Tourist Info

Switzerland's Transportation Systems


Switzerland has three international airports: Zurich-Kloten (ZRH), Geneva (GVA) and Basel-Mulhouse (BSL). The airports of Zurich and Geneva do have their own railway stations providing fast and frequent transfer into the very heart of downtown Zurich and Geneva and to all other major Swiss cities. The Euro-Airport Basel-Mulhouse is shared with the French city of Mulhouse and actually on French territory, but passengers may reach Basel on a short extraterritorial highway without formally entering France. Public Buses connect the airport with the central railway station / tramway hub. Two more airports, Bern-Belpmoos (BRN) and Lugano-Agno (LUG) do offer a relevant number of scheduled passenger flights to European destinations, but they are too small for aircraft used for intercontinental flights. Downtown Bern is reached from Zurich Airport in just 1¼ hours by 2 Intercity trains per hour. Another 61 airports and airfields, among them St. Moritz and Gstaad, may be used by smaller aircraft.

Public transport

Switzerland's public transport system is known to be one of the finest in the world. A dense network of railroad, bus and tramaway lines and a systematic timetable allow to reach almost any point in the country once per hour. In most cases one ticket is enough for one journey even if numerous railway, bus and ship operators are involved. The punctuality of Switzerland's public transport system is supervised and the goals of 95% arrivals with less than 5 minutes delay and 75% with less than 1 minute delay are regularly achieved in the monthly statistics.


Swiss Locomotive Re 420 (Re 4/4 II)

Switzerland's main railroad lines are operated by Swiss Federal Railways (Schweizerische Bundesbahnen SBB, Chemins de Fer Fédéaux CFF, Ferrovie Federali Svizzeri FFS), owned by the Swiss confederation, but there exist a number of so-called privately owned railway companies. In reality, the Swiss confederation, the cantons [federal states] and communes concerned hold a vast majority of the capital of these railway companies (typically more than 90%) and also subsidise infrastructure and operation.

The standard gauge (1435 mm / 56.5 in) main line railway network is extended by meter gauge lines in narrow alpine valleys (Grisons, Valais, Unterwalden, Bernese Oberland). Among these are the "slowest fast train of the world" (Glacier Express) linking St. Moritz with Zermatt in a one-day scenic journey and Golden Pass linking Montreux, Interlaken and Lucerne.

The electrification of Switzerland's railroads began early in the 20th century and was completed in the 1960's. All lines are 100% electrified, only a few local trunks to industries are operated by diesel engines (museum railroads not counted).

Switzerland has the highest train density in Europe, a higher proportion of the population uses public transport and they travel longer distances than in any other country except Japan.

Excellent Intercity train connections from city center to city center make public transport a preferred choice for business people and politicians.

Scenic Railroads

While the normal-gauge railway network is primarily used by millions of business people, commuters and students, some narrow-gauge railway lines are specifically scenic and most of their passengers are tourists - both foreigners and Swiss. Especially when the weather is nice, you will find thousands of pensioneers on excursions to the alpine regions. Some of the most scenic railroads are:

Metropolitan Transport

Major Swiss cities Zurich, Basel, Bern, Geneva, Lausanne, Neuchâtel and Zug do have extended S-Bahn networks [fast metropolitan area trains with frequent stops running at short intervals from 10 to 30 minutes] and/or tramways networks. In these regions, all providers unite in a so-called "Verkehrsverbund" [transport association], and the same tickets are valid on trains, tramways, buses and even ships.

Basel, Bern, Biel/Bienne, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Fribourg, Geneva, Lausanne, Lugano, Lucerne, Neuchâtel, Schaffhausen, St. Gallen, Vevey and Winterthur operate trolley-bus networks and additional diesel bus networks to suburbs. Many smaller towns operate a local bus network.

Cross-country Buses

Almost any village in Switzerland can be reached by a regional bus line several times a day, most of them even once per hour. Swiss post operates many of these bus lines with their famous yellow post buses. Schedules and tickets of all cross-country buses are integrated into Switzerland's unique system of integrated public transports, so you may plan your journey at one portal website, get all necessary information where to change and even print out a through-fare ticket online.

