My Father-in-Law (AVM) is a retired soldier and moves on a wheelchair. He loves adventure, I don’t! Though much younger, I’m a much retired accountant. I love predictability. When we decided to visit my Brother-in-Law (G) in Switzerland, AVM wanted to come too! Whaaa? This had me positively terrified. How do you roam on a wheelchair in an unknown land? I said nothing, because G, who was sponsoring the stay, was supremely confident about it!
I needn’t have worried. Unknown to me, 2 allies were working for me: (1) the insanely* logical Swiss Transport System (more about it later) and (2) my Sister-in-Law (Sarah). Sarah is a lady with a Korean heart and Swiss-German brain: the ultimate yin-yang combo! Between them, they ensured that the vacation was flawless.
[* Yes, I remember my English teacher warned me against indiscriminate use of oxymorons. But I have no better description of the Swiss!]
The Swiss Public Transport is an engineering marvel. It is unsurpassed by anything, except … … … Swiss Rules. Everything in Switzerland (from commercial banks to cows) works on rules. He who masters the rules, gains. You could buy a ticket in a Tram station, use it for Bus, Train and Boat. How? By a set of connecting rules! Some tickets are good for Winches and Cable-cars too. They have rules for all sections of society: normal people (Duh!) and special people like infants, senior and wheelchair travellers (of course!), and even … … … dogs and cats!
Every dog has every day!
Dogs for instance, can usually travel on a half-ticket. Or, you can buy your pet a one-day ticket, or even a lifetime-pass. And, if your dog is less than 30 cm tall (as measured from floor to shoulder blade) it can travel free, PROVIDED you carry it as hand luggage. Bonus: free travel for Guide Dogs or Rescue Dogs irrespective of height. Simple rules? Wait…! All this, is only if you have complied with the complex rules. Which means: you have registered your dog with the municipality, paid dog-tax punctually, passed the practical and theoretical courses for dog-owners and paid dog-medical insurance (recommended). If you are migrating to another canton, you need to inform authorities and if your dog dies, you must de-register. The Swiss support dogs — as long as they don’t bark after 10:30pm. If they did, your neighbours would sue you for breach of peace. I saw hundreds of dogs in Swiss trains; they whine, but never bark! “It’s a dog’s life” has a different meaning!
Goldau Station: Man & Dog in queue to enter the train.Dogs are customers too!
Anu befriends a Swiss citizen: a co-passenger at Rigi Mountain-top
Make babies, NOW
The other category that travels like crazy, is infants. I think, Swiss rules support a baby boom, because parents of both sexes are all over the trains, pushing perambulators. And why not? Infants are like dogs (Or vice-versa?). Children below 6 years can travel free (like the 30cm dog), if accompanied by a ticket holder, who is at least 12 years old; provided he supervises no more than 4 infants — expandable to 8 wards if he is above 16.
Such rules seem to motivate couples to make babies. Last year, Switzerland had the highest birth-rate in 20 years. Love is in the air. Young couples are passionately kissing at the Train/Train/Bus/stations and piers. Very passionately! One guy had locked lips with his girl on the main road …. and she was merely taking the pedestrian-crossing to go the other side! And sex seems to be a rapid-fire Olympic event. Every other pram was a two-seater (obviously, the couple got 2 children in quick succession).
Coupe car: two-seater pram
Swiss-engineering is being pumped into prams. There are prams that can be hooked on to a bicycle on the road and then detached when loading on to the train!—↓
Dad spends quality parenting time: Cycle with detachable baby-car:
You guessed, Bicycles are welcome too. There are special doors where a cyclist can board the Train/Tram with the bicycle. The dour Swiss even found time to smile at the Bicycle culture — see the ad on the tram—↓
Ignore the commercial,—the Swiss rules love cyclists !
Wheelchair is First class!
