Postmaster (PostAuto station, Chur, Switzerland)

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:

Royal Mail Dodge Spacevan Post Bus. Photo by British Postal Museum & Archive from London, UK [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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:

Chur PostAuto station. By No machine-readable author provided. Bravuogn assumed (based on copyright claims). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Chur PostAuto station. Photo by Kecko from Switzerland (Rheintal SG) (Chur – Bus Terminal) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Chur PostAuto station. Note the way the destination displays are hung above the bus stands. Photo by JoachimKohlerBremen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Chur railway station with PostAuto station above. Photo by Dominik [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

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.

PostAuto Enviro500 © Alexander Dennis, via ADL’s newsroom gallery

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

How to find Chur PostAuto station

Click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map

9 thoughts on “Postmaster (PostAuto station, Chur, Switzerland)

  1. Chur bus station is indeed light and airy and lovely to take photos of, but if you’re doing something as unexpected and unpredictable as actually catching a bus there in the winter, it’s extremely effing cold.

    As with too much of the architecture which gets drooled over, it might win awards and leave politicians, architects and non-users of it feeling really good, but if you’re one the strange creatures who actually use it for its intended purpose you quickly realise that it’s nowhere near as good as it’s been made out to be.

  2. A. Nony Mouse – I suppose that might have something to do with most of the roof being left unbuilt? Not sure, though.

    What’s puzzling me is the apparent kerbless flat expanse of apron inside – does it feel as hostile to pedestrians as it appears in the photos?

  3. You laud the lack of “clutter” at ground level, but doesn’t some level of “clutter” enable drivers and pedestrians to position themselves safely? It’s not clear here where pedestrians should and shouldn’t walk. It does look nice, but your blog normally pays attention to issues of usability/usefulness as well (cf your views on the so-called Boris Bus or the Emirates Air Line).

    1. Thanks – that’s an interesting point. There are painted lines on the ground which make things clearer, but possibly don’t show up as well on the photos. It’s certainly a different approach than would be the case in the U.K., where raised pedestrian islands and defined roadways would be the expectation on safety grounds, I suspect. But then again, it’s not in the U.K., and I’m also amazed by the unfenced railway lines that you find in parts of mainland Europe. At the end of the day the PostAuto station seems to work fine, and although a very different approach than would be the case at a U.K. bus station, I’m not sure if I’m really in a position to judge which approach is best (if one could even define what ‘best’ would be). Your point is well taken though.

      1. Good points, well made – thanks. The painted lines weren’t clear in the photos but it’s good to know they are there! Is there some kind of tactile paving for people who can’t see the paint?

  4. Hello dwtransportwriting – Just read your November 15th posting about the Chur Postauto Station.

    My wife and I recently were in Chur, and were intrigued by the unique bus shed lighting arrangement. Strong spot lights situated on the floor along the side of the shed direct light upward to mirrors suspended below the roof which distribute light throughout the shed at night. We have only observed this in one other location, also in Switzerland, where this type of reflected lighting was used to great effect in a pedestrian railway underpass.

    You mentioned concern about one photo credit which you cited as “Bravuogn.” This is the Romansch language name for the Graubunden town Bergun. The RhB Bahnmuseum Albula is located in Bergun. Perhaps their archives are the source of your photo?

  5. I was on holiday in Chur earlier this year. Swiss Postbuses, and the railways, are a revelation compared to the UK. Integrated ticketing & timetables, friendly and multi-lingual drivers, all of them on time, but rather expensive.

    Whilst worrying about the safety of pedestrians in the bus station, it should be noted that the train to Arosa leaves from the front of the station. Whilst narrow gauge, this is a proper train with 6+ carriages, yet runs along the streets of Chur for the first couple of miles, mixing with pedestrians and normal traffic, without any special safety precautions. They are not as safety conscious (or is it safety obsessed?) on the continent.

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