Swiss shipping: in transit on rivers, lakes and oceans

Ships were once the most important form of transporting goods and persons over long distances. Railways replaced Swiss shipping in this function during the late 19th century. Transport by ship then became a tourist attraction on Switzerland's waters. And the Swiss merchant fleet sails the oceans of the world doing its bit towards securing national supplies.

The beginnings of shipping

Ships were important means of transport until the construction of the railways. More than 20 years before the first steam engines took to the rails in Switzerland, a steam-powered ship was launched on Lake Geneva in 1823. The majority of shipping companies were founded by private initiative.

A Rhine shipping company founded by the Chambers of Commerce in Schaffhausen was acquired together with other shipping companies on the Rhine and Lake Constance by the Northeastern Railway in the 1850s. A central figure at Northeastern Railway – as its founder and supervisory board president – was Federal Councillor, entrepreneur and railway pioneer Alfred Escher (1820-1891). In 1902, the Confederation acquired the Northeastern Railway in addition to four other railway companies and established the Swiss Federal Railways (SFR). Thus, shipping on Lake Constance also fell to the state. SFR's entire shipping operations on Lake Constance were not privatised until 1996.

Many documents on the beginnings of Switzerland's shipping can be found in the Shipping and Rafting (1838-1923) fonds. The fonds of the Railway Authority (1843-1965) also hold steam ship licenses and regulations.

Shipping in the 20th century

The Confederation abolished the special rights assigned to the shipping companies in 1848. In 1919, the Confederation became the legislative and supervisory authority for the construction and use of waterways and for the shipping trade. It is responsible for the enactment of safety provisions and traffic regulations, just as it is for the railways and for aviation.

Documents on issues of legislation, supervision and licensing in relation to shipping can be found at the current Federal Office of Transport (1823-2005) and its predecessor organisations, the Railway Department (1874-1934) and the Federal Department of Transport (1820-1992). Other pivotal documents, in particular relating to shipping on the Rhine, are held by the Swiss Office of Water Economy  (1815-1979) and its successor organisations, the Federal Office for Water Economy (1845-1995) and the Federal Office for Water and Geology (2000-2005). Important information on Rhine shipping can also be found at the Swiss Customs Administration (1848-2009).

Negotiating agreements with neighbouring countries on lakes and rivers with shared shores was and is a matter for federal government. Documents on these agreements, on shipping under the Swiss flag and on the war at sea and how it affected the Swiss merchant fleet during the Second World War can be researched at the current Directorate of Political Affairs and its preceding organisations.

The ocean-going fleet

The Confederation is authorised to take control of Swiss merchant fleets in times of emergency to ensure economic supplies to the country are upheld. The Swiss Maritime Navigation Office was established for this purpose during the war year of 1941. Securing national supplies in the event of a conflict remains the raison d'être of the merchant fleet under the Swiss flag, although all ships are privately owned and commercially operated in times of peace. Today, the ocean-going fleet is supervised by the Swiss Maritime Navigation Office (SMNO). The SMNO is responsible for around 20 ocean-going vessels that sail the world's seas under the Swiss flag.

Tips for further research

Additional information on shipping companies can be found here:

Last modification 04.11.2019

Top of page


Swiss Federal Archives

Archivstrasse 24
3003 Bern

+41 58 462 89 89


Opening hours reading room

Tu-Th, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Details and closing times

Print contact


Swiss Federal Archives

Archivstrasse 24
3003 Bern

Show map

Print contact