Saturday, November 8, 2014

Swiss Time & Efficiency

UPDATED: See the bottom of the post for the cool minute change of the Swiss rail clock!

On Thursday I was meeting a friend for lunch and apologized when I arrived seven minutes late. He made the point that only in Switzerland would I apologize for arriving a whole seven minutes(!) late, which got me to thinking about Swiss time, which reminded me of a blog post I started putting together years ago. So, this morning I looked at my drafts and, lo and behold, this thing was 90%+ finished! Why didn't I post it those years ago? So, without further ado....


With news that Apple recently paid $21 million (!!!) to license the iconic Swiss Federal Railways clock design for  iOS 6, it seemed like high time (haha) that I finally addressed TIME in Switzerland....

Left: The new clock face that Apple will us in iOS 6. Right: SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) clock as licensed to Mondaine.
A few weeks ago, Laura returned from a business trip to the US, and the boys and I picked her up at the Geneva airport. As we were waiting outside the customs area, I received a text:

"Luggage arriving in 4 minutes. See you soon!"

And, when she met us outside, she was once again impressed by Swiss efficiency to time. We've grown accustomed to it living here, but returning from a trip abroad brings it back into focus. You see, she knew when the luggage was arriving because the Swiss airport workers post a count-down timer at the luggage belt. At five minutes, they start the countdown. And, the precise moment that timer hits 0, a klaxon sounds, a light starts flashing, the belt starts moving, and luggage begins descending from the ceiling.

Now, is there any great secret to how this is done? Probably not. My suspicion is that that luggage had been sitting on the belt above the customs area two or three minutes before the countdown timer started. In fact, they could probably cut a few minutes off the average time of luggage delivery at Geneva Airport. But, that is not what efficiency means to the Swiss. It's not so important how fast you can get something done, but that you can depend on it being done when promised, every time (or nearly every time).

Consider the trains in Switzerland and France.

When we first arrived here in Switzerland, I have to admit I was initially a bit disappointed with the Swiss rail system. If the French can run the TGV from Lausanne to Paris in 3 hours 41 minutes (7+ hours driving time), why does it take the Swiss 2 and a half hours to make the trip from Lausanne to Zurich (driving time 2-1/2 to 3 hours).

See here the wicked fast French TGV:

And here, for comparision, is a typical Swiss train:

Okay, so I cheated a bit there. The top video was a French TGV specifically outfitted to make a world-record breaking speed run. But, still the point remains. How can a Swiss train be efficient if it runs so slowly?

Again, for the Swiss

efficiency does not equal speed or throughput

efficiency equals reliability!

Remember how I said the TGV runs from Lausanne to Paris in 3 hours 41 minutes? Well, I've taken that train six times so far, and only once have I made the trip in that time. The trip has taken close to four hours most times, pushing close to 20 minutes late on average. 

The Swiss 2.5 hour trip? Two and a half hours, every time.*

The Swiss rail administrators endeavor to ensure that passengers complete their entire connected trip with less than 3 minutes of delay. Keep in mind, they're not just counting a simple rail route, but connected journeys in their measurements. If a person makes a journey from Geneva, on the western end of Switzerland, all the way across to the eastern tip of Graubunden, with 4+ connections, they are supposed to arrive there with less than 3 minutes of delay.

When you first plan a long Swiss rail journey and see your planned connection times are 6 minutes at a station, you may be a little concerned. But, before long, you'll realize that's plenty of time. They've planned out the walking route between platforms, figured weather/other variability into the route planning of each train**, and you can count on it working almost every time.

