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Home > Transatlantic perspective

A transatlantic perspective

Having grown up in the U.S., I am struck first by differences with American railroading. Among industrialized countries, Switzerland and the U.S. represent extremes in terms of distances and network density.

Except in a few places like the Northeast Corridor, which links Washington, New York and Boston, the problem in the U.S. tends to be more one of getting heavy freight trains and a few passenger trains over long distances without excessive delay. The task is often to arrange for trains to meet and pass each other on single-track lines, although a few freight trunk lines have two or even three tracks.

In Switzerland, the proportion of passenger trains is much greater and the network much more dense. The distances are much shorter and the overall demand for punctuality much greater. And there are a lot more trains - particularly between Killwangen-Spreitenbach and Altstetten.

In the 1920s, this contrast was smaller. A part of the U.S. that is comparable to Switzerland is southern New England, which comprises the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. These three states and Switzerland cover roughly the same area and in the twentieth century have had something like the same population.

In 1920, the rail systems in southern New England and in Switzerland, including streetcar and related "interurban" lines, were of similar density. Today, only a skeleton of the former network remains in southern New England - including just four routes with intercity passenger service - whereas over the 80 intervening years the Swiss have abandoned almost no lines and made many improvements.

Another difference is the approach to dispatching. In Switzerland, the three dispatching centers do not control turnouts and signals directly; this is the job of local control centers, such as the one in Altstetten, each of which controls the territory of one or more stations. This two-tiered approach stands in contrast to that of the U.S., where dispatchers generally directly control turnouts, signals, and train routing. The main explanation for this difference is the much greater network density, traffic density, variety of traffic, and resulting complexity of operations in Switzerland.

In the past, the U.S. railroads also made heavy use of operators in stations. In the future, SBB hopes to employ new technology to unify the functions of dispatcher and operator.

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This site was originally assembled in March 2001. Comments are welcome.

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