Recently in Transport Category

ga.jpgI've been waiting until after the summer to write an entry like this, but I just think it should be said: If you're new to Switzerland, you owe it to yourself to get a General Abonnement. If you live in a town, especially in a city, you owe it to yourself to get a GA far more than to get yourself a car. 

A car's just a pain in the backside most of the time, unless you really want one because, say, you just love driving (which is fine). It'll cost you 150 francs or so per month just to park it in a lot of places, plus a couple of thousand francs or more per year to insure it, fuel costs, expensive parking in town, assorted inspections, and so on. Sure, but everyone just needs a car from time to time, right? Absolutely! In that case, a Mobility subscription will take care of those occasional trips where your own vehicle is necessary. 

But propaganda aside, why is a GA such a great thing to have? It's expensive, right? 

Yes, when you look at the purchase price (Sfr. 3100 in second class, SFr. 4800 in first) you are likely to experience a bit of sticker shock, But let's do a comparison with the UK. An annual second class season, Oxford to London (only the train - no Tube at the other end) - will set you back £3996. Even at today's dire exchange rate that's SFr. 6600. As a frame of reference, Oxford to London is about the same distance as Zürich to Bern - and about the same time on the train, just under an hour.

So, for less than half the price of that season ticket, you can get an annual pass for pretty much every form of public transport in Switzerland, or at least all the bits of it as outlined on this map. Virtually all rail routes (with a few exceptions such as the Jungfraubahn), buses, trams, lake shipping, all wide open. Suddenly decide to go to Geneva? Just get on the next train. Day trip to Ticino? Sure. Want to do a scenic round trip over the Oberalp pass? Why not? Trip out to Konstanz and a cruise along Lake Constance? All inclusive. Your work commute? All part of the deal.

The real win, though, is that with a GA you can see the beautiful country that is Switzerland without even really thinking about it or worrying about the price. I haven't been keeping detailed logs of the trips I've made over the summer, but I'm pretty sure I've seen an awful lot more of the country than I would have seen had I been having to pay out for individual tickets. As a recently-arrived expat this is a real joy, as it's given us the flexibility to go off exploring on a whim. 

A nice side bonus if you're bourgeois enough to have a first class GA and frequent Zürich Hauptbahnhof is that the SBB has a nice lounge there for first class GA-holders (plus one guest!) where you can hide and drink coffee until your train goes.

Oh, and if there are more than one of you in your household, there's a hefty discount on GAs for additional members of your family. And like a halbtax, it gives you 25% off on border-crossing trips into neighbouring countries. One top tip - if you want to spend a day in Germany exploring the Black Forest, simply use your GA to get to Basel Bad. (remember, it's valid on the ICE from Zürich) and buy a Baden-Württemberg-Ticket from the DB ticket machines. Up to 5 people, valid all day on non-InterCity trains and the vast majority of buses, trams, and so on in the state of Baden-Württemberg. All for €28, or €19 for the 'single' version if you're travelling by yourself. Bargain!

So certainly if you're new to Switzerland (and even if you've been here a while), I can highly recommend taking a good look at the GA. It solves a lot of problems in one go, it lets you see the country and go off on random trips without having to even think about it, and it's pretty much the best public transport bargain out there.
Over the last couple of weekends I've been doing some exploring of the quieter railway lines of Switzerland. The country has a multitude of narrow-gauge lines serving the lumpier areas - they're far easier to build in mountainous terrain due to the necessary infrastructure and rolling stock being much smaller.

I'm currently restricting myself deliberately to routes on which a General Abonnement is valid. This means some famous railways are partially or entirely inaccessible (the Jungfraubahn, for instance, doesn't accept the GA for travel, but does give a 50% discount to GA and half-tax holders). The reason for this is that I'm trying to discover genuine "Get up and go" trips for people who either are fortunate enough to hold a GA already, or who hold a half-tax card and can therefore get the incredibly good value day tickets which are effectively a one-day GA. I guess I should also talk about these different ticket types sometime as well, not to mention the multiple options available to visitors to the country.

Today's trip was down into the heart of the Alps, to Andermatt near the Gotthard Pass. From there, the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn runs service both west to Brig, Visp and Zermatt and east to Disentis, where the Rhätische Bahn takes over for the journey to Chur and St Moritz.

