For the Swiss it really does run like clockwork

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The Independent Online

The assumption that Britain's train services are the worst in Europe would come as little consolation to French or Italian passengers raging against strikes, delays and overcrowding.

Other countries might have more investment, cheaper fares and faster services but it is a misconception to believe rail users abroad are happy with their lot.

The French grumble about the constant strikes that sabotage their otherwise well-funded and fast SNCF network, the Italians moan about unpredictable departure times and overcrowding, and even the Spanish who enjoy one of the Continent's best services, think it is expensive and slow.

Only in Switzerland, it seems, is there a service to please even the most bad tempered of train travellers. It is not the cheapest in Europe and it is divided among so many train operators that Britain's system seems positively streamlined. But its punctuality and reliability have won it so many friends that taxpayers have few grumbles about paying up.

Chris Milner, deputy editor of Rail magazine, lost just 30 minutes to delays after taking 75 trains in a week recently in Switzerland. The first train he took when he got back to London was 39 minutes late.

"It is a system to be admired," he said. "The trains really do run like clockwork, they are seldom late and when you need to make a connection it is often waiting for youon the next platform.

"Just before Christmas I heard a Swiss train had been cancelled for the first time in 100 years due to lack of drivers."

A spokesman for Swiss Federal Railways said the success was down to every train operating company owning its own track, which allowed them to plan for infrastructure, rolling stock and timetables up to 20 years in advance.

The French government-owned SNCF and its high-speed TGV trains are most often held up as the example of how British railways have failed. But the company, the largest employer in France, is plagued by industrial relations problems and survives only by soaking up £2bn each year from the taxpayer.

When it runs, the service is reliable and relatively cheap. But this is no consolation on the frequent occasions when trains are stuck in the station.

Spain, which has a similar level of service but a smaller public subsidy of about £834m, has high-speed trains from Madrid to the south which are preferred to planes by many passengers.

British travellers say Spanish railways have kept old traditions of staff pride while adopting modern rolling stock and ticketing practices. Although local people are not so easily impressed.

One expat said: "They say there are not enough services and it's expensive but they don't realise the international comparisons. By British standards it is fantastic.".