Swiss train travellers call for their half-price railcard to be abolished – even though fares put UK's in the shade

Simon Calder
Fares fair? Occasional users such as foreign visitors may have no choice but to buy sky-high rail tickets in Switzerland: SBB CFF FFS

Switzerland claims to have the “densest public transport network in the world”. But it comes at a price: rail fares are even higher than those in Britain.

The one-hour, 75-mile journey from the capital, Bern, to the largest city, Zurich, costs 51 Swiss francs (£40) for the cheapest walk-up fare. That is more expensive than many typical "anytime" tickets travelling the same distance in the UK, from Portsmouth to London (£37.10), York to Durham (£36.80) or Glasgow to Dundee (£23.20).

Regular rail passengers in Switzerland tolerate such high fares because they all have an annual railcard offering half price on every ticket. The Halb-tax or demi-tarif card costs 185 francs (£142) for the first year and 165 francs (£127) annually thereafter.

The railcard is so universal – with 2.5 million holders – that fare quotes online assume the traveller has one. As a result, the only people who ever pay full fare are occasional users and foreigners, for whom the fearsome prices act as a deterrent.

Mark Smith, founder of the international rail website Seat61.com, said: “It’s a trap which many visitors fall into, checking prices first and later getting a nasty shock when they progress to buy a ticket.”

Now the Swiss passengers’ group, Pro Bahn Schweiz, has called for the card to be abolished.

Speaking to the newspaper 20 minutes, which is often read on rail journeys, the association’s president, Karin Blattler, said ditching the card would be “very welcome”.

“The cost of selling, marketing and renewing the half-fare travelcard and the different tariffs would be eliminated,” she said, adding that administration savings could be passed on to the customer.

In a demand that will resonate with many UK rail passengers, Ms Blattler called for the Swiss rail industry “to massively simplify the immense tariff chaos”.

“The abolition of the half-fare would be part of it,” she said.

Smith, who is the leading UK expert on international rail travel, told The Independent: “No one can argue with the quality and integration of the Swiss transport system. But Swiss fares are painfully high – and without the benefit of alternative, affordable ‘off-peak’ fares as we have in the UK.

“So yes, it’s a great idea to abolish annual half-fare cards and the bewildering array of other offers and just halve the price for everyone.

“It might even generate extra travel and higher revenue. Offering low prices to all your existing customers whilst ensuring sky-high fares discourage potential new customers might not be the best commercial approach after all.”

Speaking to the newspaper Neue Zurcher Zeitung, Swiss Railways’ head of passenger transport, Toni Hane, said halving the normal tariff “could be considered”, but added: “The consent of the entire industry would be necessary.”

The Swiss half-price railcard also gives a 15 per cent discount on tickets to and from Austria and Germany.

British rail passengers can obtain railcards offering one-third off until they are 26, and from age 60 onwards, with other cards for families and couples travelling together. The rail industry is trialling a 26-30 railcard, but at present only in the Greater Anglia area.