Rail advocacy international: Major win in Switzerland referendum

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Lead Service Attendant
Jan 29, 2014
Today, on Sunday, February 9, 2014, 62% of the voting population in Switzerland approved a new financing mechanism for rail infrastructure.

It authorizes the spending of 5 billion Swiss francs annually (approx. 5,57 billion US dollars) for rail. Part of that are 6.5 billion Swiss Francs (approx. 7.2 billion US dollars) of those funds in the time span up to 2025 for new rail infrastructure and service improvements.

Maybe for those interested in US rail advocacy, the details of the Switzerland deal might also be interesting.

Background: Switzerland already has an extensive, reliable and popular rail system, with relatively high frequencies, high punctuality and a widely admired system of efficient timed transfers at major stations.

In all of Switzerland, the total average of all regions including metro areas and sparsely populated ones, rail has a model share of 16% when it comes to person-kilometers traveled (2010 data)
In cities, this share might be way higher, like modal share of commuters to work. For example in Bern, 11% walk to work, 11% cycle, 54% take public transport, and only 24% the private motor vehicle (2001 data).
This even increases to 63% share of public transportation in Zurich, with 8% walking, 5% cycling and 25% using a private motor vehicle (2001 data).
This can be compared f.e. to 2% walking, 0% cycling, 3% public transport and 90% private motor vehicle in San Antonio (2009 data).
Or 3% walking, 1% cycling, 11% public transport and 78% private motor vehicle in Los Angeles (2009 data).

So public transportation already is a vital part of transportation in Switzerland, with rail being its backbone.

In addition, Switzerland's population is growing, from 6.8 million in 1990, to more than 8.0 million in 2012.
Predictions say, at one point of time in the future, with currently growing its population by 80,000 each year (1% of population), Switzerland might become a 10-million-society (big debate in Switzerland, many people don't like immigrants, for example those from Germany).

At the same time, public transportation systems are already operating at or above planned capacity in many areas.

With Switzerland being a mountainous area, a lot of previous rail investment was in the form of rail tunnel megaprojects, sometimes taking decades to build, some of which are completed and some go into operation in the next years.

How this referendum today got into place, what it contains in detail, and how it is different or not from the situation in the US:

Before this new measure being passed today, Switzerland's rail system did not have a dedicated funding for both maintaining the existing infrastructure, and building new infrastructure.

There was a dedicated funding for some of those mentioned new construction megaprojects (f.e. Bahn2000, NEAT), but as those are finished, also that funding will expire.

So the Swiss VCS and some other groups came up with a voter's initiative for a referendum called "Fuer den oeffentlichen Verkehr" (="for the public transportation"), which included a permanent funding mechanism for rail (keyword being permanent :) ).
The VCS is a "green" travel club that offers an alternative to traditional automobile clubs TCS and ACS. VCS offers roadside assistance and travel services but also works towards creating a transportation system that takes into consideration the human being, the environment and the climate.
Alternatives to automobile clubs like that exist in many countries, the VCS was already founded in 1979, still the only remotely similar thing in the USA would be - AFAIK - the Better World Travelers Club created in 2008 by the Sierra Club.

As the population of Switzerland is growing, but the capacity of current often fully-utilized passenger service is not, nearly no one wants to see commuters in the future switching back to cars because the trains are too overcrowded.
So the government came up with its own proposal offering a permanent funding mechanism for rail, and it passed two branches of government, still it needed to go before voters as it changed the constitution.
Being mostly satisfied with the proposal (and - I guess - wanting to prevent two competing rail referendums on the same ballot), the initiators behind "for the public transportation" withdrew their initiative.

The breakdown goes like this: The currently allotted 4 billion Swiss francs annually for rail services will still be provided, but also accompanied by an additional 1 billion francs annually, to be raised through a multitude of sources, coming up to the total of 5 billion Swiss francs a year for rail in a new fund called "BIF" (Bahninfrastruktur-Fonds = rail infrastructure fund).

The current and future 4 billion of funding come from:
- general fund
- some percentage of the tolls trucks have to pay for every kilometer driven on all Swiss roads
- some tiny percentage of the gas tax (to expire in 2030)
- sales tax.

The new billion francs per year is raised by:
- the extra revenue the states receives by, for the very wealthy, limiting the amount of transportation costs that can be deducted from income tax to 3000 francs a year, also providing an incentive to not commute over very long distances.
- from 2018 up to 2030, a tenth of a percent of the sales tax will be dedicated to the new fund
- additional contributions from all of the individual Swiss states
- an increased share to be paid by railroad users, so that means slightly higher fares in the future.

A main selling point for people worried that the expansion of rail and its cost could be too excessive is a requirement in the new funding mechanism, that first all necessary maintenance costs have to be paid by the new fund, and only in case then there is money left, that money can be spent on new infrastructure and service expansion.

