Time up for second hand on Swiss railway clocks

Railway company makes change to design classic to save money

Engineer Hans Hilfiker designed the Swiss rail clock to complete its revolution in 58.5 seconds then stand still for 1.5 seconds more to, as he put it, “bring calm in the last moment and ease punctual train departure”. Photograph:  Fabrice CoffrinI/AFP/Getty Images

Engineer Hans Hilfiker designed the Swiss rail clock to complete its revolution in 58.5 seconds then stand still for 1.5 seconds more to, as he put it, “bring calm in the last moment and ease punctual train departure”. Photograph: Fabrice CoffrinI/AFP/Getty Images

 


For 65 years the Swiss have fought back against the convincing but incorrect claim of Orson Welles in The Third Man that their major contribution to western society has been the cuckoo clock. Those clocks are native to Germany’s Black Forest, but Switzerland has made another iconic contribution to the world of timekeeping: the Swiss rail (SBB) clock.

In 1944, while the rest of Europe descended into the chaos of war, Swiss commuters were treated to the bold, modernist clock design with no digits by engineer Hans Hilfiker. Some 11 years later, he added a second hand, with the tip in the design of a red train conductor’s disc.


Commuting calm
This was no ordinary second hand: Mr Hilfiker designed it to complete its revolution in 58.5 seconds then stand still for 1.5 seconds more to, as he put it, “bring calm in the last moment and ease punctual train departure”. Now six decades of commuting calm has given way to untimely turbulence. The Swiss classic of 20th-century design is a classic no more. To save money, the SBB has been quietly removing the second hand from its clocks when its motor, separate to the rest of the clock, runs out. Commuters are distraught, worried about missing their morning connection on the famously punctual Swiss trains.

“Is it 5 seconds past the minute or 55?” bemoaned Zürich’s empathetic Tages-Anzeiger daily. Designers are up in arms, too, accusing the rail company of arbitrary vandalism. The rail company has fought back against the complaints, saying the problem is that the motor for the second hand, which runs out faster than the main clock motor, is no longer manufactured. And it says it cannot afford to spend 3,250 francs (€2,668) a go to replace functioning clocks, just to get a working second hand again.

So they have been quietly removing the red second hands and putting them out of their misery. “As soon as the clock reaches the end of its working life, it will be replaced by a clock with a second hand,” said an SBB spokeswoman. Swiss commuters are unimpressed. They remember how Apple was forced to pay the SBB some 20 million francs (€16.4 million) in retroactive licence fees after a court found it lifted the design for its iPads.

That windfall, rushed commuters puff, could buy more than 6,000 new clocks. But the SBB has stood firm: seconds are out. For the Swiss, the times they are a-changing...