Sunday, January 17, 2010

Clock Work

The memory may be fading but what seems to me to be just a few minutes ago Britain was in the grip of an icy chaos where life stood still and I was forced to join the 'working from home' brigade. London stopped functioning properly, public transport in Brighton was taken off the roads, and trying to actually get anywhere north seemed improbable. Communications were good however, as the world has become blackberried, so emails as well as texts can now be answered from the pub, rather than your desk.
In the middle of this snowy hell I flew off to Switzerland, not to the ski slopes but to the cities, Zurich, Berne and Basel where the snow was even heavier, more relentless and at certain times of the night even colder. But not only was it not front page news, conversation barely steered towards it. What was on the front pages were pictures of chaos from Britain. Our never-ending inability to cope with snow is the subject of much Swiss thigh-slapping.

I was only told that transportation in Zurich was 'slower' when I arrived. I never noticed. At lunch, everyone's coats were hung up, their umbrellas housed properly, and nobody was warned the floor was 'slippery when wet' because it doesn't get slippery when wet because someone realised in advance that that's what happens to floors if you coat them with the wrong, shiny, material. Nobody seemed to even notice the "chaos" outside let alone talk about it.

Of course their cities are smaller, they have more snow, and they have an inherent wealth which provides. But as we boarded a late night tram in Zurich, and shoogled back to the front door of our hotel, we couldn't help but be a teeny bit jealous.
As the week wore on, the snow disappeared slowly, first from the streets, then from the rooftops. By the time we got to the last day in Basel it was simply cold. By that stage we were rattling about in Switzerland's public transport system quite the thing, leaping on and off trams which became trains, bendy buses which move quickly and are popular, and then more trams which in complex interesections never seem to crash. Nobody appears to get run over either. The famous Swiss precision in timekeeping is evident, although the trains don't leave exactly on time. They're on a par with the UK.

The inner city systems enthrall. The Zurich rush hour is a pretty big affair , but you'd barely guess it was happening while standing in the middle of Zurich HB Station, as I did for nearly an hour. Freezing cold, snow falling heavily, tens of thousands of commuters racing hither and thither. Double decker trains shoot in and out, trams are almost back to back, buses barely stop they're going so fast. There was no big traffic chaos either. Nobody was queuing, trains weren't jam packed and everyone seemed to have a seat. It was stupendous and as we left Zurich Airport to head home we agreed what we'd seen was pretty damn impressive.

Back at Heathrow, on a quiet Saturday evening our first problem was the closure of Hounslow East tube, where we'd arranged to be picked up. OK, no big deal, stations on London Underground are worked on at weekends. But the following day, trying to get to Brighton, was not good. First off in London locally it turned out there were problems on South West Trains, but nobody seemed prepared to admit it. Only by knowing the journey times did I guess there was summat up. The journey to Clapham Junction, by a rattly old bus replacement service, took an hour longer than it should, with rail staff shrugging their shoulders in that 'nothing to do with me mate' attitude which we have adopted to easily. The onward journey to Brighton, on a Sunday, was standing room only.
I'm used to this level of anarchy, and have been for a long time, but the contrast between the two systems is sharp, brought into even sharper relief by spending time in midwinter snow.

Yes, yes, they invented the cuckoo clock and Toblerone is the most popular chocolate at the world's airports. But I'm sitting here wondering what public transport is going to throw at me tomorrow, how I might end up delayed yet again, the words of a Swiss colleague ringing in my ears about how it took him two and a half hours to get from Central London to Docklands last year. In Zurich they don't even give it a second thought.

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