Diccon Bewes: Teaching the Swiss to stand on the right
'Walk on the left, stand on the right' is the one rule that the Swiss ignore. Diccon Bewes tries to puzzle out why.
The Swiss are usually very good at following instructions. This is a country where control and conform can feel like national verbs - somewhere that functions on rules and regulations. But not always. Sometimes there seems to be a collective will not to do the right thing. I know, it sounds so un-Swiss, doesn't it? You can see examples of such anti-social behaviour every day in most train stations, where people brazenly stand on the left-hand side of the escalators. Shocking!
To combat such blatant disregard for the rules, SBB have started trying to educate the Swiss in how to stand on the right. Huge posters at Basel station and signs on every escalator in Bern station appeared, all saying links gehen rechts stehen - literally ‘left go, right stand' or more nicely: stand on the right. In Lucerne station they tried a different approach, probably given the number of non-German-speaking tourists in the city, and painted yellow feet on the ground. All to no avail: notice the two Swiss teenagers on the escalator.
I lived in London for 15 years, where ‘stand on the right' is a way of life on the Underground. Without it the whole system would clog up like a smoker's arteries. On almost any London Transport escalator, the only people not standing on the right are tourists, who soon get told where to go by the locals. In Switzerland, it's the exact opposite: the only ones standing in the right place are tourists, because they think they have to follow the rules; this is Switzerland, after all. Little do they know that this is one rule the Swiss ignore.
The thing is, Swiss escalators aren't that long and stations are not nearly as busy as Piccadilly Circus, so why is it all necessary? Yes, it's frustrating if you're running late and can't get past someone to catch a train. I was recently stuck behind two ladies who were standing side-by-side gassing about nothing important. My polite request to get past was met with a stare of Medusan ferocity, despite us all gliding past a links gehen rechts stehen sign at that very moment. What I'd failed to understand is that it was my fault for not being precisely on time. This walking-standing rule is deemed unnecessary by most Swiss because few of them ever need to make use of it.
SBB clearly think it's a good idea otherwise it wouldn't be going to such lengths to try and make it happen. That's because it's all about its own punctuality. As the trains get busier and more people try to board at the last minute, so its world-class timeliness is threatened. Plus the fact that in busy stations like Zurich, improving the flow of people can only help reduce overcrowding at peak times. Winners all round, I'd say, apart from those people who can only converse side-by-side, a bit like those sad couples in restaurants who don't want to sit opposite each other.
The big problem for SBB is that its rules aren't always followed. There used to be a quiet carriage on trains, but they were just as noisy as all the others. When it comes to not using your Handy (i.e. mobile phone) or iPod for more than ten minutes, the Swiss are as incapable as anyone else. Conductors couldn't keep the peace, literally, so silent carriages were quietly abandoned - in 2nd Class anyway. They still exist for 1st Class passengers, who are clearly more law-abiding.
SBB's latest attempt to regulate its passengers may fail too. Sadly, as London shows that it's a system that works well without adversely affecting anyone. How hard can it be, Switzerland?
Stand. On. The. Right.
Diccon grew up in Britain but now lives in Bern. He has spent the last seven years grappling with German grammar, overcoming his innate desire to form an orderly queue and exploring parts of Switzerland he never knew existed. And eating lots of chocolate. He is the author of the bestselling book Swiss Watching.
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