Hochschulstrasse 6

Telephone: (31) 602403
Fax: (31) 604358

state Owned Company
Incorporated: 1902
Employees: 37,700
Sales: SFr2.70 billion (US$1.99 billion)

Company History:

The Swiss Federal Railways has developed from unpromising beginnings into one of the most advanced passenger and freight networks in the world. As well as playing a pivotal role in the nation's economic and social life, it stands at the hub of the central European transportation system.

The need for a comprehensive rail system in Switzerland was apparent by the early 1830s. However, early projects were dogged by lack of investment, the mountainous nature of the country, and a fragmented political system that imposed some 400 internal customs barriers within the national boundaries. The first railway built in Swiss territory was the two-kilometer St. Louis to Basel section of the Strasbourg to Basel line, no more than a small extension of the French network, and not opened until June 15, 1844. The first real Swiss railway came into operation on August 9, 1847, connecting Zürich with Baden. This was opened some 22 years after England's pioneering Stockton-Darlington line, and at a time when England already had 3,928 kilometers and the United States 7,454 kilometers of track under steam. The 23-kilometer Zürich to Baden line was nicknamed the "Spanisch-Brötli-Bahn" (the "Spanish Bun Railway"); Spanish buns were a specialty of Baden patisseries and with the new train service they arrived in Zürich fresher than before. SBB has survived as the German-language title for Swiss Federal Railways, although nowadays the initials officially stand for Schweizerische Bundesbahnen. In French, the railways are known as Chemins de Fer Fédéraux (CFF).

The breakthrough for Swiss railways came with the country's new constitution of 1848, when Switzerland was transformed from a loose collection of cantons or small states into a united confederation with a central government in Bern. This change swept away cumbersome internal tariffs and border restrictions. Moreover, while leaving detailed legislation to individual cantons, the federal government committed itself to the development of rail transport as a vital component of the new confederation's commercial strategy. In 1850 the government invited Robert Stephenson, son of the inventor of the Rocket, a locomotive that could run at 58 kilometers per hour, to help devise a railway system following the main valleys. The same year the Swiss parliament passed the Federal Act of Compulsory Expropriation of Private Property, handing the cantons crucial powers of compulsory purchase for rail building. Hitherto, expansion of the network had been frustrated by landowners and by vested interests who supported the road transport monopoly and viewed the railways as a threat.

There followed a period of intense development and construction. By 1872 five major rail projects linked all the Swiss population centers from the west to the east. In 1883 the north and south of the country were linked by the opening of the Gotthard Railway. This route, the first to cross the Alps, was of immense importance to international trade and was built as the result of a trilateral agreement between Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. Almost 5,500 workers constructed the tunnel over 12 years. Some 307 lost their lives, 177 of them in the tunnel itself. Although the railway was constructed privately, Switzerland and Germany made subsidies of SFr20 million, and Italy contributed SFr45 million. The Swiss money was collected by the cantons, still responsible for railway construction, in partnership with private enterprise. However, political debate mounted over the question of private versus public ownership. The early rail companies were, to a great extent, foreign-owned and created by foreign investment. This effectively left the newly united Switzerland with little control over it own transport policy. Often the individual companies were on the brink of collapse, seeking financial rescue from the cantons in times of crisis. What profits there were went to the shareholders, rather than toward reinvestment in new rolling stock or improved services. Furthermore, dishonest share dealings, particularly in the Paris stock exchange, infected the nascent rail industry with a permanent atmosphere of near panic. Public anxiety grew into open resentment which, fired by a new mood of national consciousness, expressed itself in the popular slogan: "Swiss Railways for Swiss people." With a new Federal Railway Act, central government wrested control of railway legislation away from the cantons. From then onward, rail concessions, company statutes, and building plans had to be approved from Bern, with federal engineers supervising construction work and safety levels. Timetables and fares were made subject to the approval of the Federal Traffic Office.

The trend toward nationalization was clear, and the struggle for state ownership of the railways raged for a decade. In 1891 the federal government made its first attempt to buy the Central Swiss Railway, but the move was defeated in a referendum. Seven years later, on February 20, 1898, the nationalization of the country's main lines was again put to the popular vote, and on this occasion accepted by a majority of 200,000. The philosophy behind nationalization, and the birth of the Swiss Federal Railways, was enshrined in statute by the Rück-kaufgesetz, or Redemption Law, which stated: "The Swiss Confederation is rightfully empowered and commissioned to purchase any railway which, in their opinion, serves from a military defense or economic point of view the interests of the Confederation or a major part of it, and to operate it under the name of Swiss Federal Railways."

