Day 04 – Fri 09 Apr 2010 – Escape to Switzerland

In the morning I went for a walk and did my cake and coffee thing again at the Hauptbahnhof. Did the usual shower routine, booked out of the hotel and headed back across to the station. There’s supposed to be a 7:50 train to Basel in Switzerland according to the Eurail timetable, but it can’t see it listed on the station board. Instead I catch an ICE heading to Munich stopping at Stuttgart, where I can change for Zurich. Found an unbooked seat in first class without any problems. The ICE runs smooth, quiet and very fast. As we’re only on conventional tracks we’re probably doing only about 160-200 kph through forest and suburbs.

In some ways the much slower Australian XPT’s are actually better appointed. The seats in the ICE recline but have faux leather upholstery and the cabin has a slightly sparse look about it. In spite of a bit of super-elevation (outer rail higher than the inner on curves), you can really feel the sting on corners. Again, the tracks are completely unfenced outside of towns. Going fast now through open flat country and I’ve just noticed where the speed indicator is located in the carriage. We just slowed down to 165 kph through a curvy bit then back up to 200 kph. We cross a river and pull into Mannheim at just before 0830.

Inside an ICE second class carriage (Photo: Maxim75)

I started browsing a large pamphlet on the adjacent seat. It’s about the particular service I’m on. It shows the entire journey and, for each stop it makes, lists all the connecting services for about an hour after it arrives. So, according to it, we will arrive in Stuttgart at 0908 with a connecting service to Zurich departing at 0955 from platform seven and arriving at Zurich at 1248.

We’re off again as the train runs impressively on time. The first class cabin also has menu for a range of meals and snacks, all served to your seat. We pass lots of garden plots adjacent to the tracks and some of their ‘huts’ appear as if they might be lived in full time. If so, they are still very neat and very well looked after.

Into a long tunnel out of Mannheim. Running next to an autobahn, we pass fast moving traffic effortlessly as a speed climbs to 250 kph. This high-speed section of track has modest fencing in some places, but not always.  Through more tunnels now and into a hilly landscape where we slow to only 160 kph. Lots of grassy fields but only rarely do you see livestock. The weather outside is dull and murky.

Stuttgart station concourse (Photo: D. Andreson)

Stuttgart station is almost as big as Frankfurt, but is a little more modern. As I walk in from the train I realize I was in the rear carriage of a 12 carriage train. It’s becoming apparent that everything about Deutsche Bahn (the national rail operator) is very well organized, well oiled, very oriented to providing a courteous service, but with no bullshit or unnecessary complications at all. I really like this place and I’m beginning to think maybe I was born in the wrong country.

Have noticed a few times, but especially while waiting in Stuttgart, that when I ask things in German, most people will talk back to me in perfect English. I must be a giveaway as a English speaker attempting German. Most Germans seem to speak English and speak it very well without any trace of an American, British or even German accent. In fact they sound very much like an educated Australian speaking well, minus the slightly flat vowels.

Countryside heading south from Stuttgart

Caught the Zurich train. I am in the last carriage and I have no idea how long it is, but it is loco hauled. I’m in a first class carriage with only a handful of people, but some seats are marked as reserved for later on. It’s an older train with three abreast fixed seating facing each other with tables in between. I have a single seat on the right-hand side. The Stuttgart suburbs consist of pleasant multi-storey residences with white stucco or render walls and occasionally some garden lots beside the railway lines.

By 1030 we’re hitting hilly country and the train slows for about 160 kph as it winds amongst an area that is very heavily forested. Another rail line is down the valley to our left. We arrive in Horb, a pretty town dominated by church spires and a river running through its centre and is set in a hilly valley.

Heading towards Rottweil, passing under the road bridge 

Train runs along the valley left of the river. It crosses the river and starts an ascent. It is now single track and we pull into a passing loop and wait about 15 seconds for an opposing train to pass. We go under a large road bridge concrete arch about 200 meters above us and subsequently arrive in Rottweil. That name seems familiar; then I remember that it is the place the two escapees in the (WW2) Colditz Story travelled to by train before crossing the Swiss border.

At 1155 we are pulling into the terminal at Singen and I notice a Swiss SDB locomotive is waiting to pull us out and off to Switzerland. The loco changeover process only takes a few minutes and we are off again in the opposite direction. We’re now on double track and traveling much faster, probably about 150 kph. I’ve just realised is the first time I’ve ever crossed an international land border.

The Rhein Falls near Schaffhausen

The train line and road run parallel through a winding valley. I think we’re now in Switzerland as we arrive in Schaffhausen, but not sure. Lots of people get on here including some Swiss frontier guards. The Rhein river is now on our left and the Rhein Falls are visible through the murk. As we go deeper into Switzerland we go past Zürich (Kloten) airport. Shortly after we arrived in Zürich, a large city with a large station, with lots of construction going on nearby.

The inside of the regional train to Luzern

The train to Luzern is going in about 10 minutes. It’s double deck, very plush, with low-level entry from the platform to the bottom deck. We head off through a long tunnel emerging overlooking the lake. If the weather wasn’t so murky, the view would be quite spectacular. Switzerland is generally very neat, perhaps just a little clinical.

A photo of the lake taken on the return journey when the weather was clearer

I guessed that the best place to stay in Switzerland tonight would be Luzern, and I think I got that right. It’s vaguely like Queenstown, New Zealand on steroids. But how the hell does it work; it only has a population of about 60,000 yet feels like a big city. Has a huge station with a large shopping centre attached. I booked into a hotel near the station. The girl at the desk has the most perfect customer service I’ve ever experienced. Really helpful without being pushy, and explained everything exceptionally clearly and concisely.

No, not a Boeing 707 or a DC-8, it’s a Convair 990 Coronado at the Verkehrhaus 

After settling in I walked around to the Verkehrshaus (Transport Museum). It’s about a 30 minute walk across a bridge and along the lakeside. An interesting place. Has several buildings representing each transport mode around a large square. The latter includes a DC-3 and a Convair Coronado, plus under cover displays of Northrop F-5 and a Saab Gripen. The latter has virtually no seams in its structure, as if it had been moulded in almost one piece.

A railway snow plough at the Verkehrhaus

The Verkehrhaus  caters well for kids. Heaps of them screaming around on scooters or operating radio controlled boats on a little lake, or in springing harness bouncing up and down on trampolines, or driving pedal cars around a course. All designed to totally exhaust them and give their parents a break.

On the way back I noticed lots of young Swiss guys in military camouflage uniform, including a group having a few beers at a table outside a pub with assault rifles strapped to their backs. In any other country that would be very worrying, but in Switzerland it’s not.

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