Wheelchair navigators are even more special. Most trams/trains are wheelchair friendly: the floor of the train is perfectly aligned with the platform at every station. Pavements on roadside tram stations are standardised with microscopic precision. As soon as the tram/train enters the station a small plank rolls out and just kisses the platform — so you easily roll the wheelchair (or pram) into the tram.
Occasionally your tram may be the “old model” which has a higher floor. Worry not, the “modern” one is usually only a few minutes behind. Every station has electronic display showing when the next wheelchair-friendly tram will arrive . They are NEVER wrong.
Arrival sign at Milchbuck Station: The wheelchair symbol indicates that a particular tram/bus supports wheelchair loading
Some long distance routes have different old coaches with higher floors. All you need to do is to phone Customer-Support 6 hours in advance and they bring a hydraulic hoist like this. —↓
Sometimes, Customer-Support is just a hand-crafted wooden plank between the platform and the steps of the coach! Simple but effective! —↓
Walking the plank on a mountain train
What if you forget to tell Customer-Support in advance? Co-passengers pitch in! In this mountain train, 2 hefty Germanics, complete strangers, simply heaved AVM’s Wheelchair into the coach with a grunt and vanished forever. Swiss hospitality is blunt but effective!
We enjoy Swiss hospitality
Normal is boring…
… So boring, that there is no conductor on any vehicle, only ticketing machines. The usual pricing is not distance-, but time-based: – ½ hour, 1 hour, whole-day tickets etc. You buy tickets on an “honour” basis. If you make a mistake, you may lose money and honour. One Indian friend travelled beyond the time limit by about 2 minutes; in a surprise check, she was ruthlessly fined 100 Swiss Francs (Rs.7500).
Hirschwiesen tram-stop: Anu learning to operate the ticket vending machine
We were like, “innocents abroad”: unlike the Swiss, who are taught early to know and respect the rules.Once, we saw 2 teachers taking about 15 kindergarten students (remember, 2 adults can take 16 infants free?) on a train-ride. With a rope they were taught how to form a neat line at the door. On entering the train, they sat down quietly on the floor (the seats were too high for them). Away from their parents, in a new environment, nobody cried or shouted. Look at the Little Angels—↓
Little Angels learning the rules of Public Transport
Our journey began like an arcane Linear Programming problem with 100 constraints and multiple conflicting objectives— time, money and convenience. Enter Sarah, the gracious host. She had all data at her finger tips /cell phone. She not only maximised all objectives but also solved for some extra constraints (“if you book the ticket today the 25% discount deal is still valid; I will call customer support tomorrow and ensure wheelchair support; if you load one more coat, you will exceed the permitted luggage weight and…”). She even used probability theory (“you must book for Friday, because the forecast is 95% sunny). Now we were masters of wheelchair tourism!
Atop the Mount Titlis (3200 Mtrs. above MSL)
Rheinfall: On the banks of River Rhine
Ordering at the Italian roadside Cafe near Lake Lucerne
Bonus: Europe on a wheelchair
Suddenly, the wheelchair was not a constraint but an opportunity. Thanks to Sarah’s planning, we even ventured outside Switzerland. We took a long walking tour in Prague; it rained, but AVM was looking bright in his “I Love Prague” Rain Coat. We rolled into a pub during the day and in the night went to a folk music performance where the Wine and Chicken were unlimited. AVM ensured that he had more than his fair share of both!
(1) AVM enjoying Beer in a Czech Pub & (2) Unlimited Wine & Chicken in the Folk show.(3)Roughing it out in the Walking Tour of Prague
Then in Vienna, we rolled the wheelchair into a regular concert hall. AVM got a great seat and enjoyed the Waltzes.
Waltzing in Vienna
The last night at Switzerland
On the last night at Switzerland we took a tram and had a latish dinner at a popular Swiss restaurant. It was well past AVM’s bedtime, and the temperature was below 4 deg. centigrade. But who cared, we were slightly drunk. Finally, we had transcended the Helvetica rules! Wheelchair, anyone?
Family celebration with AVM on the Bahnhofstrasse !