switzerland: making “when” visible

Much of transit's complexity arises from the difficulty of saying and remembering when it runs.  Route maps can be made pretty simple, but most urban North Americans (and Australians) have been taught that schedules are intrinsically complicated.  You either bypass them using trip planners or realtime information, or learn to enjoy wading through vast tables of times glittering with footnotes ("deviates via Hilltop Community Center on Thursdays").

Schedules are intrinsically complicated if running times change throughout the day, as is the case in many transit services that are stuck in mixed traffic.  But when you have an exclusive right of way, like a busway or separated train track, and you want the network to be simple, you can achieve beautiful repeating patterns like, well, this … (click to sharpen)

Swiss rail slice

It's a slice of this new diagram of the entire Swiss railway network, showing the repeating hourly patterns on which the entire network runs.   [Download PDF]    The notation takes a while to figure out, but there's a legend in English, French, and German that will talk you through it with typical Swiss clarity.  But for example, suppose you're at Grenchen Süd on the left side of the image, and you take an eastbound local train (the black line that runs across the middle of the image).  It arrives Grenchen Sud at :30 after every hour departs a minute later.  You'll then stop at Solothurn West at :42 after the hour and arrive Solothurn at :44.  Stay on the train and you'll get to Niederbipp, but if you want to go to Wiedlisbach, on the local line north out of Solothurn, you'll have a nice connection.  That train leaves at :48, only four minutes after you arrive.

This regular pattern happens every hour, all day, every day, and similar patterns cover the entire country.  The whole rail network is an interconnected structure of times, not just lines, with schedules built around each other to optimize connections as much as possible.  The core enabling idea is the regular hourly pattern of almost everything. That's what assures that (a) you can remember the schedule and use it regardless of when you decide to travel and (b) the connection timing is the same regardless of which trip you're on.

Download the full map if you dare.  The legend itself is a work of art.  I stared at it happily for half an hour, but I'm a fallen geek.  A true geek could kill an afternoon.  

And of course, the Swiss do the same thing at the urban transit scale.   Here you can download a similar map for the Zurich S-Bahn. (Legend only in German, but it's similar to the main map, which has English.)

No, I'm not saying that all public information should look like this, only that regular patterns in a timetable are a radical act of simplification, one that suddenly makes the whole day's service graspable in a couple of numbers.  Where these regular patterns are possible, they're worth fighting for.

17 Responses to switzerland: making “when” visible

  1. Alan Robinson December 26, 2011 at 11:15 pm #

    Thank you Jarrett, and thank goodness my birthday isn’t long after Christmas.

  2. greg byshenk December 27, 2011 at 10:01 am #

    I don’t know if there is a similar chart available, but much of the Dutch NS system runs in the same way, with (for example) trains leaving from A for B at :16 and :46 past the hour throughout most of the day. A lot of the buses (at least outside the city centers) run on a similar ‘clock’ schedule.

  3. David Oleesky December 27, 2011 at 12:12 pm #

    Most UK public transport (rail & bus) also runs using clockface scheduling, at least on Mon-Sat 0700-1900; evening and Sunday/public holiday services are limited, often having different routes and/or irregular/infrequent schedules. The planned connectivity found in Switzerland barely exists, and is considered to contravene the official policy of competition between different operators. In addition, the widespread use of public service buses as school transport means that many bus timetables have missing/altered trips from 0800-0930 and 1500-1630 on weekdays when schools are operating.

  4. Alan Tobias December 28, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    As a big fan of both the art of the visual display of quantitative information (Edward Tufte is my hero!) and of the Swiss rail system, I was ecstatic to read your comments and study the map. Of course, the key to any clockface scheduling system is the ability to run the trains like clockwork, which the Swiss have mastered. The first time I road trains is Switzerland I was intimidated by an itinerary that required 3 transfers with 3 to 5 minutes for each. That would never work with the US or UK rail systems, but it works flawlessly on the SBB.

  5. francis December 28, 2011 at 3:23 pm #

    At a presentation on the Swiss system one thing pointed out about the clockface schedule with timed connections is that services don’t need to be as fast as possible – just “as fast as necessary” to make the connection.

