SBB's first ever female management board member, Ms Jeannine Pilloud, inevitably has a great deal of managerial experience, including working as senior vice-president of a leading telecommunications company before she joined SBB last April.

Pilloud is also used to travelling extensively, and has a good idea of what customers want. Of course the challenge lies in finding out how to achieve this, and here she recognises the importance of setting benchmarks and priorities, and acknowledging what is humanly possible.

One of her leading concerns, naturally, is the advent of the Gotthard base tunnel, which is due to open in 2016. Originally conceived as a freight link, it has long been accepted that the tunnel will be used as a main passenger route as well.

Long-distance traffic on the Gotthard route has dropped 20% in the last 15 years since a new road tunnel opened, but improvements are underway that might claw this traffic back. "One of the biggest challenges we have is the big gap in quality on the north-south routes," Pilloud says. "We're working intensively on developing interim concepts for the Milan service until the Gotthard base tunnel opens."

However, SBB is currently facing problems with its international services because it feels its partners in Germany, Italy and Austria cannot match the high standard of Switzerland's cross-border railway services. "We have to solve these quality problems - infrastructure and operations - with our partners, and go step by step," Pilloud explains, describing the process as "cultural management." She says that part of the problem has been the failure to translate agreements reached at meetings into action as soon as the Swiss would like. Another difficulty at present is certification of new trains; in Italy for example, SBB needs a special licence to operate trains to Milan.

On the positive side, the Lyria high-speed services which link Zürich, Bern, Lausanne and Geneva with Paris are a real success story of cross-border train services that successfully compete with air.

For this to be effective a journey should not last more than five hours. Paris is therefore an attractive destination as Zürich is now just four hours from the French capital and Geneva is just over three hours. Milan is less than four hours from Zürich and Geneva. However, this service is facing problems.

"The train from Milan is constantly late," Pilloud says. "but it's just as bad by air because of technical defects. If we can solve Milan we've got the market," she predicts, adding that she hopes to achieve this within five or six years.

Zürich - Stuttgart takes just under three hours, but Zürich - Munich is in excess of four hours, but will be reduced to 3h 30min when the line is upgraded. "A huge effort is required to maintain these international connections, and there are discussions about them every day," Pilloud says. "As for tilting trains to Munich, we're testing the roll compensation to see whether we can use this technology in Germany. But we need electrification by 2017."

What is likely to happen to the Gotthard mountain route when the base tunnel comes into operation? Pilloud says that talks are continuing about this, and while the line is very expensive to maintain and drivers need to complete special training to operate on it, current thinking is that the line will no longer be used for freight traffic but only for regional and tourist traffic, and occasionally as an overflow.

"If the weather is lovely in Ticino and it is raining in northwest Switzerland over Whitsun, we would have to put on more trains to meet demand," she says. "That would mean using the mountain route because there will be no spare slots through the Gotthard base tunnel. We have to have it in case we need it."

Overall, the most pressing concern at the moment is the choice of new rolling stock for use on the north-south route. Pilloud says that trains might have to be twice the length of the existing units and be double-deck to accommodate more and more passengers. Main stations might also have to be altered to cope with higher passenger numbers, perhaps by providing more underpasses and improving information systems.

"We can't tender until we can gauge what we need, and we must also be sure we have the traffic," Pilloud says. "We need something that's tried and tested - we're not prepared to invest in a whole lot of new technology to save two minutes. And we don't want a train that we can only use in Switzerland and maybe Italy but not Germany."

Pilloud commutes between Zürich and Bern every day and she says that the one thing that impresses her about Swiss trains - apart from their punctuality - is the really pleasant atmosphere onboard, even when they are full. In her view it is essential that when procuring its new trains SBB listens to what its passengers want to retain this positive trait. This might include offering different seating zones so passengers can choose where they sit and not necessarily offering a power point at every seat.

"When we tender for new trains we must be sure that our customers like them," she says. "They have very different needs, so we must look at this more closely in future, especially when people are travelling long distances."