This seemed important to many as currently - because the massive new rail construction in the last years - especially the several tunnel projects - created a backlog of 1.8 billion francs of overdue repairs on existing infrastructure for state-owned railway company SBB alone. With the new proposal, maintenance and repairs have priority, while still investing the funds remaining into new infrastructure.

And originally, for the time span up to 2025, there were supposed to be only 3.5 billion for new infrastructure, as suggested by the 7-person executive branch of Swiss government.

This was increased by the parliament to 6.4 billion, as then 29 rail expansion projects have been identified, nearly one in every region of the country, so every representative could be happy with this proposal.


link to details of new infrastructure and improved passenger service:


Some Swiss newspapers referred to these extra 2.9 billion in planned investments added by parliament as "the price of federalism". Still, it lead to the situation that there was nearly no opposition to the rail referendum, as every part of the country sees itself as benefiting from it.

Even the other automobile clubs, TCS and ACS, endorsed it.
(I wonder, could one imagine that in the US, that the AAA would endorse a ballot initiative to finance rail infrastructure and expand rail services? To many it would seem, the AAA is probably too busy lobbying on behalf of the oil companies, in order to do that.)

Only the right-right-wing SVP and some politicians working together with car importers or being truck company owners themselves in Switzerland opposed the referendum, though in some Swiss states, even the SVP also supported it.

Some transportation experts and press comments criticized that no new high-speed rail investments are part of the plan, then again, with the existing 220mph link to Paris, the 155mph Gotthard-tunnel towards Italy and several recently built tunnels with higher speeds inside of Switzerland, the country already has a lot of fast rail service.

Possibly helpful for the passage of the referendum were positive press reports like the one in the Tagesanzeiger called "Ein Beitrag zum Generationenwerk" (="a contribution to the work of generations"). Citing how building and maintaining rail is a common national effort since the first line opened in 1847, the article ended stating that "[Passing the FABI referendum], the current generation can make its contribution to the national common opus."

Some people might probably wish that more pieces like that would be published regarding rail in the US, citing how the work of previous generations, the transcontinental or the Northeast Corridor, was built generations ago, and it is still used today, and now it could be time for this generation to build the rail infrastructure for the current and all future generations to use.


Nov 16, 2010
I'd like to see that kind of money being spent in the US for rail.

BTY, how much do the Swiss spend on Defense each year??
I'm not sure, but IIRC their Air Force operates on a 9-5 schedule:


The fact that they have universal conscription from 20-34 also crams down non-career soldiers' pay to an almost farcical level. There's additional "income-loss insurance" thrown in, but in general Switzerland is able to cram down its costs by a bunch of measures that wouldn't fly in a lot of other places (and/or in a country that actually had to be arsed to defend itself on occasion).


Feb 23, 2014
Ithaca, NY
They have fairly fanatical citizen-soldiers. They've also booby-trapped the entire country; apparently in case of invasion they have a set plan to bomb all the bridges and tunnels (with the explosives *already placed* in many cases). This is pretty paranoid, eh?

The thing is, it's actually pretty cheap to provide for national *defense* if you've got reasonable borders and defensible terrain, both of which Switzerland has in abundance. What's expensive is providing for national *offense*, which Switzerland simply is not interested in, being a very inward-looking country. Last person who managed to conquer them was Napoleon, though.

The US could provide national defense quite cheaply if we had the same inward-looking attitude, which of course we don't. We'd beef up the Coast Guard a lot. We'd have to be very friendly with Canada and Mexico, because neither of those borders is defensible in any sort of war. But after that, it would be essentially impossible for anyone to invade the US mainland from outside. Missiles and bombs are always a threat, but they're a threat to everyone, and you can't actually hold territory with bombing (as everyone paying attention found out very clearly in Iraq and Afghanistan). But the US Department of Defense does not primarily engage in defense. The "Defense" name is a piece of propaganda. It's really the Department of War, and honestly they should change the name back.
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Mar 30, 2011
Switzerland's defence bases on the principle of an armed militia. So the time young men spend in the army is actually only about training, hence the misconception of it being a 9 to 5 army. It isn't. The men in the army camps are not the standing army but the recruits. They do a major training session when they first join and then lighter refresher sessions every year or thereabouts until they're about 40. Every person who has comnpleted this training has a rifle and sufficient rounds of ammunition they keep at home (army is mandatory for men unless they are excused for medical or ethical reasons, for women it is voluntary). Weapons get inspected on a regular basis and there is also mandated target practice. If there was a war, all armed citizens would prepare their guns and await instructions.

Their are bunkers and things in the mountains they are able to retreat to. Some of them big enough to shelter entire cities. Most of this was built during WW2 when the threat of attack was real. The extent of these defences has gradually been reduced over the years. i don't know wjhat defence costs on an annual basis, but people are generally critical of attempts to raise spending and in fact the army has downsized considerably over the years, with amny bases being chut down and not replaced, number of planes reduced etc.