  6. d.p. December 28, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

    I once spent a summer month between Montbovon and Gstaad (along those dotted lines that curve north and east out of Montreax).
    With the local and the semi-express (the latter stopped at pretty much every town, no matter how small, skipping only the flag stops between) switching off bi-hourly, and running on different clock-faces from one another, having a printed schedule was a total necessity.
    Clock-face reliability is great for high-level commuter rail systems like Germany’s S-Bahns or New York’s Metro-North. Its utility for anything less frequent than 30 minutes or more frequent than 10 is questionable.

  7. Max Wyss December 28, 2011 at 6:17 pm #

    To d.p.: Actually, the clock face reliability is required for longer intervals as well. If you have a network with hourly schedules, and you have the timed connections, this reliability is crucial for the system to work. In fact, the Swiss system started with hourly intervals, and it was only a consequence of the success of that system that now the core network is at (more or less) 30 minute intervals. This also makes the Swiss network the most used network of the world (an average of almost 100 trains per line per day).
    To David Oleesky: You probably mention the biggest flaw in the British privatisation: artificial competition. This is something which does not really work in favor of the user (and even less so in favor of the government). I guess it is the question of mindset whether public transportation is considered a SYSTEM or a bunch of lines (but with that, the UK has a long-standing “experience” (sorry to say)). In a system all components work together, and the synergies make them do better than if they were on their own).

  8. d.p. December 28, 2011 at 6:36 pm #

    Max: I should have been more clear.
    If you are running an hourly service with no deviation whatsoever from the clock-face timing, then its memorable simplicity can still be of value. (See: Metro-North’s outermost segments.)
    But the moment you complicate things in the manner of my Swiss experience — ultra-local on the :27s one hour, semi-expresses on the :20s the next hour — you’re going to need that printed schedule in your pocket.
    More regular services, from 30 minutes (on many modes of medium-distance transit) to 10 minutes (such as on Berlin’s S-Bahns), reflect enough demand to justify absolute consistency in a way that relatively few hourly services seem to.
    Anything less than hourly is going to require a hard-copy timetable for sure.

  9. Max Wyss December 28, 2011 at 7:05 pm #

    To d.p.: Your experience happened on the MOB, a “private” line with a rather difficult line profile and little funding for bringing the infrastructure up to the fixed hourly intervals. This has changed a bit in the meantime (go to http://www.fahrlplanfelder.ch and download the current “paper” timetable for Montreux – Zweisimmen). This line also has an unique mix of tourist (transit) and local traffic. So, it is a bit of an exception in the network.

  10. Alon Levy December 30, 2011 at 11:13 pm #

    Some French regions are adopting clockface schedules. The local name is horaire cadencé. In the Riviera, the main line around Nice has trains running every half-hour, with just one hourly gap midday, and extra peak express trains run on a separate clockface schedule.
    In contrast, Metro-North has some clockface patterns, but there are too many deviations. The patterns only persist in the midday off-peak – they are completely broken in the peak, when trains tend to only serve a few suburban stops and then express to Grand Central, and if there’s a clockface pattern in the evening off-peak, it’s frequently different from the midday pattern.

  11. Max Wyss December 31, 2011 at 9:46 pm #

    It is not only the clockface schedules which make the Swiss system be special; it is that it goes beyond the “line(ar) thinking” and treats the system as what it is, a system. The “nodes” with the timed connections, plus timed connections, even if not every 30 minutes to regional and local buses are as important.
    I doubt that the Nice area has similar coordination. And, having more experience with the opposite corner of the PACA, it is even less so. They say that the Région has some power for the schedules, but coordination between the (Région controlled) rail network and the (Département-owned) bus network appears to be inexistant. No wonder the buses are almost empty most of the time.
    Having a different pattern in the evening and on weekends is absolutely acceptable. However, again, it has to be system-wide, with similar connection patterns. In many places in Switzerland, having one car in the household (where in other countries two or more cars would be around), is considered “Quality of life”, and even more deliberately having no car, even more so. The latter is — to get back to the network diagrams — the case in the Canton of Zürich, where many households have no car. For the times when a car is needed, they are member of the car sharing organization, or use taxis… which actually ends up cheaper than having a car… And, no, these households are not in the “poor” category; Their gross income is in the six figures Swiss Francs. It’s just “Quality of Life”…

  12. Steven Dale January 2, 2012 at 3:11 am #

    As someone who spends roughly half his life living in Switzerland, I’d like to chime in with one quick problem with the Swiss rail system:
    The network-wide clockface intervals and short transfer times are, indeed, a wonder and a marvel. But when small incidents occur, they are quick to magnify, multiply and reverberate throughout the system.
    Tiny errors and problems can quickly morph into large scale delays requiring passengers to be rerouted in highly indirect means through numerous transfers.
    Thankfully, the Swiss’ personality of desperate efficiency means such incidents are rare, but when they do happen, what should normally be a 40 minute direct train ride can quickly become a 2.5 hour odyssey.
    Having said that, I’d still rather have the Swiss rail system than anything the Anglosphere could possibly imagine providing.