I remember catching a train at the Geneva airport. A group of people was dashing down the corridor to catch an escalator to the train platform and a Swiss rail official called out, "Don't run! Don't worry! The train is not leaving for 2 minutes! You have plenty of time!" This is the voice of experience from a man who knows precisely when that train is leaving, and precisely how much time it takes to get from one place to another.
  • Metrics: Of course, nobody is perfect, and no one can deal with all possible delays, so how does Swiss rail do?
    • In 2013, 87.5% of all passengers made their selected destination in less than 3 minutes of delay. It's hard to tell whether this is good or just okay. More impressively to me (and perhaps more important),
    • 97.3% of connections were made.
    • Think about that! SBB carried 365.9 million passengers last year, and 97.3% of them made their planned connections! (And 320+ million of them arrived at their destination within 3 minutes of their planned arrival time!) You can count on Swiss rail.

At the risk of sounding pedantic, a few more examples:
  • The first day Laura took the train to the office, she arrived at the train platform about 10 minutes before her train was due to depart. There was no one at the train station. She was worried she'd read the timetable wrong. 
    • 7 minutes prior to departure: crickets. 
    • 5 minutes prior: still nothing. 
    • 3 minutes prior: first person shows up. 
    • 2 minutes prior: 3 people.
    • 1 minute prior: a stream of people begins arriving. 
    • 30 seconds prior: full platform.
    • These days, Laura leaves the apartment to arrive about a minute prior to train departure.
  • Similarly, the first time there was a coffee meeting in her office, Laura headed to the meeting area about 5 minutes before 9. She figured, as in the US, she would get a chance to chat to a few people before the meeting started (which would probably begin around 9:07 or 9:10). And, of course, there as no one there. And, at 8:59 the room filled up. And, at 9 am the leader started talking. 9 means 9. Not 8:55. And, not 9:07.

So, of course this has affected me, too. 

It's safe to say I was almost never on time to anything in my previous life. It's not that I didn't plan on how long it would take to get somewhere, but I didn't do it properly. If I was going to a meeting somewhere, I knew how long it took to drive there (like, the fastest I had ever driven it, during, probably, the middle of the night on a weekend, or something, when there was no traffic), and that was my planned time. 

Now, things are a bit different:
  • What is a reasonable drive time, considering the time of day and my route? Do I want to build in some extra time for contingencies?
  • What is the parking situation? How long will it find a space to park?
  • How far away will that be from where I'm going? How long will it take me to walk that distance?
  • Do I know where I'm going once I get to the building? How long will it take me to find out?
  • Is this a doctor's appointment? Am I going for the first time so I'll need to fill out documents before the appointment?
  • Etc.
Which is not to say I don't make mistakes. After all, I was 7 minutes late for my lunch date on Thursday. And, Swiss trains are late occasionally, too. But, in the olden days, I would have felt pretty good about 7 minutes, and like I was on time. (Let's be serious, I wouldn't have known I was "7 minutes" late!) Now, that's something I find myself apologizing for.


And, by the way, for those of you who miss it, or are just curious, here is the real Swiss Federal Railways clock.
Real SBB/CFF/FFS clock, designed in 1944.
Do you know/remember how that clock works? I love how it dramatically emphasizes the change of the minute. That red second hand sweeps smoothly around the clock face. Then, it arrives at the 60/0 second position, pauses briefly, and the minute hand CLUNKS ahead to the next minute. The minute hand doesn't move during the minute. At any specific time, you can see at a glance precisely what minute the Swiss rail service is counting as valid.

And, now UPDATED in video!


* Not every time. As we've established, even Swiss rail is not perfect. And, unfortunately, I did experience one of those late experiences one day when I really, really needed not to....

** I absolutely love the way they do this. They build in extra catch-up time into the train schedule at periodic intervals. For example, the Pully Nord train station is right near our apartment, and it is one stop from Lausanne. For the Lausanne - Pully Nord trip, this segment is scheduled for 2 minutes. On the Pully Nord - Lausanne trip, it is scheduled for 6 minutes. That's four minutes of slack time (or catch-up time) built into the schedule right before the train reaches Lausanne, where many of the train riders will be catching a connection. Also, the train is scheduled to sit in Lausanne for six whole minutes(!), much longer than the 1 minute scheduled time for the non-connecting stations. That's another five minutes of slack time built directly into the train schedule.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Egypt in April? Maybe we should wait....