There are no public long-distance buses in Switzerland, however: Long-distance trains provide more capacity, are faster, more reliable (not affected by traffic congestion), cheaper and more comfortable than bus-travel. For any long-distance route within Switzerland there is at least one train per hour from early morning to midnight, while cross-country buses are operated on routes with very little traffic.

Swiss post bus in Saas Fee

No rule without exception, however:

Roads / Highways / Motorways

More than 1600 km [1000 miles] of motorways (interstate expressways with strictly separated lanes, most of them with four lanes) and 70,000 km [43,000 miles] of other highways and second-class roads (all of them paved) form a dense road network. Besides there are many unpaved, but well-maintained roads used by farmers and forest workers, but most of them may not be used without special permit. Statistically one out of two inhabitants owns a car, but there is a considerable minority (about 10%) of the urban population that relies on public transport and bicycles alone - most of them academics renouncing on a private car for conviction.

Though even much more money has been invested in road building than in public transportation infrastructure, Switzerland's roads, especially the main east-west (A1) and north-south (A2) motorways and the metropolitan areas of major Swiss cities are quite congested and finding a parking lot can be difficult in downtown areas. Electronic parking guide systems may help you to find a parking house, but often far from the city center during rush hours.

Scholarly studies have confirmed what anybody listening to traffic reports on the radio might have guessed for quite some time: Every attempt to solve road congestion problems by constructing bypass roads or increasing the number of motorway lanes from 4 to 6 just results in shifting the problem to another location. While a clear majority of the population accepts self-regulating choice of means of transport by capacity (parking lots, hours spent waiting due to congestion), automotive lobbyists and politicians seem to be a bit slower in the uptake.

Traffic Rules

Most important for tourists are perhaps traffic rules and speed limits differing from other European countries.

Road Classification, Signposts, Speed Limits
Road Class Signpost
Color /
General Speed Limit
km/h mph
Autobahn (4 or 6 lane motorway/interstate expressway with strictly separated lanes)
slow vehicles (agricultural tractors, bicycles) and pedestrians strictly forbidden
green signs green lanes green lanes, red diagonal 120 75
Autobahn, special speed limit for trucks/heavy recreational vehicles (more than 3.5 tons) 100 62
Autostrasse (2 lane motorway/expressway)
slow vehicles (agricultural tractors, bicycles) and pedestrians strictly forbidden
car on green car on green, red diagonal 100 62
Main roads, outside towns/villages blue signs yellow rhombus yellow rhombus, black diagonal 80 50
Side roads, outside towns/villages white signs
Deviations due to maintenance works
orange signs        
Bike routes
dark red signs        
Tourist attractions, historical buildings, museums, historcial paths brown signs        
Industry / business grey signs, red point        
Streets in built-up areas   50 30
Back streets in cities
special dwelling zones, traffic usually restricted to residents only or special restrictions to certain hours
- 30 18
Back streets in cities
special dwelling zones, traffic usually restricted to residents only or special restrictions to certain hours. Pedestrians may use the street and you must expect that children are playing on the street.
- 20 12

General speed limits are indicated in kilometers per hour. These limits are high compared to the U.S.A. Compared to other European countries, limits outside built-up areas are rather low and reflect the special aspects of Switzerland's topography. Almost all roads in Switzerland (including motorways) have a lot of curves. Where necessary, even lower speed limits are signalled.

Please note that your car must have a Autobahnvignette (special road tax sticker) on its front window, if you want to use motorways/expressways. The Autobahnvignette costs 30 CHF (about 20 Euro, 25 US$) and is valid for one year. When considering whether you need to buy one, keep two things in mind: Switzerland's plateau region is almost one big city now, on normal main roads half of the distance traveled and more than half of the time spent on the road is within built-up areas where 50 km/h [30 mph] speed limits (or lower) apply. Both major pass roads between northern Switzerland and canton Ticino (St. Gotthard and San Bernardino) are not open all year, so you might have to use the base tunnels which are part of the A2 Autobahn and the A13 Autostrasse, respectively. If you rent a car in Switzerland check for the Autobahnvignette, if it's not there, the rental company is not reputable.

