This analysis on navigating the wheelchair accessibility of trains in Switzerland is from Summer 2022.
The Swiss trains ran like Swiss watches…or knives…or chocolates. They were the cleanest, most reliable, easiest to plan, and smoothest to ride. They even have an interactive map of each station that provides information about what accessibility services are provided (or none, if it is 100% barrier free…as more than most are), where those services are located, and even the locations of the bathrooms and elevators.
I have never felt less impacted by my disability than when I was planning and using these trains. And relied heavily on the train system to go to Zermatt, Bernese Oberland (including Interlaken Ost and Lauterbrunnen), and Zurich.
Table of Contents
- Overview of SBB
- SBB’s Commitment to Accessibility
- How to Arrange Accessible Services (if even necessary)
- SBB’s App
Overview of Swiss Federal Railways (SBB)
Swiss Federal Railways is the national railway in Switzerland. It is referred to by its initials in German (SBB), French (CFF) or Italian (FFS), or a collection of all three: SBB CFF FFS. I learned to refer to it as SBB as that is the railway’s domain name (www.sbb.ch), and thus will stay true to my practice herein. The SBB website has an English version and has information about all of its trains (including detailed photos of each train), all of its stations, all of its routes, and methods for purchasing tickets and/or seeking further assistance.
SBB’s Commitment to Accessibility
The SBB is governed by the Federal Act on the Elimination of Discrimination against People with Disabilities (DDA), which came into effect in 2004 and was to be implemented within 20 years. To fulfill these requirements, SBB provides free assistance with planning, boarding, and alighting to people with mobility, visual, hearing, and intellectual impairments. These services can be accessed via the internet, via phone, or via the SBB app. SBB touts that it organized over 150,000 instances of assistance in 2019.
As of 2022, 78% of SBB connections were wheelchair accessible (either independently or with the support of SBB employees), and 68% of travelers are able to board and alight trains independently. SBB is working to increase these numbers (as required by the DDA) by phasing out older vehicles, purchasing new cars with step-free wheelchair compartments, and modernizing stations to match the heights of the new cars.
They are committed to making the navigating of wheelchair accessibility of trains in Switzerland easy and smooth.
How to Purchase Tickets and Arrange Wheelchair Accessible Services (if necessary at the station)
The SBB has a robust website covering how to travel on their trains with reduced mobility, visual impairments, hearing impairments, and cognitive impairments. The steps for arranging for an accessible trip are easy and straightforward:
- Research the Accessibility of the Stations
- Purchase a Ticket for the Route with the Desired Accessibility Features
- Contact SBB to arrange services (1 hour via phone, 12 hours via online form/app, 48 hours for international)
If any questions come up, call or e-mail the SBB assistance office. They speak English, answer quickly, and are very helpful.
1) Research the Wheelchair Accessibility of the Stations
I cannot say enough about how awesome the SBB interactive map is for accessibility. You can browse all over the country to see the general status of each station:
- a blue checkmark means the station is capable of zero-barrier boarding/alighting
- a red “x” with a circle around means you will need assistance at the station
- a solid red “x” means it is a non-accessible station
Once you find a station you want, click on its name and the right-side menu gives more information about the accessibility services at that particular station. Such information includes if the station is barrier free (and, if not, by what date it is expected to be barrier free), where to meet for accessible services, how far in advance accessibility services need to be booked, if it has accessible bathrooms, etc.
Then, you can zoom in on each station (either by typing it in at the top or repeatedly zooming in on the station) to see the locations of the platforms, bathrooms, elevators, and food options. You can plan your entire route through the station and to the train just by using the map.
2) Purchase a Ticket for the Route with the Desired Wheelchair Accessibility Features
I start at the timetable for purchasing tickets. After putting in my desired start, stop, and time for the trip, the website shows all possible routes for the time. You can then change the view from “Standard” to “Barrier-free travel,” which populates wheelchair icons to show the accessibility for each route. Once you find the time and accessibility feature you want, you can proceed to purchase the ticket.
Example: There are many options from Lucerne (Luzern) to Zurich HB. The 06:09 has an open wheelchair symbol, which shows it is barrier-free and no assistance is required. The 06:20 train has a box around the wheelchair symbol, which means assistance services are required (e.g., an agent to provide a small ramp). Both are accessible routes, but only the first requires no pre-planned assistance.
Note: Accessibility information is typically only available ~2 weeks in advance of departure, but you can purchase tickets months in advance. If no accessibility information is known at that time, the timetable will show a wheelchair with a question mark after it.
I originally thought this meant no accessibility information would ever be known, which was frustrating…and (thankfully) wrong. It just meant the trip was too far out, and that the accessibility information will update closer to the time of the trip. *sigh of relief*
If I need to book far in advance, I try to find the train route I want to take on my desired date (e.g., the 9:00 train on Monday in two months). I then look at that same train’s accessibility information over the next week. This gives me a pretty good guess as to whether the train will be independently accessible or not–if every instance over the next week is independently accessible, it will probably be that way in two months. It’s not a guarantee, but has been a good indicator. I also then check back a week or so before my trip to see the updated accessible information–this way I can either change to a more accessible train or just arrange for the accessible services.
3) Contact SBB (if necessary)
If you require accessibility assistance, you need to contact the SBB Call Center at least one hour before you will require assistance if you request by phone, and 12 hours in advance if you request assistance via the form/app. The Call Center speaks English, answers with no-to-minimal wait times, and asks a few basic questions (e.g., train number, arrival time, arrival destination, type of assistance needed). That’s it. I have literally been on a train and called to arrange services at a destination a little over an hour away…and it worked beautifully.
If you use the online form, you will receive a confirmatory e-mail when the assistance is scheduled. I typically receive the confirmatory e-mail within a few hours of making the request.
Tip: The e-mail is fairly brief, and may not show the station or train to which it is referring–it may just say “Thank you for your order. The order is registered and the assistance to get in and out the train is organized.” But the subject line will have a case number in it (e.g., “CS0000000”), which is what the SBB Call Center will use to locate the details of the requested assistance. To help identify which trips have service scheduled, I try to save the confirmatory e-mail in the same e-folder as my ticket (or attach them to each other in hard copy). But, when I am unsure, I just respond to the confirmatory e-mail and ask for clarification as to which trip it pertained. The SBB Call Center can look up the case number that is in the subject line of the e-mail, and quickly provide the requested clarification.
Then all you have to do is show up at the train and board if no assistance is required. Otherwise, meet the agent at the meeting place at the set time (typically 10 minutes prior to departure). The wheelchair accessibility of trains in Switzerland was very easy and straightforward.
The SBB app provided a one-stop place for purchasing tickets, storing tickets, storing passes, and looking up timetables. I did not use it to reserve accessibility services, but don’t doubt that it would aid the wheelchair accessibility of trains in Switzerland.