Tuesday I was just about to book two flights for next April. One to Cairo on Egypt Air, and one returning from Hurghada on easyJet. Our plan was to fly there and then follow an itinerary to include Giza, the Valley of the Kings/Luxor, and three days snorkeling reefs in the Red Sea. (Basically, this trip with a few minor adjustments: )

Needless to say, the events of the last few days have made us rethink things. I'm still not ready to give up on the Egypt trip yet, but we're also definitely not booking it yet. And when we do, I think travel insurance is called for. How much will that cost?

In the meantime, we need to think about alternative trips for a week in April. Morocco? Slovenia? Cyprus?These are very big problems to have, I know.... In the meantime, if you have any suggestions, we're all ears.


So, it's been a very long time since I've made any posts. I know, and I'm sorry. It's sort of a lot of pressure to think of things that people might be interested in. And, by the time I do, I've lost all energy to actually write about it.

But, I may move this into a travelogue type blog. They're easy -- just upload a bunch of pictures. Our trips since the last update are as noted below. Perhaps I'll make an entry for each over the next few weeks. And, tomorrow we're off to Dublin for a three day weekend.

  • Skiing in Avoriaz, France with my parents and brother during the week between Christmas and New Year's
  • Ski week in Nendaz, Switzerland with our friends from Holland, the Van de Poll/Noordanus family (February)
  • Amsterdam, Belgium (Bruges and Flanders) with my parents in April. The boys liked our return to Switzerland on an overnight train the best.
  • London over a three day weekend in May
  • Italian Lakes during a five day weekend in May (Lago d'Orta and Bellagio, Lake Como)
  • Jubilee Marathon in Stockholm in July
  • Minnesota/Maine in July/August
Whew! This is why I like living in Switzerland!

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Laura and I honeymooned in Madeira nearly ten years ago. We always thought we'd go back someday, so when we found ourselves only a few hours' flight from Madeira we starting scheming for a vacation there. And, during the boys' week-long break in October we made our return. Ostensibly, this was our ten year anniversary trip. It's actually closer to nine years since our wedding, but it provided a good excuse to totally blow the budget. It's a good thing milestone anniversaries don't come along more often!

Photos follow. I don't think we need a lot of commentary. But, knowing me, I may not be able to hold back.

Relaxing on the balcony with a glass of Madeira after our long flight. (Yes, it is a lot closer than when we were in the US, but it was still 4 hours of flying plus a 90 minute layover.)

What I was looking at.
The hotel did a great job with the kids. These bears were part of a "welcome package" for each child.
They felt really special.

We went to see some caves, but the boys were most interested in the ducks there. And, as you can see, Calvin never let go of his bear once during our stay in Madeira....

Laura's favorite flowers.

The caves. Yes, the boys are out of focus, but if I'd used a flash everything would have been pitch black behind them.

We had to drive over the mountains to get back from the caves.
Can you tell it was really windy up there? Are you sure?

Calvin wouldn't come out of the car.

A beach. Laura is an artiste. Actually, doesn't this look like the front of an album cover?

Man, I wish the kids would always behave like this!

Sorry, I don't know why I included this. Me playing with a polarizing filter on the camera.
I have a lot more if you're interested....
Laura and Elliot sitting close to the water.

Hahaha! A little too close!

The next day we took a cable car up into the hills above Funchal. But, how would we get back down?

We ride these wicker baskets down the streets of Monte. Ernest Hemingway rode these and found them to be exhilarating. A guy who wrote about fighting with bulls. Apparently, he'd never ridden a roller coaster.
On the other hand, a roller coaster doesn't travel down normal streets. Later, when we were going fast enough that these dudes where riding on the back of the basket hurtling down a rain-soaked hill as cars narrowly missed us zooming up the hill? Pretty frightening, actually.
This was the closest thing we saw to a smile from Calvin on this particular day.

