While waiting for a train the other day that didn't turn up, I had the chance to think about how things work – or rather, how they sometimes don't work.
I was thinking about this, mostly, because I've just come back from Switzerland, a country where Absolutely Everything Works. This is not just clichés about clockwork and efficiency – the place really does work perfectly. It's almost frightening.
If a train is scheduled to turn up at 4.14pm, it will turn up at 4.14pm. If there's a bus departing at 11.43am, you can bet your alpenhorn on the fact that it will be pulling away at 11.43am.
And that reliability is not even the best part. I'm sure that for residents Switzerland is an easy place to travel around on public transport, but equally for travellers it's almost laughably simple, even when you don't speak any of the country's four official languages. ("What's your second language?" everyone asks. Um... A bit of Kiwi?)
The thing isn't cheap, but for your money you get access to pretty much any train in the country (save for a few of the special "scenic" ones), without having to book a seat – just jump on and sit down. Similarly you can take any bus, or ferry, and plenty of cable cars. You can take mass public transport like trams in the cities, or the smallest local buses in the country.
But like the proverbial set of steak knives, there's more. The Swiss Pass gets you into something like 400 museums and art galleries. You could buy a round of beers in the pub and I'd almost expect the barman to accept a Swiss Pass.
For a tourist it's amazing. The reliability of the network and the ease of the Pass system make Switzerland one of the easiest places in the world to get around. If you want to go somewhere – anywhere in the country – you just wander out the front of your hostel and go.
I was staying in Locarno, in the far south of the country, and was due to fly out of Zurich, in the far north of the country, that night. I checked my bags in at the little Locarno train station (getting them tagged all the way to Zurich by train and then on to Hong Kong and Sydney by plane), got my boarding passes for the flights there, then spent the rest of the day pootling around the country in various trains, before finally ending up at Zurich Airport.
I managed to check out four cities in one spare day that anywhere else would have been spent managing the nightmare that is getting to an international airport for a reasonable price.
Who can beat that? The United States couldn't touch it. Public transport barely exists there, and is certainly not integrated to the extent that Switzerland's is. Great Britain has a huge network but it's expensive, and there's no single pass to get you through an entire stay.
Japan is up there when it comes to cleanliness and efficiency, although it doesn't offer the ease of navigation that Switzerland does.
The Swiss Pass is so good, in fact, that it almost makes you forget how expensive everything else in the country seems to be.
Have you used a Swiss Pass? Which country do you think is the easiest for visitors to get around? What about the most difficult?
- Sydney Morning Herald