  13. Pete January 3, 2012 at 10:57 am #

    The brilliant thing about the swiss system is that the national clockface timetable includes virtually all rail operators, not just the SBB.
    In the UK clockface timetables are virtually universal on bus and rail. My local station (Chippenham) has intercity trains to London and Bristol every 30 minutes throughout the day. My local bus service to Swindon runs every 20 minutes throughout the day, and another to Bath every 30 minutes. The latter route includes a UK speciality – competing company running 3 – 5 minutes ahead of the main company. This is fine for senior citizens on free passes, but fare payers wanting a return fare are restricted to the company who sold the ticket. According to the UK government this is good!

  14. Andre Lot January 4, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

    I sincerely don’t get the hype around “clockface schedules” built around an irrelevant (from the civil and rail traffic engineering point), arbitrary measure that set time as in a Earth-rotation being divided in 24 hours of 60 minutes each.
    To operate managed and timed connections and build a network around them might be a nice thing (is has some drawbacks*), but in this day and age of high computing power and information devices everywhere, it doesn’t mean that:
    (1) the master interval must be one hour
    (2) the specific intervals must be a natural divisor (or multiples) of 60 (120, 60, 30, 20, 15, 10, 6, 3, 2 and 1)
    (1) and (2) are artificial, outdated constraints that should be ditched altogether. Everybody has phones with data capabilities these days (at least in Switzerland), and highly powerful computers are ubiquitous, so that it would be possible to design a network around an optimal master interval, be it 44, 62, 71, 38, 50 minutes or what else.
    The use of hour-based schedules is abhorrent, almost superstitious, and it is very serious of a problem in the sense it dictates, in the narrow-minded minds of rail planners of Switzerland, which engineering projects get built, and which not, and in which order.
    *One of the many pitfalls of the Swiss planning system is that it makes insanely difficult to operate cross border trains by operators not bounded by the Swiss mentality, especially long-distance services that are not meant for local transport and thus need faster paths without intermediate stops 2 or 3 times a day only. It also makes it VERY difficult to achieve operator competition, a laudable goal on itself, that could put up a fare war with SBB (like Westbahn is doing with OBB in its Salzburg-Wien route in Austria, or NTV is soon going to do with Trenitalia in Italy).

  15. Michael D. Setty January 4, 2012 at 6:12 pm #

    Hey, Andre, clock-faced schedules are EASY for HUMANS to remember. Who gives a #@$% about what computers can do if a simple scheme so HUMANS–who pay the fares, not computers?!
    As for “competition” among transit operators, I care about maximizing understandability of the network and thus helping maximize ridership, NOT fulfilling the Thatcherite B.S. that has been swallowed “hook, line and sinker” and imposed on various cities and countries by the authoritarian EU Commission. Such Thatcherite mandates are one of the straws I think will break the EU back, along with the EU financial crisis.

  16. Andre L. January 5, 2012 at 11:54 am #

    @Micheal D. Setty, your argument is a straw man. Nobody cares about knowing multiples as an important ability, because everybody has an easy access to calculator – for instance.
    Competition is important to bring lower fares. We don’t have many examples of TRUE competition (more than one train company offering services in the same route, which is different from local monopolies like UK franchises), but when we have (Westbahn x OBB, Thalys x ICE etc.) there have been price reductions and more discounts for advance purschase. I want to pay less, I don’t care about the network like when I fly I don’t care that some cities are underserved, only paying less for my air tickets.

  17. Brent January 5, 2012 at 9:12 pm #

    Not only is a clockface schedule easier to remember, it’s easier to integrate at transfer points if all routes are on clockface schedules. (Quick, how do you design a pulse point around a rail line operating every 23 minutes?)