The Swiss Federal Railways came into being on January 1, 1902, when the state nationalized the Central Swiss Railway, the Swiss North-Eastern, the Wohlen-Bremgarten line, the Aargaulische Südbahn, and the Bötzbergbahn. Three further services, the United Swiss Railways, the Toggenburg Railway, and the Wald-Rütibahn, were absorbed that July. They were followed by the Jura-Simplon Railway in 1903, and the Gotthard Railway on May 1, 1909. Altogether some 2,730 kilometers of track were purchased, at a cost of SFr160.49 million. Perhaps because of the political controversy, the government paid shareholders SFr114 million more than the original capital invested, a gesture historically viewed as overgenerous, and one that placed a heavy financial burden on the new Swiss Federal Railways.

Railway construction continued during the nationalization period. The Simplon Tunnel through the Alps opened on January 25, 1906, born of western Switzerland's desire for a direct link with Italy, and to place Berne on an important international route from France. Aside from its commercial importance, the tunnel ushered in the era of prestigious international trains, such as the Simplon-Orient Express. The tunnel was electrified from its beginning, but the rest of the network remained under steam, and during World War I was nearly paralyzed by desperate shortages of coal. Having learned a bitter lesson, the Swiss Federal Railways introduced a systematic electrification program from 1919 onward. The Saint Gotthard route came live between 1920 and 1922, and the entire network, except for 16 kilometers, was electrified by 1960.

Despite the fuel shortages of World War I, the network managed to enlarge many stations and build new links from Wilerfeld to Kiesen, and from Nottwil to Rothenbourg. Further improvements were made to track and crossings, train announcement facilities, and bridges.

The interwar period witnessed consolidation and steady improvement. Passenger and freight figures rose in line with the ambitious electrification program, and the system earned a reputation for efficiency, innovation, and safety. The second gallery of the Simplon tunnel was built in 1922, and the next five years saw the completion of a second tunnel from Monte Ceneri on the Giubiasco-Rivera to Bironico line, and a replacement line on the left bank of Lake Zürich.

In 1929, when half the network had been electrified, colored light signals were installed because of the greater speeds and stopping distances of the modern services. For a number of years the colored lights functioned beside the traditional semaphore system, until the entire network was converted to the new signals. Automatic barriers were also developed. In addition, many bridges were upgraded to accommodate the bigger, faster new trains; most notably, major improvements were made to the Grandfey and the Saint-Ursanne viaducts.

The years up to World War II also saw the development of a crucial safety innovation in Switzerland. Increasing speeds had led to a number of accidents, caused by drivers who had either missed or misunderstood warning signals. Under the new Signum system, electromagnetic sensors were sunk into the track itself, and communicated with similar sensors installed in the locomotives. The electromagnets in the track would warn each train electronically whether the line was clear; if it was not, a horn would be activated in the driver's cab. The driver was then required to take instant action. If the horn was ignored, emergency brakes would automatically cut in and halt the train. The system was a great success, and from 1934 was installed in all electric and multiple-unit trains in the Swiss network. An originator of automatic braking systems, Signum was subsequently used and adapted internationally. In 1935 the green electric warning signals were replaced by orange.

During World War II private road traffic was virtually paralyzed by fuel rationing; the railways kept the nation moving, insulated as the system was from fuel shortages by the farsighted electrification program. A wartime timetable was introduced, and fares were kept to a minimum. New season tickets offered discounts of 32% to 38%, and similar concessions were made to goods traffic. Passenger figures more than doubled and, although international traffic slumped dramatically, domestic freight exceeded its prewar volume. Learning from the shortages of the previous war, care was taken to stockpile building materials, in particular iron.

Some rolling stock was loaned to the French, primarily for the transportation of casualties. Although Switzerland was a non-belligerent nation, Swiss railway stations and track were bombed during the conflict, mainly by the British. The imposition of strict blackout regulations added to the network's organizational problems. In 1941 both the Renens station and the Zurich viaduct suffered considerable damage. Similar strikes on the Swiss network continued until 1945, when 40 bombs and several incendiaries hit the marshaling yards for the Wolf to Basel line.

