Switzerland 2008 – London to Meringen in several easy train filled steps

Published on 26 August 2008 in , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Tell people you’re going on holiday to Switzerland and the standard response is “Cool!”. Tell them you’re travelling by train all the way there and you’re then met with one of two reactions.

The first is to continue the “Cool!” response, to say it sounds fantastic and mean it. These people seem to be the minority.

The majority have a different response – the eyes almost glaze over as they try to contemplate going to a different country without using one of those plane things that hover in our skies.

Why on earth would you want to do that, seems to be the unasked question.

My unanswered response is along the lines of “Well, because you can, and because it’s better”.

Lets face it – air travel sucks. First of all, all the airports are in the middle of nowhere and take forever to get to. Then when you finally do get to the airport (inevitably two hours earlier than you need to be there, because “you just can’t trust the traffic/tubes/train not to be delayed”) you stand in a long queue to check in.

Then you walk down a long windy corridor past hoards of shops and into the security queue. There you stand, slowly moving, for an eternity, have to take your shoes off for no apparent reason, go through a metal detector and wait for your luggage whilst someone interrogates the stressed looking woman carrying a crying baby about that mysterious white liquid in a bottle that she has.

When the security person has finally finished reducing her to tears, they then riffle extensively through your luggage, stare at you and then decide there is something dubious about your asthma inhaler.

Eventually you’re released to go and wait your time in a glorified shopping centre which never has enough seats (because seats mean less time shopping), before you wander down another 15 miles of corridor to go and board your plane. Then you sit in another area waiting until you can then go and join yet another queue to actually board the plane in the first place, only to find your seat is in the middle of three, with a large man on one side with bad BO.

There you sit in a cramped seat, unable to move for several hours whilst airline staff occasionally fling nuts or an appalling prawn cocktail at you, before you get off the plane, walk down yet more endless corridors in order to stand in yet another slow moving queue where someone in a large glass cubicle does their best to intimidate you, before finally allowing you to go down even more long corridors to the baggage collection area, where you wait three hours for your luggage to spin round on that carousel thing, so you can walk past (guilty looking) customs officers before boarding the queue for the ticking machine so you can travel an hour down the road on a train.

If your lucky.

There must be another way

For some reason the British have this idea that air travel is the quickest and best. The belief tends to come from the fact that the actual journey itself is actually the quickest, whilst ignoring the fact that you spend most of the rest of the time barely moving. Planes good, everything else bad. It even seeps into the thinking of successive governments who decide that having even more planes in our airports is a really good thing.

But for a lot of travel in Western Europe there is, of course, a good alternative. And it’s called the train.

There can’t be anyone who doesn’t know about the Eurostar, but what many don’t realise is that whilst Eurostar doesn’t go direct to many locations, it connects with the wonderful French TGV network. And the TGV goes to many places. Including Switzerland.

London to Paris

John Betjeman statue at St.Pancras Station

St Pancras station, by AK Foto. Released under Creative Commons licence

And so it came to pass that at 6am one Saturday morning, we boarded the Northern Line to St Pancras International – a lovely station and no mistake. And a station with just one slight flaw. All those nice quicker journeys you can now make on the Eurostar are eaten up for me by the fact that we can no longer get off the tube at Waterloo! Oh and a word to London Underground. Yes, your new look Kings Cross St Pancras is lovely. But why oh why did you design the main ticket hall without ramps? International rail terminal? People with heavy luggage? Stairs? I rest my case…

Anyway our train was due to leave St Pancras at 7:30 and with it being early on a Saturday morning, the Eurostar check-in was heaving but as every, efficient. It took around ten minutes of queuing and we were through the gates. A few more minutes waiting for security to quickly and efficiently x-ray the bags and we were in. Now that’s what international travel should be.

We ambled into the spacious terminal and eventually found a spot in the heaving terminal. And were happy to do so – such spots were rare. Well until I took a little walk and found out that everyone (and I mean everyone) had gone to the right of the terminal. One quick walk to the left, around the travelator to the platforms, which divides the waiting area, and the place was deserted. Rows and rows of empty seats. Even at one of its busiest times, and there’s loads of space to stretch out and relax. Not that we had much chance to as the train began boarding moments later.

Before long we were zooming through the countryside along the full route of High Speed 1. This was the first time we’d used the Eurostar since it began operating at the full 186mph on all its route from London to Paris. And it glides down. The only downside to the old, cramped route into Waterloo is that you no longer get London landmarks to admire as you travel – most of the journey in the centre is via a tunnel, and once you pop out its pretty industrial. Still, who cares when you’re travelling like trains should be?

