The Swiss Train Chief

“Nein, nein, nein….,” muttered the train chief as he shook his head. “Zis is no gut!”

I stared at him, not sure of what he was talking about.  The train chief was the ticket collector.  Soon after each stop on the line he walked the length of the train checking and punching tickets. It was my turn to have my ticket checked.

“Vut iz zis?” he said as he closely examined my Eurail pass in his hands. “You have two numbers here! No gut!”

“What do you mean?” I said. “What’s the problem?”

Swiss train over the Alps
A Swiss train...

I had bought a Eurail pass instead of individual tickets for each train ride.  The pass was for ten days of travel within two months.  I was on the second day of the pass.  I had used the first day for the train ride from Civitavecchia, Italy (the port city where we got off the ship) to Milan via Rome.  The Eurail pass is an old style paper card with ten small spaces at the bottom where you are supposed to write down (in ink) the month and day of each use.  The first date was written in by the train clerk at the station in Civitavecchia.  Writing in every subsequent day was my responsibility.

I was going to use the pass on an earlier day and had written in that month and day.  Then I didn’t need to use the pass.  So that morning I wrote over that day (a 26) with today’s day (a 28).  Apparently, he didn’t like that.

“It looks like you have written over one number with another!” he said. He pulled a small monocular out of his pocket (the kind that a jeweler might use), stuck it in one eye and squinted with his other eye.  The monocular emitted a strange blue light.

“Uh, yes, I did that,” I admitted.  “I was going to use the pass on the second day and didn’t.  Now I am using it today.”  This was the second train ride of the day.  The train chief on the first train had looked at the card and gave it back to me without comment.  This guy was a different story.

“You cannot do that,” he said.

“Well, I didn’t know that,” I said.  “Nobody told me that.  I haven’t read that anywhere.  I’ve only used the pass on one day, now I am using it today.”  It didn’t seem that I was getting anywhere with this guy, although he spoke and understood English very well.

“Passports, please,” he said. Without thinking I obediently handed over our passports.  He said he would make a call and be back in a few minutes.

train in Switzerland
Berner Oberland train to Lauterbrunnen

I was wondering, what is this guy’s problem?  I know I am in Switzerland now and no longer in Italy.  I’m sure they do things differently here.  They are known for several things, like Swiss efficiency, watches, chocolate, and knives.  I didn’t know they had overzealous train chiefs too.

Maybe he was a chicken-shit bureaucrat, caught up in the trappings of his own power as the ticket collector on this train.  He could browbeat innocent passengers for his own sadistic enjoyment.  Maybe he had little man’s syndrome, trying to overcompensate for his failures and deficiencies in other areas of his life.

I’m not sure that was it, since he was a fairly big, beefy guy in his late 30s.  His face was sunburned from a weekend either hiking in the Alps or sailing on the ThunerSee.  His name tag said “Ole Olson.”  Sounds like a Norwegian name, not a Swiss one.  Come to think of it, he looked Norwegian too.

Olson was back.  He asked me to come with him.  I followed him into the area between the railroad cars.  At this point he had my Eurail pass and our passports in his possession.

“Here iz ze problem,” he said. “You marked zis pass wrong.  Now it iz invalid. It’s no gut. So, I send zis to my boss.  You are now on zis train with no tickets.  So you must buy two tickets.  Each ticket is 103 Swiss Francs. There is a fine for being on zis train with no tickets.  The fine is 150 Swiss Francs.” (the total was 356 Swiss Frances = ~$435).

“HUH? Let me get this straight.  You are confiscating my Eurail pass that cost me $1,400 for two first class seats that should be good for ten days of train use.  I have used this pass only once so far.  Then you are charging me over $400 for new tickets AND a fine?!”

“Ya, zat’s right.  It iz the rule.  Ve must follow ze rules.  Do you have a credit card?” he said as he pulled out his portable credit card reader.

Queue the “Bourne Identity” theme music:

“You’re not going to do that to me today, Mr. Ole F*&#ing Olson!” I yelled.  I drove my knee him as fast as I could into his groin.  As he started to double over in pain I head-butted him, breaking his nose and spewing blood all over his nice train chief’s uniform.  When he was down, I kicked him hard several times in the kidneys.  Then I kicked him the hardest in the back of the head to put him unconscious.

Just then the train slowed down for the next stop.  It wasn’t our stop, but it was time to go.  We grabbed our suitcases and hopped off the train before anybody found Mr. Olson, train chief on the Basel line.  We lost ourselves in the crowd.  We were on the run.  I felt like Jason Bourne.


Ok, it didn’t really go down like that.  I didn’t like what was happening, but I didn’t want to get arrested either.  That would definitely ruin my vacation.  I’m sure Swiss jails are models of efficiency and comfort, perhaps with HD TV and 157 satellite channels, muesli and yogurt for breakfast, and chocolate for desert after dinner. I might even get to carve fancy wood things with a Swiss Army knife, if they let those things into a Swiss prison.

Queue some Disneyland theme music (something about the happiest place on earth?):

“With all due respect, Mr. Olson, I didn’t know the rules here.  I am a visitor in your country.  I am on vacation here to contribute to your economy by spending twice as much for everything as I would spend at home.  Surely you can see the good I am doing just by being on this train.  In fact, by using the pass that I paid for, I am contributing in some small way to your salary.  I’m sure you can find it in the goodness of your heart, and because it is a nice sunny day, to overlook this minor infraction and send me on my way with my passports and pass.”

“I cannot do that,” he said.

“OK,” I said.  “How about this: you write in today’s date on the third spot on my pass.  I forfeit the use of the second day.  But you give me back the pass and I can use it for seven more days.”

“Ya sure,” he said.  “You look like a nice American.  I like Americans a lot.  Especially Mr. Bush.  I was just, how you say it – ‘yanking your chain.’  Ha Ha. Have a nice holiday.”

He smiled as he patted me on the back.  He gave me back our passports and my Eurail pass after writing in it.  I went back to my seat to continue reading my book.


Queue serious, somber, dramatic documentary theme music:

Well, that didn’t actually happen either, except perhaps in my dreams that night.  What really happened is that he wouldn’t budge on his demand for my credit card.  He wouldn’t listen to my arguments.  All he would say is that he sees something on the pass so he must enforce the rules.  I got mad, I argued, I asked for his name and his supervisor’s name.  I asked for where this rule is stated.  It made no difference.  He was determined to stick to the rules.  Welcome to Switzerland.

In the end I had no choice but to pay for the new tickets and the fine in order to get our passports back.

I will never go to Switzerland again.