We stayed at Reid's Palace, an old British-oriented hotel in Funchal. One of the things it's known for is high tea on its Tea Terrace overlooking the ocean. We weren't sure about bringing the kids to this traditional, semi-formal event. But, the kids club at Reid's announced they'd be taking kids to their own tea in the cocktail bar one afternoon, so Laura and I immediately booked our own grown-up tea reservation!

High tea at Reid's.

Oh! Calvin doesn't look very happy in this picture, either. I think he was having a good time.

Older boy.

The Fun @ Reid's child minders really dressed up!
Random shot up toward the hills from Reid's pool. Beautiful, no?
Every day we hoped to take a hike along the levadas, or irrigation canals, up in the Madeira mountains, and day after day it was too rainy or overcast up in the higher elevations (we generally had sunny warm weather down by the ocean). Finally, on Thursday, we got our chance to take a hike.

These levadas have had maintenance paths that run along side them for years and years. Then, one day someone decided to catalog many of the different routes as potential walks or hikes and the idea took off. Today, one of the most famous activities in Madeira is to go for a "levada walk."

The area on the north side of Madeira where we began our walk.
Early in our walk. Calvin is in a backpack because he's not as good a walker as Elliot and also because we didn't trust him to...well, you'll see.

At the beginning of our walk, these levada paths were wide and were used basically as sidewalks to get to some of these little houses on the side of the hill.

See what I mean? This is practically a boulevard!

Then things got a little bit smaller.

Then, quite a bit more treacherous. See why we wanted Calvin in a backpack?

Okay, this is ridiculous! At least they provided a railing! (Sort of - it was just wire threaded around those poles and I wouldn't let Elliot actually touch it....)
Waterfall across the valley.

I love how Elliot is "explaining" how these work! Anyway, this does two things, moderates the water flow before the levada starts a new course, and catches gunk (leaves, branches, dead animals) that falls in upstream.
This goat was not wild. Why someone had a goat in some random enclosure up here I can't figure out.

Looking up the valley toward the interior.

Looking down the valley in the other direction toward the ocean.

I can't remember if this was an overflow to release excess water or a place where a waterfall came down and the levada captured part of the water. If you lean to your right and look to the left of us in the picture, you might be able to tell! ;-)

Taking a little break. Notice these poles are missing the top wire....

It's a good thing our battery died, or I'd treat you to a hundred more pictures of the levada.
Reid's Palace includes a restaurant called Villa Cipriani that is on a cliff right over the water, and we ate there every night but two during our vacation. The service was impeccable. When we went to dinner there the night we arrived the boys were tired because it had been a long day and it was past their bedtime in Switzerland. When one of the waiters saw how tired Calvin was, he went inside and got another chair to slide together with Calvin's and make a sort of bed, and then showed up five minutes later with a wool blanket to lay over him! Talk about service! Anyway, after that night, we were in love with Villa Cipriani.

Laura at dinner on our last night in Madeira.

Elliot and me.

The little man.
The whole family with Reid's in the background.
Calvin in his "bed" the first night on my crappy camera phone.
Of course, the thing that really made the vacation great was the pool. We spent most of our time most days hanging around the pool. Calvin liked going to the Fun @ Reid's play area, but Elliot just liked swimming in the warm freshwater pool and playing with parents, new friends, or by himself. I liked catching up on reading. Laura? I think she liked playing with Elliot in the pool best of all. Pool pictures get old fast, but here are a few to show you what we did with most of our time....

The main pool area.

Where were we, again?

Laura playing with Elliot.

Laura playing with Calvin.

I don't know what Laura is doing behind Elliot. Nor do I want to.

Elliot out of the water.

Calvin out of the water.
The pool area was at the top of a cliff 30 meters or so above the water. But, there was also a small salt-water pool and bathing area at the bottom of the cliffs. We did go swimming in the ocean one day, but, alas, no photos!

Madeira is not the easiest place to get to, but it remains the most beautiful island in the world, in my opinion. If you have a chance to go, please do!