Public transport – A part of Zurich’s history

You can download a PDF version of the Öffnet PDF in einem neuen Fensterfull portrait with additional background information (PDF, 0.5MB) about the Zurich Transport Network.

Modern public transport can trace its origins back as far as the closing years of the 18th century and closely paralleled the industrialisation of Europe. It was the age in which an efficient network of stagecoaches was built up, the first railways were constructed and then expanded and the transport of passengers by boat grew too. For local and regional public transport in Canton Zurich, the latter decades of the 19th century were an epoch-making period. In 1875, the Uetlibergbahn (which at the time operated leisure services only) first climbed the famous mountain in Zurich’s back garden; in 1882, the first horse-drawn tram wends its way through Zurich’s city centre, and this was followed in 1894 by the first electric tram through the city on the banks of the Limmat.

The horse-drawn tram – a real luxury back in 1882

Crisis and renaissance of public transport

The first half of the 20th century was a heyday of public transport. After 1950, however, the motorcar started to compete strongly with it. In many locations, unprofitable tram lines were closed and replaced with buses. Large-scale public-transport projects had a tough time. In 1962, the inhabitants of the city of Zurich rejected plans for the tram network to run at a dedicated lower level through the heart of the city. In 1973, the people of the canton as a whole said no to the idea of building a metro and regional express network. It was not until the 1980s that the general mood of the population shifted. Traffic jams in and around the cities showed up the limits of the private car as a means of transport, and the increasing burden on the environment kindled an ecological awareness in broad circles of the population. This had impacts on public transport. In 1981, the government of Canton Zurich again submitted a referendum to the electorate to build a regional express railway system (i.e. “S-Bahn”). This time, the project was approved with a substantial two-thirds majority. It was followed in 1988 with the establishment of the legal basis for the setting up of the ZVV, which the voters again accepted with a very considerable majority.

Stadelhofen station in 1980

Stadelhofen station as rebuilt in 1990

The idea underlying the integrated transport system is simple, but has not yet been copied anywhere else in Switzerland. The individual transport operators no longer function as separate businesses, each one with its own system of fares and clearly demarcated territory, but as part of a very much larger whole. The loss of entrepreneurial autonomy is much more than offset by the radically improved customer friendliness.

Move into the future of public transport

On 27 May 1990, public transport in Canton Zurich officially moved into a new era. That is when the ZVV started operating, and Zurich’s first S-Bahn train left the rebuilt Stadelhofen station on its inaugural working. Building this regional express system called for other new works of engineering, such as the underground S-Bahn station of Museumstrasse in Zurich, two new tunnels (Hirschengraben and Zürichberg), the enlargement of numerous stations and the construction of various new stops.


1990: On behalf of the federal government, Federal Councillor Adolf Ogi attended the inauguration ceremony for Zurich’s S-Bahn in Stadelhofen station.

It took the first five years for cooperation within the ZVV to evolve into the shape that is still valid today. The ZVV defines the strategic objectives and directions, is responsible for finances and takes charge of strategic marketing. It is the individual transport operators grouped together within the ZVV who retain responsibility for actually transporting passengers. In order to make sure that they can work efficiently, the whole of the territory covered by the ZVV has been divided into eight market regions, and one company has overall responsibility for each of these regions (in German: marktverantwortliches Verkehrsunternehmen or MVU). These eight companies have the job of ensuring that public transport operates smoothly on their territory, that services run as timetabled and that the budget targets are met. They coordinate the activities of small and medium-sized licensed transport operators as well as contract carriers, whose primary function is to run the services on particular routes. This form of organisation, which keeps the strategic and operational elements apart, has turned out to be economic, efficient and customer-friendly.

Increased services

The S-Bahn formula did not have to wait long to prove its success, and some of its routes were soon up against their capacity limits. The S-Bahn network has thus already been expanded and intensified twice, and the connecting bus services suitably adapted. Customers have shown their appreciation of these service improvements by using the trains more and more frequently. Between 1990 and 2005 the number of passengers carried on Zurich’s S-Bahn system doubled. The introduction of a network of special night-time workings on Fridays and Saturdays also quickly developed into a success. In parallel, a concept known as “MobilPlus” has been progressively improving access to public-transport services for customers with disabilities.

These successes have also had their impacts – notably that public transport on the most important backbone routes has again reached its capacity limits, especially at the system’s most important interchange of Zurich’s central station (Hauptbahnhof). In 2005, work commenced on the S-Bahn’s third round of partial extensions. At the time of writing, there is a need for yet further investment in route extensions, and a second underground line, including a station, needs to be added below the existing central station as a prerequisite for the success story of public transport in and around Canton Zurich to be able to continue in the forthcoming decade.


2006: A new class of train (EMU) is added to Zurich’s S-Bahn fleet.