1898: Switzerland Approves Creation of a State-Owned Railway Company

February 20, 1898

In Switzerland, a referendum calling for the creation of a state-owned railway company was approved by a vote of 386,634 to 182,718. “Swiss Railways for the Swiss People” had served as the rallying cry for the supporters of this measure. The demand for a national railway system in Switzerland was rooted in widespread concerns about the questionable practices of private (and mostly foreign-owned) companies that had developed railway lines throughout the country.

These companies, significantly impeding the ability of the Swiss federal government to oversee and regulate much of the country’s transportation infrastructure, had a hodgepodge approach to where and how their railway lines were constructed. Many of these lines were built parallel to each other, something that resulted in several of the companies going bankrupt. There was also considerable unease within Switzerland over how most of the profits from foreign-owned rail ventures were often paid out to shareholders rather than invested in needed equipment or improved services.

The approval of the 1898 referendum to address these issues and others led to the inauguration of Swiss Federal Railways (known in German as Schweizerische Bundesbahnen, or SBB) by New Year’s Day in 1902. An assessment of this national railway company during its first several years of existence was offered in 1912 by Dr. Arthur N. Holcombe, a professor of government at Harvard University, in an article that he wrote for the Quarterly Journal of Economics (published by the Oxford University Press in England). Holcombe concluded, “that the Swiss federal railways have already reduced rates, improved the service, raised wages, and made a profit.”

SBB has since further and more fully established itself as not only a key link in central Europe’s transportation system but also one of the most advanced and highly regarded passenger and freight networks in the world. In a 2017 performance index report prepared by Boston Consulting Group (a Massachusetts-based management consulting firm), SBB was ranked first among national European rail systems when it came to the quality of service; safety rating; and intensity of use.

In addition, SBB has given Switzerland one of its best-known and most prized icons: the Swiss railway clock. This innovative clock was designed in 1944 by engineer and SBB employee Hans Hilfiker, in collaboration with the Swiss clock manufacturer Moser-Baer AG, for use at the company’s stations.

The iconic Swiss Railway clock.

One of the unique features of these station clocks, which are minimalist in appearance, is that they all stop for just over a second at the end of each minute to await a signal from a master clock to start running again. This feature ensures that all of these clocks across Switzerland remain synchronized with each other. Consequently, many of SBB’s passengers have very much relied on the clocks and their uniformity to better pinpoint the arrival and departure of trains. In 1953, Hilfiker added a red second hand to the clock. This hand resembles the dispatch batons that were once routinely waved by station managers to give trains the all-clear to begin their journeys.

The popularity of the Swiss railway clock has extended well beyond Switzerland’s borders. These clocks have even been displayed in exhibits at the Design Museum in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as notable examples of 20th-century design.

For more information on the origins of Swiss Federal Railways, please check out https://company.sbb.ch/en/the-company/profile/history.html and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swiss_Federal_Railways.

Additional information on the Swiss railway clock is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swiss_railway_clock.

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