Rebuilding began after the war, coupled with further expansion. When the conversion to electric traction was nearly complete, the Swiss railways made advances in the field of power signaling. The control consoles of new installations were now often built up of individual units, rather than stamped as a whole on steel sheeting. The adapted "domino" system allowed for constant changes to be made, simply by adding or removing the constituent units. Previously a whole new sheeting console would have to be made if, for example, a new siding was introduced.

Even in the age of the automobile, the Swiss did not qualify their commitment to rail development; major improvements were made to leading lines, as part of immense projects authorized in the years 1956 and 1965. In 1956 The Swiss Federal Railways agreed upon massive plans with the city and canton of Bern to rebuild and upgrade the capital's main station, the Hauptbahnhof. The scheme was endorsed by public vote and work began in 1957. It required the demolition of the former terminal, and the construction of a new station with six island platforms, two new tunnels, and a vast post office block. The first new platform came into operation in 1961, and the last five years later. In the 1950s and 1960s underpasses and bridges replaced many level crossings on the Geneva to Zürich line, probably the most important in the country. By 1967 this brought the traveling time for the fast Geneva to Lausanne stretch from 50 minutes down to 32 minutes. Further improvements were made to the Basel-Zürich-Chur line, including costly and laborious track-doubling beyond Ziegelbrücke, along the tortuous contours beside Lake Zürich. The work, which involved building the double-line Kerenzerberg tunnel, was completed in 1970. As part of the same program, flyover lines were built at Brugg and Thalwil. The Olten to Zürich section of the Bern-Zürich line was completely remodeled with the construction of the vast Limmattal marshaling yards. On other major lines, steady advances in efficiency and safety lowered traveling times of both domestic and, most notably, international services. For example, the 508-mile Milan to Paris journey was brought down to a total traveling time of 7 hours, 44 minutes. Advances were further aided by the development in Switzerland of lightweight rolling stock.

By 1972 railway author Cecil J. Allen observed in his book Swiss Travel Wonderland that the Swiss had complete faith in their railways, and that the closure of lines or stations was "practically unknown." "Indeed," he added, "the railways are regarded as so essential a part of the nation's life and well-being that the necessary finance is never withheld from any economically justifiable plans for their improvement."

The policy of energy self-sufficiency carried over into the electric age, with one-third of the traction current produced by The Swiss Federal Railways' own power stations. About half comes from jointly-owned power stations, with only the remainder supplied by outside contractors. Simultaneously, the railway fostered new breakthroughs in energy efficiency. Latter-day electric train motors are so advanced that the railways consume nine times less energy, per ton-kilometer, than road traffic, and research continues into further improvement. With regenerative braking, the trains produce as well as use power; three freight trains running downhill on, for example, the Gotthard line, produce enough energy to pull a fourth train uphill. The company accounts for only 1.1% of all electricity consumed in Switzerland, further enhancing its new image as an environment-friendly service.

Of necessity, The Swiss Federal Railways has led the world in tunnel technology. More than 200 kilometers of the system's track are in 243 tunnels; joined together, they would provide an underground line from Basel to Lugano. In addition, the company is responsible for some 4,000 rail bridges and about 1,000 road bridges. The Saint Gotthard remains the principal transit route between northern and southern Europe, transporting some six million people and 13.5 million tons of goods per year. The Simplon is the second most important transalpine route between Italy and the rest of the continent, and each year some three million passengers and three million tons of cargo travel through this international tunnel system.

In the early 1990s a second golden era of tunnel building was an immediate prospect, with ambitious federal government plans to update and expand the Alpine rail axis to meet the increased transport demands of the single European market. As a first phase, piggyback rail services will be modernized to ferry up to 2,000 lorries through the Alps per day. By 1994 the piggyback capacity of the Saint Gotthard route alone will have been more than doubled, to 365,000 consignments per year. There are further proposals for a pan-European New Trans-Alpine Railway (NEAT), centering on a 49-kilometer tunnel between Amsteg and Bodio, which should be open by the year 2015. The Simplon line would be refined to speed traffic between Paris, Geneva, Lausanne, and Italy, thus reducing the traveling time from Basel to Milan from 5 hours and 17 minutes to an initial 3 hours and 10 minutes, and just 2 hours 45 minutes when all the work is complete. Paris would then be less than six hours from Milan. Shorter traveling times would improve employment and production opportunities in many regions, and the new railways would balance traffic and economic activity, thus softening the impact on the environment.