The first leg was an SBB Inter-Regio service from Zürich HB to Göschenen in the canton of Uri, not far from the Gotthard pass (in the timetable this is Table 600). Some IR services carry an observation car (Panoramawagen) - while it's only accessible to those with a valid First Class ticket, if you're feeling flush the views are spectacular. This is the main north-south route which crosses the Alps into Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, and connects onwards for trains into Italy. After leaving Zürich there are views of the Zugersee before the line starts to climb up into the mountains through a multitude of short tunnels. Before Göschenen the line even gains height through a spiral tunnel.

Leaving the train at Göschenen, there's a nice view of the northern portals of the 15km Gotthard tunnel, which links Uri to Ticino under the Gotthard pass. This may sound long, but the 57km Gotthard Base Tunnel (which you'll see works for in a number of places) will supersede it in a few years (and will become the world's longest rail tunnel). Through the underpass you'll find the platform for the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn's shuttle service to Andermatt (Table 143). This is a relatively short but pretty steep rack railway, which gains about 300m between Göschenen and Andermatt - look out for the rough walls of the blasted tunnels.

At Andermatt the real fun begins. You're now on the route of the famous Glacier Express, although we're doing it the fun way, using the normal scheduled trains that run on the line rather than the glitzy Glacier Express service. This means you don't have to faff around with making reservations (which are compulsory for GE services), but also means you might want to take a sandwich or something along as there's no buffet service or trolley. You also don't have the shiny panoramic views the carriages on the Glacier Express give you, but the train windows are pretty big anyway (and, even better, they can be opened if you want to take photos without having to deal with the reflections).

The MGB runs the service from Andermatt to Disentis/Mustér (also on Table 143). The big surprise here is that all of a sudden, the announcements are in German and also in a language which sounds a bit like a hybrid of German, Italian and Martian. This is Romansch, Switzerland's fourth official language, which is spoken in some communities in this part of the country. 

After leaving Andermatt the train starts to climb. After a while there's a couple of metres of snow on the ground despite my doing this trip in May, and after 20 minutes the train has climbed about 600 metres and you reach the Oberalp Pass, at Oberalppass station. The pass is the border between the cantons of Uri and Graubunden, and after leaving Oberalppass the line starts to descend through a mixture of tunnels and galleries until it breaks out into a deep valley. As you pass the tiny village of Tschamut, the name of the local hotel - Hotel Rheinquelle - makes it clear that the source of the Rhine river is only a couple of kilometres away. The line runs down the valley with the infant Rhine (it's actually the Vorderrhein, one of the Rhine's two main tributaries) running nearby.

At Disentis (German) also known as Mustér (Romansch) the MGB train terminates. You now need to change - probably across the platform - to the Rhätische Bahn's service to Chur (Table 920). While less precipitously spectacular than the run from Andermatt, this section of the journey along the valley of the Vorderrhein gives plenty of nice views of the river as it grows into a serious river.

From Chur, I headed back to Zürich via an SBB express (Table 900), but there are plenty of other opportunities for further exploration in the area. The RhB's line continues to a number of other places, in particular further south to the Glacier Express's terminus at St Moritz.
I finally gave in a few days ago and concluded that a GA was in my future. A GA, for those who don't know, is the General Abonnement of the Swiss public transportation companies. In other words, it's an annual pass for pretty much all of Switzerland's public transport operators - the ultimate transport nerd's fantasy. As a transport nerd, I therefore had no alternative but to get one.
The GA is a fairly large amount of money to drop in one lump. Looking at the figures, though, it's incredibly good value even if you aren't a daily traveller as even with a halbtax it's easy to spend the weekly cost equivalent of a GA in single tickets. Compared to the UK's insane fares it's a no-brainer - by my calculations, at today's exchange rate even a first class GA costs only two thirds of the price of a second class annual season ticket from Oxford to London - point to point, not even including the Tube.
And, of course, there's the transport nerd thing. Simply being able to hop on and off trains and buses (oh, and boats and various funiculars/cable cars/etc) makes that a lot more fun and allows the sort of "Let's go and see where I end up" day out that you just can't do if you're having to buy your tickets in advance. Being able to go anywhere without actually thinking about a per-journey cost is transport nirvana as far as I'm concerned.

The result of all this is that a couple of days ago I dropped into the travel centre at Zürich Hauptbahnhof and bought me a GA. And yes, I have plans. Expect to see some "Day trips with a GA" posts here as I explore the depths of the Swiss transportation network in my spare time. I'll also write a bit more about the Swiss transport and ticketing systems in general.. someone has to, right?


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