The Swiss Federal Railways, better known by their trilingual acronym “SBB CFF FFS” (Schweizerische BundesBahnen – German, Chemins de Fer Fédéraux suisses – French and Ferrovie Federali Svizzere – Italian) are the national railway company of the Swiss Confederation.
Globally famed for their proverbial punctuality and unparalleled efficiency, the swiss federal railways were officially formed in 1902 as an amalgamation and nationalization of the vast majority of the 1435mm-gauge private railway companies in operation at the time, making them among the oldest national railway companies still in operation in the world.
Third-class accomodation was abolished in 1956, and steam locomotives were completely replaced by electric locomotives and multiple units by the mid-1960s.
In switzerland, rail travel is very popular and easy, and the railways (in general, not only the SBB CFF FFS) enjoy broad pubblic support. With the increasing number of passengers, from the 1970s onwards the Swiss Federal Railways embarked in several ambitious modernization and infrastructural development programs, all supported and approved by the swiss people via referendums, most notably the “Rail 2000” program, wich implemented a full clock-face scheduling system for the entire network (a world’s first) and the “AlpTransit” NRLA program, wich aimed to improve cross-alps services by constructing new base tunnels to replace the slow and tortuous passes built at the turn of the century.
Both of these programs have been remarkable successes: nowdays almost the entirety of swiss pubblic transport services (not only the federal railways, but also smaller regional companies, urban transportation agencies, regional bus operators and the national PostBus) are operated with a clock-faced schedule, with trains running at regular intervals and in coincidence with each other. On the NRLA side, the Gotthard Base Tunnel was opened on the 1st of June 2016, after 17 years of tunneling works, beating with it’s 57 Km of lenght the Japanese Seikan Tunnel (53 Km) as the world’s longest railway tunnel, the Lotschberg Base tunnel was opened in 2007 and the Ceneri Base Tunnel was opened in 2020.
Currently, the SBB CFF FFS manage a 3134Km-long network, formed by both single and double-tracked lines serving a total of 765 stations. Thanks to the abundance of electricity, the entirety of the network is electrified at 15Kv AC 16.7Hz – there are no diesel mainlines: the few non electrified services operated by SBB CFF FFS are almost exclusively freight services shuttling between industrial sidings and major yards.
Since 1999 SBB CFF FFS has been sectorized in three divisions: “passenger traffic”, “infrastructure” (maintainance) and “Cargo” (freight services); both the proper “passenger” SBB CFF FFS and especially the “Cargo” division also operate outside switzerland, running international freight and passenger trains in collaboration with the railways of neigbouring countries.
Railwaymen (and by extension, all company employees) of the SBB CFF FFS have been nicknamed “i federali” (“the feds“) by railwaymen of both regional railways in the italian-speaking part of switzerland and italian railway companies that deal on a regular basis with swiss railways in general (such as SSIF) .
The full trilingual “SBB CFF FFS” acronym is seldom used, and is found generally on official documents. Normally, swiss people will refer to the federal railways only using the three letters of their spoken language (SBB for german-speakers, CFF for french-speakers and FFS for italian speakers).
Before the 1970s, in the era of the dark-green livery, locomotives and rolling stock usually displayed two out of three acronyms, usually SBB CFF or CFF FFS depending on their depot assignment. The full acronym was found more rarely, usually on passenger cars intended for international services. Since the mid-1970s, with the introduction of the current logo (two arrows encompassing the swiss cross), the full trilingual acronym became commonplace on all rolling stock, regardless of service or depot.
Also correlated to the language shenaningans, all technical equipment must also be trilingual, including manuals, signage, inscriptions in the drivers’ cab and so on. This, for a matter of simplification, has led to the rise of a “distinctively swiss” vocabulary of “amphibious” multi-language railway terms, such as “Loc” to denote a locomotive (“Lokomotive” in German, “Locomotive” in French and “Locomotiva” in Italian).