To encourage motorists to travel longer distances by train, The Swiss Federal Railways, in cooperation with federal, cantonal, and communal authorities, has launched a major car park building scheme around all main stations, offering preferential rates for rail users. Furthermore, the railway shuttles cars and lorries through the Alpine tunnels, and sleeper trains transport road vehicles many hundreds of kilometers, from Zürich to Naples and Narbonne.

The policy of transport integration has also led to close links between Switzerland's rail and air networks. Passengers flying by Swissair can check in and collect their boarding passes when they begin their journey at selected rail stations. Hourly trains connect the nation with the two principal international airports of Zürich and Geneva, with platforms directly under the runways. Zürich airport station, opened in 1980, is served daily by 172 trains of the Zürich-Winterthur line, and is used by some 6.6 million passengers each year. The new Geneva airport station was opened in 1987, and is used by some 2.6 million travelers each year.

After eight years of the regular interval timetable, which replaced the old empiric timetable in 1982, passenger traffic has risen by 23%. Business was also boosted by a range of attractive fare incentives, such as the half-fare travel card, government-subsidized from 1987 to 1991. The Swiss take more train journeys per person--an average of 39 per year--than any other people except the Japanese.

The company enjoys a status defined in recent legislation as an "autonomous federal enterprise." It publishes its accounts separately from the state and, in common with stock companies, has a board of directors and its own capital stock. However, the Federal Assembly retains ultimate authority over the network; it approves its accounts and annual reports, and decides on grants, subsidies, and track acquisition or closure. Each of the assembly's two chambers appoints permanent transport committees. The Federal Council, the federal executive body, oversees the company's business and finances, and nominates the board of directors, the three general managers, and the three regional managers. The supervisory powers are in turn delegated to the Federal Department of Transport, Communications and Energy.

The Swiss Federal Railways was beset from its formation by an apparent contradiction in the requirements placed upon it by the country. The federal law of June 23, 1944, charged the network with operating its fares and services in line with the national interest, while at the same time running on strict business lines which would produce enough surplus for reinvestment, technological advance, and capital works. The government sought to reconcile these principles in the Performance Contract 1987-1994, which separates the network's activities into two areas: the commercial sector (including long-haul passenger traffic, wagonload, container and partload traffic), and the public service sector (regional passenger traffic, the regular interval timetable, and piggyback traffic.) The company kept responsibility for the operating costs of the commercial sector, but the government agreed to subsidize the expenses of the public service sector. This sum is set in advance, and reached SFr592 million in 1990. In addition, the Confederation has been paying the SBB's infrastructure costs since 1987, encompassing depreciation, interest charges, and maintenance of specified fixed assets. In return, the network pays the government a "user's tax" against infrastructure expenses, in the amount of SFr37 million in 1990. The company has shareholdings in transport companies--Swissair, 1.5%; Interfreigo, 10%; Intercontainer, 5.7%--as well as in cooling houses, power plants, and car parking.

Further Reading:

  • The Railways of Switzerland, Railway Gazette Publication, 1947.
    Aperçu des 50 Ans d'Activitè des Chemins de Fer Fèdèraux 1902-1952, SBB pamphlet, 1952.
    Bulletin du Personnel des CFF, Direction Gènèrale des CFF, 1970 and 1976.
  • Allen, Cecil J., Swiss Travel Wonderland, London, Ian Allen, 1972.
    Chemins de Fer Fèdèraux Suisses--Rapport de Gestion, Direction Gènèrale des CFF, 1976.
  • Nock, O.S., Railways of Western Europe, London, Adam & Charles Black, 1977.
    Simplon 75 ans, Direction Gènèrale des CFF, 1981.
    Les CFF Aujourd'hui, Direction Gènèrale des CFF, 1982.
    Saint-Gotthard 1882-1982, Direction Gènèrale des CFF, 1982.
    A l'Avenir, Le Train!, Direction Gènèrale des CFF, 1984.
    Railway Springtime, SBB General Secretariat, 1990.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 5. St. James Press, 1992.