Autobahn vignette
(05 means
valid in 2005)

Yellow signposts

Large yellow signposts or prohibition signs in black/yellow instead of red/white indicate special regulations for military vehicles. For civilian cars, only the standard red/white/blue/green signs apply.

Small yellow signposts mark hiking paths for pedestrians.

Pedestrian Crossings

In Switzerland cars must stop, if pedestrians want to cross the lane on pedestrian crossings marked with yellow bars. For pedestrians it definitively does make sense to take some extra steps in towns and use a pedestrian crossing or a pedestrian underpass and to obey traffic lights. Unfortunately one can often see tourists risking their lives by crossing a four-lane highway during the rush hour just 100 steps from the next safe pedestrian crossing with traffic lights. Swiss drivers are usually very polite and patient if pedestrians want to cross the road on a pedestrian crossing, but they expect that pedestrians keep to the rules as well. This is a difference to southern European countries. Switzerland does provide for lots of safe pedestrian crossings. Please do use them and enjoy a safe holiday.

Traffic Congestion

Heavy congestion is notorious in metropolitan areas. When approaching major cities like Zurich, Lausanne, Geneva, Basel, Bern and Lucerne on motorways you should be aware that you might be stopped quite suddenly by traffic congestion in rush hours (about 6:30 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m.).

Ice and Snow, Pass Roads

Please mind that roads may be covered by wet leaves in autumn and by ice or snow in winter (from October to April, depending on the altitude) - especially on bridges. On alpine pass roads above 2000 m [6500 ft] snow-chains may be required in autumn, many pass roads are closed in winter (especially if there is a tunnel available). Those using heavy recreational vehicles (or trailers) should be aware that engines do need some power reserve when operated in high altitudes due to low air pressure (diesel engines in particular). It is strongly advised to use low gears both uphill and downhill to avoid excessive use of brakes leading to overheating. Cars with automated gears should be operated in positions "1" or "2" instead of "D" on the descent, so that you need not use the brakes too often.

Alpine Transit

The alps, once a massive barrier between Italy and central Europe are still a key traffic bottleneck, though hundreds of bridges and tunnels have been constructed over the last 150 years. The Saint Gotthard (16 km, opened in 1882) and Lötschberg / Simplon railway tunnels were masterpieces of engineering at their time. Since the opening of the Saint Gotthard road tunnel (16.3 km [10.1 miles]) road traffic crossing the alps has considerably increased, causing heavy air pollution.


Although Switzerland is landlocked, it operates its own merchant marine consisting of 25 large vessels on the seas and numerous barges connecting seaports with harbors in Switzerland. River Rhine has been made navigable from the North Sea up to the Swiss border in Basel and plays a major role in imports and exports of heavy goods. To be precise, the wateray continues for 19 more km [12 miles] along the Swiss-German border up to Rheinfelden, a second harbor for the Basel region. The French canal du Rhône au Rhin actually links rivers Rhine and Doubs in the Alsace region (just northwest of Basel) and opens access from Basel to river Rhône and thereby to the Mediterranean Sea.

Waterways inside Switzerland do no longer play a key role in transportation. A short section of river Rhine at the lower end of the Bodensee [Lake Constance] is navigable, too, but as it is separated from Basel by the famous Rhine Falls at Neuhausen / Schaffhausen, freight transports are not interesting there. The section is used as an extension to passenger lines on Lake Constance which serve mainly touristic purposes.

Twelve major lakes in Switzerland are navigable. There is a limited amount of freight transport, especially of gravel deposited at the upper end of the lakes by the alpine rivers feeding the lake. Public passenger ships mostly serve the same purpose as dedicated privately owned pleasure cruise boats. People just wanting to get to the other end of the lake are usually faster by train or bus.


Switzerland from A to Z
Short quotations allowed but with precise declaration of origin (Link).
Reproduction of substantial parts and pictures in printed or electronic form only with explicit written consent by the editor.