Story of the week: Riding the Post Bus in Switzerland

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This is the latest post in a weekly series, highlighting stories from my travel-writing archive with no active link. I’m running them here in full. Subscribe to posts at this website for more. Read more of my stories from Switzerland, Riding the Glacier Express and Riding the Jungfrau Express.

William Tell has got a lot to answer for.

The folk tale of the Swiss farmer turned renegade fighter for independence from Austria’s ruling Hapsburg empire, not only inspired the German writer Friedrich Schiller to popularise the legend, but also the Italian composer Rossini to pen an overture by way of tribute.

Today the familiar three-note refrain from the William Tell Overture (a C sharp, E and A major, since you ask) heralds the approach of the PostBus on blind corners and mountain roads throughout Switzerland.

While Switzerland’s super-efficient train network covers the main urban hubs, it’s left to the bright-yellow PostBus to tackle the Alpine passes, link the rural villages and provide a lifeline to the remote communities that pepper the immaculately-coiffured Swiss countryside.

The buses still deliver the mail but, more importantly, also serve a vital purpose as a transport lifeline to rural Switzerland.

This year marks the centenary of PostBus with the first ever bus service inaugurated in 1906 from Bern to Detlingen. Later that year the Bern to Papiermühle route started.

The original breakdown-prone vehicles, converted from army lorries and seating just 14 travellers plus a driver and conductor, reached maximum speeds of 30km per hour. Winter operations started in the 1930’s when skiing became fashionable in Switzerland.

Today the 758-route network spans 10,450km and carries 105m passengers per year. Services are coordinated with the train timetable and computer monitored to ensure that the entire country’s public transport system runs to split-second punctuality.

The company also recently took over the franchise to run public transport in four French cities and already runs public transport around the tiny principality of Liechtenstein.

One of the most famous PostBus routes is the longest line, running from St. Moritz via Chiavenna to Lugano in Switzerland’s far south.

The 132-km journey on the world-famous Palm Express lasts four hours and leads through Italian territory, skirting Lake Como and passing through Italian-speaking Swiss villages en route to Lugano, transport hub of the Swiss canton of Ticino.

Another legendary PostBus route takes in Juf in the canton of Graubünden, Europe’s highest permanently inhabited settlement, situated at an elevation of 2,126m above sea level. The journey winds through the Rofla Gorge into the Val Ferrera and onto the high-altitude valley around Avers.

My own PostBus odyssey, however, cut a more leisurely but none-the-less dramatic swathe through the heart of Switzerland.

I boarded the Julier Route Express in the Graubünden region, Switzerland’s rural heartland, and headed for the Bernese Oberland, a journey across Alpine passes, along lush, green valleys and with a backdrop of snow-sprinkled mountains and ice-pop glaciers from my window seat.

Starting out on a crisp autumnal morning from the resort town of St. Moritz, home of the Cresta Run and winter sports playground of the rich and famous, we headed southwest along the Julier Pass at an altitude of 2,284m.

The pass divides the northern part of the Graubünden canton from the region known as Engadine and marks the line between areas where Swiss German and Romanisch, an ancient patois based on Latin, are the primary local dialect.

Dropping down through the ski resort of Savognin at an altitude of 1,207m, we then climbed again to Lenzerheide with great views across the Albula Valley en route.

After about two hours on the road, sitting back in what feels like an upmarket National Express with air conditioning and reclining seats, we approached the outskirts of Chur, the oldest town in Switzerland and the base for the gleaming new, glass-built PostBus interchange, which coordinates the dispatch of yellow buses in all directions across Switzerland.

In Chur, we learned, all the buses in Grabünden are named after small villages in the region with the name and emblem of the village embossed on the door during a christening ceremony when it first enters service.

The interchange is a bus-spotters paradise with icons of priests, farm equipment and the Alpine Ibex, the mountain goat-like animal indigenous to the region, amongst the symbols adorning the doors.

Back on the road after a break for coffee, we were soon fringing the edge of Walensee lake northwest of Sargans, climbing through flower-strewn valleys south of Luzern and powering through the outskirts of Interlaken before reaching our terminus at the village of Brienz mid afternoon.

During the journey the driver would stop at a shaded roadside pull-in to collect a hefty, yellow sack of post while an assortment of Swiss, German and Italian hikers would clamber aboard, dragging their Nordic walking poles in their wake and chatting excitedly in a variety of dialects about the scenery they would be enjoying on the way to the next trailhead.

I Just sat back and enjoyed the theatre of the whole journey, letting someone else negotiate the hairpin bends of another jaw-dropping Alpine pass and alighting for blasts of fresh, mountain air at regular stops along the route. The journey was timed down to the split second, so hikers can plan their journey according to the set-in-stone timetable.

That night, over a dinner of traditional Swiss fare, I grabbed a few words with PostBus CEO Daniel Landolf. As a Brit used to leaves on the line, it was to my chance to pose the burning question: how do the buses manage to run on time to a precise timetable?

“We try very hard to respect the schedule as we may not be the cheapest transport system but we do aim for high levels of satisfaction,” explains Landolf, who looks like Bill Clinton’s younger brother and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Switzerland’s bus timetables.

“The secret,” he adds with a wink, “is that we run a mystery shopper system to check up on the schedule.”

This story was first published in the Daily Mail in 2006. Do you have a favourite Swiss journey?

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