Last Friday, two students attempted to break the Swiss Train Challenge in record time and visit all 26 Swiss cantons in less than 24 hours but their journey didn’t go to plan.
The Swiss Train Challenge sees participants compete to step foot in each and every Swiss canton (federal states) in less than 24 hours, travelling exclusively by public transport. Last year, a team from the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino set a new record for the challenge by visiting each Swiss canton in 17 hours and 19 minutes.
Following the Ticino-based team’s impressive feat, two PhD research students from Lausanne’s EPFL technology institute set about smashing the current record by aiming to visit all 26 cantons in even less time. To prepare for the record-breaking challenge, Emmanuel Clédat and Dirk Lauinger calculated their itinerary by an algorithm.
They collected data which included the exact locations of Switzerland‘s 22,080 train stations and bus stops, as well as the geographical borders of each canton and full train timetable. They then reduced the number of train stations down to 110 “significant” ones, in terms of connections and schedules and within 10 days, their computer planned the optimal route and time: 16 hours and 54 minutes.
Clédat told Lonely Planet that apart from setting a new record and proving the efficiency of their algorithm, the students wanted to highlight the quality of the Swiss rail network in punctuality, reliability and connectivity (every single Swiss town is connected to the Swiss rail network). Another aim was to show the diversity and multiculturalism of Switzerland.
“We have four languages, two main religions, different ways of cooking Rösti,” said Clédat. “It’s a very beautiful country. Even though we live in the country, we can feel very disorientated when we travel to the other side. The goal of this was to highlight the diversity of all these cantons.”
The students left Saint-Maurice in the canton of Valais at 5.24am last Friday. They aimed to be at Jakobsbad in Appenzell Innerrhoden at 10.18pm the same day. But the itinerary did not go to plan and three hours and ten minutes into the trip, one late train cost them the entire challenge.
“The train from Neuchâtel to Bern was only 20 minutes late but it delayed our whole schedule,” Clédat told Lonely Planet. But the students refused to give up and continued their journey. They eventually made it to Jakobsbad in Appenzell Innerrhoden in just under 18 hours.
Despite missing out on setting a new record, Clédat and Lauinger enjoyed the challenge and urged others to take part. “We’d be very pleased if others tried this challenge using our suggested algorithms,” said Clédat. “However, if the goal is to visit Switzerland, we’d suggest spending a few weeks there rather than 16 hours and 54 minutes.”
They bought one-day travel cards for 41 Swiss francs (US$41 or €36) each. This ticket option is available to residents of Switzerland but depends on availability and travel dates.
Travelling by train is one of the most pleasant ways to see Switzerland. The Great Train Comparison Report, commissioned in May by online train booking service Loco2, found that Switzerland’s national railway offers the best overall service in Europe, coming first place in four categories: best for families, disabled passengers, cyclists and winter sports.
The Swiss Train Challenge was launched by Swiss broadcast journalist Nicolas Rossé in 2015, who made the journey that year in 19 hours and 46 minutes. Each year locals and tourists compete in the challenge and you can follow their live progress here.