Please Please, Mr. Tram Driver!

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Most people believe that the purpose of public transport is to transport people. Not so in Zurich. In my experience, only one out of twenty tram drivers in Zurich believes that his professional duty is to help people get from A to B. The rest believes that their duty is to keep the timetable.

Let me illustrate my point with the following recurring experience. It was raining, and I was running late on getting to a date. During the day, I had already got the uncomfortable feeling that my Swiss precision watch was about 5 seconds behind the precise time, because appearing as the last person in meetings had raised eyebrows. Walking towards the tram station, I was wondering whether I had to check my watch. Then I saw the tram coming. Immediately I started to run, knowing well that there isn't much time to get on the tram while it holds at the station. When I reached the station, the tram had already been standing there for a few seconds. I was all wet, because I couldn't have both my umbrella open and run fast. Pressing the push button to open the last door, I realized that the button wasn't illuminated anymore, meaning that the doors would not open. With a sinking feeling, I ran to the head of the tram to knock on the door where the tram driver was located. When I reached the door, the tram still hadn't left. I used my most friendly "Please, Please, Mister Tram Driver" facial expression to move him to open the door. Being a professional, he continued to stare through the front window rather than at me, so he would not be distracted by my misery. In response to my knocking, he switch on the signal lights each tram has on its sides. These signal lights indicate that the tram will soon leave the station. It took the tram another 5 seconds before it eventually left the station. During that time, I continued knocking at the tram's first door, hoping to be let in, getting all wet, and finally loosing faith.

So far, so bad. You may now think that it is hard for a professional tram driver to decide what is more important: an individual customer, or an anonymous mass of customers relying on trams keeping exact timetables. My personal opinion is that this does not contradict each other, but this is not the point, as I recently had to learn.

I was running towards an inter-city train at Oerlikon (Zurich) that would bring me to Zurich main train station. I wasn't sure whether my local public transport ticket would get me on this train, so I stopped right in front of a train door, where the train conductor was waiting. The conductor was inside the train, looking out of the window. I asked him whether I could take the train with my ticket. He calmly answered my question with a clear yes. Then, after a pause, he continued: "Yes, but only in principle, because this train is now leaving without you." At the very second of which the train started rolling out of the station, forcing me to back off from the train door that I had already half opened.

I think I will always carry the Zen-like calmness of this conductor's answer in my heart.

Dirk Riehle, July 1999.

Copyright (©) 2007 Dirk Riehle. Some rights reserved. (Creative Commons License BY-NC-SA.) Original Web Location: