Britain came late to the concept of post buses. In typically British fashion they were a state-sponsored solution to a problem which had been caused by a different part of the state in the first place. It was the 1960s, and the problem was the lack of journey opportunities in rural areas, often caused by the closure of the local railway line during the Beeching-era cuts. Local bus networks were also shrinking, and although local buses were run by the state-owned National Bus Company, it was deemed to be the Royal Mail which should step in. Instead of using traditional post vans, new post buses were introduced instead, carrying not just mail but passengers too. The early vehicles were endearing little minivans like this, the Dodge Spacevan:
The Royal Mail Post Bus lasted well into the 21st Century, with more modern post buses eventually replacing the Spacevan. To my great regret, I never travelled on one, even though they were once to be found all the over country. Although you might imagine they were restricted to remote areas in Scotland, Wales and the north of England, in fact post buses could once be found even in counties as close to London as Surrey. Surrey’s lasted until 2009, and it was as recently as August this year when the last British post bus operated for the final time (in Scotland, between Lairg and Tongue, amidst some rather bad feeling between the Royal Mail and Highland Council).
In Britain then, post vans were replaced with passenger-carrying vehicles, until passengers were forced off the routes in favour of the mail. In mainland Europe, however, almost the opposite was the case for many Post Bus operations. They started as passenger and mail-carrying stagecoaches, survived into the modern era using motorised vehicles operated by the Post Office (these were often large coaches) and eventually it was the mail that was kicked off, with the Post Bus operations turned into purely passenger-carrying subsidiaries. Such is the case with Switzerland’s PostAuto operation, still operated as a subsidiary of the Swiss Post Office. And my excuse for relating a brief history of the remarkable concept of the post bus is this, PostAuto’s impressive bus station in the Swiss city of Chur:
And yes, it does look like a railway station, for reasons which will become clear. Unsurprisingly in integration-minded Switzerland, the bus station sits over Chur’s railway station, and it was the run-down condition of that railway station in the 1980s which led to the construction of the new bus station.
Seeking to improve the station environment, the city ran a competition for the design of a new station. The winners were Graubünden-based architects Richard Brosi and Robert Obrist. They proposed a modern take on the classic railway station trainshed (see another version of this idea at Amsterdam Centraal, here). Brosi and Obrist’s vision for Chur was a huge 300m-long steel and glass arched roof stretching the length of the station, with PostAuto buses using one end of the new structure. The Swiss Post Office built this section and it opened in 1992.
It’s a hugely impressive piece of infrastructure, as light and airy as you could possibly want. It’s 52m wide and slightly longer, illuminated at night by cleverly designed lighting fixtures in the roof, and capturing the feeling of a classic railway station trainshed. It’s nicely clutter free, with destination displays hanging from beams which run across the nearly the whole width of the bus station, and which are themselves hung from the roof. It leaves the ground free of any obstructions, for maximum ease of pedestrian and bus movement.
Unfortunately, the remaining 240m of the trainshed was never built. Swiss Federal Railways pulled out of the project for financial reasons.
The PostAuto station sits on a deck above the railway station platforms; level with a road bridge that crosses over the station, although the PostAuto station is actually accessed from the side roads leading down to the railway station. A small part of the glass roof extends over the railway platforms below, offering a glimpse of what Brosi and Obrist’s scheme might have looked like if it had been completed in full. As it is, only a small part of the station is sheltered by the glass canopy, but the PostAuto station has direct pedestrian access via escalators from the platforms below.
By the 1990s, the city of Chur was proposing to move the railway tracks underground and redevelop the station above, but this idea was rejected by local voters. In 2003, a new redevelopment plan by architect Conradin Clavuot was finally approved, including a modern extension to the station building and with a shopping arcade underground – rather than the trains. It was completed in 2008, winning a Brunel Award in 2011.
Mainland European post buses fill in the gaps in the transport network, connecting communities which lie between railway lines. In my experience, they are generally timetabled to connect with trains, and often have inter-available rail/bus ticketing options. They are a fully developed part of the public transport network, rather than the emergency expedient represented by Britain’s dalliance with the concept. One of the features of Switzerland’s PostAuto network is the quality of its bus stations. It’s not just Chur that impresses. Even small communities like nearby Churwalden have a PostAuto station (and supermarket, in this case) that can stand with the best in bus station design (see it here).
Switzerland’s PostAuto continues to go from strength to strength. It recently placed an order for nineteen of the mightily impressive three-axle Enviro500 buses from British manufacturer Alexander Dennis. We might not run Post Buses anymore, but we sure know how to make them.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Swissinfo 2005 article on the rebuild of Chur railway station, here
MySwitzerland entry on Chur PostAuto station, here
Structurae.net entry on Chur PostAuto station’s roof, here
Graubünden Library article on Chur PostAuto station, here