A stopover in Paris

It was around 10:45 when we got to Paris Gare du Nord where we effortlessly got off the train and into the main station. No passport checks (they’re all done at St Pancras), no customs worries, no problems. Our only problem was what to do with the hour and a half our travel agent had given us in Paris before our next train. In that time, all we had to do was travel to Gare de L’est. We’d been given Metro tickets but it was a nice day and Gare de L’est is barely a ten minute walk so we took the scenic route and even found a park next door to Gare de L’est to sit back and enjoy the weather – a most agreeable way to relax mid-journey.

The time to board our TGV Lyria train to Zurich came perhaps too quick, but then we had another country to go to.

In fact the three and a half hour journey to Basel seemed to fly by as we sat in a modern, sleek and comfortable train, complete with cupholders. No more bringing down the entire seat table just to rest your Cafe Creme. There was one slight oddity with the train – each seat seemed to have two numbers – one illuminated and one not. Clearly they could change the numbering system if they needed to, although quite why they’d need to was not something I could particularly fathom.

Switzerland here we come!

The journey may have flown by due to the fact that I’d loaded my iPod with all eight series of Red Dwarf, but soon we were alighting just over the Swiss boarder in Basel. Slightly surprising was that no one bothered to check passports or customs (despite the TGV Lyria website claiming that we’d be checked on board).

We had just seven minutes to change to our next connection. Thanks to the ever wonderful Deutsche Bahn, we knew we had to merely change from platform 8 to platform 11. Our only battle was the raft of incredibly slow people who were dawdling with their luggage.

We needed have worried – Basel is a sleek, modern station with wide platforms, lots of escalators and lifts and easy access to trains. We found our penultimate train with ease.

Basel to Interlaken

Our two hour journey to Interlaken would be on another sleek and modern train – the giant double decker intercity train owned by Swiss national rail company, SBB CFF FSS (which, as I’m sure you all know stands for Schweizerische Bundesbahnen – Chemins de fer fédéraux suisses – Ferrovie federali svizzere. Or, to translate into English, Swiss Federal Railways – Swiss Federal Railways – Swiss Federal Railways). Switzerland is of course, multi-lingual and the railway company name is in three languages).

Original of "Basel SBB"

Basel train station, by MrUllmi. Released under Creative Commons licence.

These are serious beasts of a train. Comfortable, efficient and long. They run at around 10 coaches, and often have single deck coaches also coupled to them. So roomy are they that they feature dedicated family coaches, a coach which is a bistro downstairs and a restaurant upstairs (complete with non-fixed seats) and toilets which you can’t work out how to flush because the button is on a panel above the sink which doesn’t look like a button.

It was also late due to technical difficulties apparently. I say late. By late it actually left three minutes after scheduled departure time and soon made that up. And what’s more, being on the upper deck we had fantastic views of the Swiss countryside. Two hour journey? Felt nothing like it – and that was without Red Dwarf.

Interlaken to Meiringen

It was about six in the evening when we finally hopped off the double decker and frantically tried to find out next train – a “local” service operated by Die Zentralbahn. It’s a narrow gauge line (1m wide tracks, compared to the standard 1.435m). The service we were on ran up from Interlarken Ost to Meiringen – a journey of just 30 minutes. Yet even this service warranted a whopping six coaches on the train. This is a country that loves its trains.

It’s a scenic route and used by many tourists – the result being that the locals get a great service too with the line running a 30 minute frequency. Soon we were at the end, ready to stretch our legs. Not too far though – our hotel was sited just at the end of the station platforms…

12 hours of travelling, but yes, we were there.

And is that time so bad?

Want a contrast? Well according to our Travel Agent, if we’d flown (to Zurich), the connection there would have been 2.5 hours. BA lists a journey time of 1 hour 40 minutes flight time to Zurich, so that’s 4 and a half hours in itself. Add to that time to get to Heathrow (easily 90 minutes for me), check-in time (45 mins minimum, but realistically we would have ended up being there around 90 minutes early) plus all that waiting around for baggage, passport control, customs etal and you’re easily looking at 9 hours travelling. Minimum. And hey, most of that you wouldn’t even be moving at all.

And hey, how often can you easily do three countries in one day?


  • MattFM says:

    Hi Andrew, great post! I almost did London to Switzerland by train last year, but the difference in cost meant I went by air. I love travelling by train, but I couldn’t afford, nor justify the added expense.
    I’m looking forward to reading more about your trip. Have a look at my blog and you’ll see how obsessed I am with Switzerland.

  • Andrew Bowden says:

    Have to admit that I didn’t bother looking at cost of air travel. There’s no doubting going by train does cost more when you’re going to Switzerland, even after including the connecting travel. Which is a shame really.