A paddle steamer manager will have a multiplicity of things on their mind to keep the show on the road and deliver an enjoyable and reliable product for their passengers. But top of the list of priorities will always be to develop a business plan in which the income exceeds the expenditure. If that does not happen then you don’t have a business. You will go bust unless of course you have a subsidy. And there are some passenger vessel operators which do have this distinct advantage. For example CalMac receives heavy subsidies for its Scottish services and that is why its fares are so cheap. You can travel from Ardrossan to Brodick for a mere £8.50 return as a foot passenger for the roughly two hour round trip. And if you take your car it will set you back only £34.20 return. Compare that with the services of Red Funnel and Wightlink on the Solent which are not subsidised and so at times of peak demand will charge you around £20 as a foot passenger and more than £80 if you take your car. This scales up for any one ship in their fleets to an aggregate of £180 per foot passenger per nine hour day. That’s economics for you.
Of course £180 per passenger per nine hour day does come across as pretty steep and rather unaffordable for most people for a day trip even if that fairly reflects the operational costs. But this sort of high per passenger per day fare is achieved by the CGN’s paddle steamers on Lake Geneva even though their day trip fare itself is capped at 64CHF (£56.42) second class and 90CHF (£79.34) first class. A circle squared? So how do they do it?
When I first went to Switzerland in 1989 there were paddle steamer round trips from one end of Lake Geneva to the other or vice versa which roughly speaking took twelve hours as well as other trip options. But the problem with really long day trips like that is that the revenue the management needs to take per passenger per hour steamed to finance them is so high that it becomes unaffordable for most potential passengers. This is the conundrum which the CGN paddle steamer management on Lake Geneva has solved so ingeniously in recent years. They have revamped their timetables to do away with advertised longer day trips and instead have developed a wide range of shorter trip options of two or three hours duration each offered multiple times every day in the peak weeks taking advantage of the geography and special features in different parts of the lake. The fares for these reflect the commercial realities of running them and are affordable per trip. But as there are several run each day then the aggregate comes in at a per passenger per day rate way higher than a day trip market fare would ever be likely to sustain.
The CGN’s booklet for 2022 Vos Aventures sur le Leman (Adventures on Lake Geneva) sets out a splendid forty two of these shorter round trip options. For example from Geneva there are regular one hour trips throughout the day, some two hour round trips plus six round trips to the medieval village of Yvoire. There are four round trips between Lausanne and Yvoire, seven round trips between Lausanne and the Chateau Chillon, and so on and so forth up to the forty two such trips options offered from Geneva, Lausanne, Vevey, Evian, Morges, Montreux, Villeneuve, Le Bouveret, Thonon and Nyon.
Amongst these there are four three hour circuits of the eastern part of the lake at 9.40am, 12.45pm. 2.45pm and 3.45pm from Lausanne out via St Gingolph and back along the north shore passing through Chateau Chillon, Montreux and Vevey. And at 10.40am, 12.40pm, 2.50pm and 6.15pm hour there are hour and three quarter circuits from Lausanne to Vevey and Montreux. From Vevey there are one hour forty minute circuits of the eastern lake at 10.02, 11.45am, 1.45pm and 3.45pm. And all these round trips have the additional advantage that anyone joining at any one of the various intermediate piers along the way including St Gingolph, Le Bouveret, Chateau Chillon, Montreux and Vevey can enjoy exactly the same circuit of exactly the same duration wheresoever they board
Sailing westwards from Lausanne every day this season a paddle steamer has been rostered to run from Geneva to Lausanne and another from Lausanne to Geneva which takes about three and a half hours each way. However these are not promoted as round trip options in Vos Aventures sur le Leman although of course you can do that if you want. Instead what are promoted are the shorter bites which these longer sailings offer along their way including Lausanne/Yvoire, Morges/Yvoire, Morges/Lausanne with connections to the eastern part of the lake, Yvoire/Nyon, Nyon/Geneva and so on.
So how does this work in terms of the finances? Let’s take as the first example PS La Suisse which this season has been running three of the three hour circuits of the eastern lake from Lausanne every day. The second class fare for each of these is 53 CHF (£46.72). She runs three of them every day. So during her nine hour working days this scales up to a daily fare, if one passenger travels on each of the three of them, coming in at £140.16 per passenger per nine hour day. And remember this is the second class fare. The first class fare for this three hour round trip is 75 CHF (£66) which aggregates up with the three of them to 225CHF (£198) per passenger per nine hour day.
PS Italie runs four one hour forty minutes circuits of the eastern lake every day from Vevey calling at Montreux, Chateau Chillon, Villeneuve and St Gingolph along the way at a second class fare of 36 CHF (£31.73). So in a day she takes 4 x 36CHF per passenger giving a total of 144 CHF (£127) per passenger per day. The first class fare is 52 CHF so with the four trips that gives a daily total of 208 CHF (£183) per passenger per nine hour day.
Of course you can spend longer aboard a paddle steamer on the lake if you want. And for the really hard core enthusiast who cannot get enough of paddle steamer trips then there is the opportunity to stich together the shorter round trips up and down the lake by jumping on and off paddle steamers as you go. For example for a real feast of it you could take the PS Simplon leaving Geneva at 10.45am and not get off at Nyon, Yvoire or Morges as you are encouraged to do but stay on to Lausanne for arrival at 2.35pm. Then you could take PS La Suisse at 3.45pm for her three hour circuit of the eastern lake via St Gingolph returning to Lausanne at 6.42pm just in time to join PS Montreux at 6.55pm for her three and a half hour round trip evening dining cruise to Yvoire but get off there at 8.32pm and change instead onto PS Rhone freshly arrived on her three and a half hour evening dining cruise which had left Geneva at 7.05pm. That would get you back to Geneva at 10.20pm almost twelve hours after you had set out in the morning.
And this long day of it can be done at an affordable price as the CGN caps the amount you need to spend in any one day with their Carte Jounaliere (Day Card) which is currently set at 64CHF (£56.42) second class and 90CHF (£79.34) first class. That is only 11CHF (£9.69) more than you would pay second class for just one of La Suisses’s three hour round trips. This gives the best of both worlds. The CGN is taking commercial fares at a level commensurate with their costs for the short cruises and these build up during the day to truly reflect the cost of operating the paddle steamers. And for the relatively small numbers who do want to spend nine hours or more aboard a paddle steamer on the lake then they can do so at an affordable fare which is subsidised by the shorter cruises.
I do not say that this Lake Geneva business model is right for everyone. All businesses are different. All businesses have different customer bases serving different market segments as well as having different geographical and demographic parameters to address. But I do have a great admiration for the Swiss. I have a great admiration for how they have managed to rebuild all their many paddle steamers to keep them in fine fettle. And I have a great admiration for their business models.
And for any who think that a ride on a Swiss paddle steamer is expensive then I would point you in the direction of Red Funnel and Wightlink here in the UK which remain solvent by implementing their own business model which garners in a commercial rate in the aggregate of £180 per foot passenger per nine hour working day. Kerching!
Kingswear Castle returned to service in 2023 after the first part of a major rebuild which is designed to set her up for the next 25 years running on the River Dart. The Paddle Steamer Kingswear Castle Trust is now fund raising for the second phase of the rebuild. You can read more about the rebuilds and how you can help if you can here.