The Swiss railway (SBB) in the age of the Internet :-( – experiences of a criminalized business traveler

This blog post purely reflects my personal opinions even though it happened during business travel on behalf of ETH, it has nothing to do with the university. Yet, one may assume that a professor of computer science is technically savy (or not?).

I used to be the biggest fan of SBB since I came to Switzerland nearly a decade ago. So much that I moved quite far out of Zurich and commute every day for more than an hour (mountains are nice!). The trains are great for getting work done, the REs have cell phone repeaters and reasonable Internet, and they’re usually on time. Yet, for the first time in seven years something really annoying, and frankly, unacceptable, happened :-(. It seems like this has been a problem for some time.

I needed a new phone which I got last week and set everything up as usual, including the SBB app to buy tickets. I also logged into my “Swisspass” account so that all details are set like they used to be on the old phone (including my payment information – at least that’s what worked for ALL other apps). I felt safe to take the train to the airport the next day. After all, I have been using this app for years now and quite liked it. It was innovative (the touch scheduling is amazing!) and reliable.

Well, it turns our that it’s not reliable at all, in a really unexpected way. The UI design is remarkably bad: once you click on “buy ticket” (which is the last step to buy a ticket, so you CANNOT test it without actually buying a ticket), it suddenly requires an additional login. This was not stated at all why my Swisspass login from before suddenly doesn’t work even though it is THE SAME PAGE!? Ok, well, I enter the password and it doesn’t work (yes, the same password that worked the day before)? Fine, I try a password reset and the email is not delivered.

After tinkering again and again, my train is of course arriving and I need to take it to connect to my flight to the US! So I get nervous, run to the ticket machine which was occupied by a group of asians (nothing against those fellows, I saw myself in China and the SBB machines are really not simple to use). So this didn’t work. I had to board the train or risk missing my plane ($1.5k value)! The plan was to use the old phone in my bag through tethering and buy the ticket on the train.

Of course, the moment I open the SBB app on the old phone, somebody comes to check my ticket. I explain everything and even provide evidence (I demonstrate the swisspass login problems, I show my old phone where I was in the process of buying the ticket etc.). No mercy, I was an immediate criminal. Gosh! I iterated and was told that I need to argue this with the service center.

The call with the service center was not too helpful – the person did not quite understand what I was talking about (do these people know this app? Have they ever used it? What is the training?). I nevertheless got a 40% reduction of the penalty but am still marked in their system for an indefinite time. So I don’t only pay 7x the transportation cost out of my pocket but am also considered suspicious by SBB just because their app is absolutely silly!

Also, there is NO way to check whether it works (i.e., debug) without buying an actual ticket!!! Now my account seems to be locked completely (even though my Swisspass login in the app is fine!!??). On the way back, I still didn’t have it working and needed paper tickets (the lines of asians seem a recurrent theme these days so I missed my train this morning) :-(.

Note that there is no way to contact them provided (no phone, no email). The Swisspass webpage is even less helpful. What does “Swiss Pass Contact Center” even mean!? At least google doesn’t know about it. I have no clue how to resolve this! My time investment in the seemingly simple issue of having a new phone begins to be annoyingly high.

This begins to look like fraud – “everything looks good but surprise, you won’t get a ticket today!”. The SBB app, definitely nothing for busy business travelers with little time to tinker around :-(. I also lost all my trust in it, highly unprofessional.