Having a rail of a time A seat aboard Swiss and British trains

With one foot in the UK and another in Switzerland, dual citizen Natalia Hedges pens a witty juxtaposition on train systems and a cautionary tale of the hazards of candy.

We may mock the Swiss for their insanely precisionist time-keeping and fastidious ways but their achievements in engineering and construction speak for themselves. Think of the Gotthard tunnels or the Swiss Federal Railway system.

I personally have always had a weakness for Swiss trains. As a child, the first time I set my eyes on one of those double-decker carriages, I charged up the stairs and peered down from the window as if I'd just clambered up to the top of an enchanted castle. There's something about Swiss trains that makes you feel safe. In my eyes they stand for a great feat of engineering and human ingenuity.

Very different is my regard towards British trains. I distinctly remember almost choking to death on a train in the UK as a teenager. No, it wasn't after an all night club-spree, whilst devouring an early morning hamburger. It was one sunny afternoon, on a local train headed for Brighton, on the South coast of England. I was happily sucking on a humbug (for those unfamiliar with the term – think of a very big sweet), when the train made the first of several upward lurching movements, knocking the passengers about as if we had paid for a rickety ride at a funfair or embarked on a trip on the world's first bouncy castle on wheels. It made me lose complete control of what was going on in my mouth and down the sweet went, in its entirety. Not even standing up and bending my head forward - to allow gravity to take over - reversed its trajectory. This would never have happened on a Swiss train, I thought at the time. As we jittered and jolted onwards I was still coming to terms with the shock, and by that stage, I had almost started to feel a little train sick. As we slowly jerked up towards the terminus station, I was relieved, to say the least.

The station had been built in the Victorian era, and by the looks of it, not much modernisation had taken place since. It was at that moment that I realised something very elementary - there are certain aspects of life in England that give you the impression you have travelled back in time.  It was as if the flight that I had taken from Zurich to London wasn't an aeroplane at all but a replica of H.G. Wells' Time Machine in disguise. Vast segments of Britain's infrastructure are still a testament to its Victorian heyday. The polar opposite to Switzerland's modernistic, forward-thinking aspirations, where materials are durable and constructions are erected with the highest degree of accuracy and diligence, the hallmarks of Swiss quality. Here I found myself catapulted back into the great Victorian era, the golden age of the British Empire and industrial advancements.

The train finally jolted to a halt, it brought me back to the present. Little did I know, I was soon to encounter a completely new kind of era – the era of big gaping gaps. In the service provider's defence I was alerted to this impending danger before alighting the train by means of an on-board announcement to "Please remember to take all your baggage with you and beware of the gap as you alight the train." Mind the gap, a sentence most people become familiar with when using the London Underground. So I thought nothing of it. But standing at the threshold of the train, about to alight, I gazed down and found myself wishing the Oxford Dictionary would have been more specific when defining the word gap since in this instance a 1 ft (30cm) drop and then a considerable leap in order to safely reach the other side, would have been a suitable definition of the word. One small step for some is obviously one large leap for others. So I took the plunge and braved the odds and survived.

Life in Switzerland is distinctly different in the sense that gaps are scarce. So scarce in fact that I almost end up tripping over the gap that isn't there as I take a lunge off the train and realise the floor is waiting for me. Now that has to be at least a little dangerous. Not only are there no gaps but trains are able to travel very smoothly at high speeds, through icy blizzards and sweets can be eaten at one's leisure. You have to give it to the Swiss, it may be a small country and that makes it relatively easy to maintain, but don't they do it brilliantly. If anyone ever does design and build a time machine in the future, I hope it will be the Schweizerische Bundesbahnen (Swiss Federal Railways), better known as SBB in German or CFF in French, with maybe a smidgen of support from the Brits – just for old time's sake.   

Author: Natalia Hedges

Natalia Hedges is a freelance journalist, who spent most of her childhood in England before moving to Switzerland as a teenager. Natalia holds a degree in Sociology and Communication Sciences and is bilingual. She has travelled to many corners of Europe, propelled by her love for language, good food and culture. After spending several years living and working in Germany and the UK, Natalia has returned to Switzerland to pursue her writing career.


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