Zürich will only save 11 minutes since for 18 months they will be rerouted between Zug and Arth-Goldau via Rotkreuz while the direct line is being rebuilt. Through Gotthard services to Italy will be entirely worked by class ETR 610 tilting emus; more are being delivered. 18 ICN sets, 13 Re460 locos and 119 hauled coaches are being modified for service through the Tunnel

SBB should be putting into service production examples of their fleet of 62 double deck InterCity and InterRegio emus being built by Bombardier under the builder’s TWINDEXX Express brand. Delivery commenced in 2015 of 7 x pre-production examples and this fleet should be complete in early 2020. They were ordered in 2010 and delivery is running about 3 years late.

2019 or 2020 Timetable Year (or thereabouts)

The Monte Ceneri Tunnel on the Gotthard route in Ticino will open and a new fleet of ‘Giruno’ 11-car articulated non-tilting trains will take over services between Zürich and Milano. These trains will be equipped for running in Austria and Germany as well as Italy and first deliveries are expected in March 2017. Although articulated, they seem comparable to DB’s class 407 ICE trains. They will run hourly in 2h 58m hours from Zürich to Milano but will be supplemented by a half-hourly service of internal Swiss trains to Lugano.

About this time the line in Germany from Lindau towards München will be electrified with service improved from 4 to 6 IC trains per day taking 3h 15m rather than 4h 10m. This will be the first major change in a service which has been remarkably stable throughout the period of this article.

General Comments

It is noteworthy how many international services have been more volatile than domestic, with many of the changes occurring at other than annual timetable change dates. There is a notable contrast between the comparative stability of services through the German and Austrian international gateways and comparative volatility of those through to France and Italy. Nevertheless, services to France through the Lyria partnership do show ‘continuous improvement;’ in contrast those to Italy are poorer with the use through half this period of the unreliable ETR 470 Pendolino trains and a failed Cisalpino partnership with FS / trenitalia. Over the years there has also been a gradual erosion of international routes crossing Switzerland, for example France and Germany to Italy, France to Austria e.g. the ‘Arlberg Express,’ and France to former Yugoslavia.

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