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.|
"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:
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?
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.
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!
|Real SBB/CFF/FFS clock, designed in 1944.|
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.