When Swiss bus driver Walter Burch retired five years ago, he was offered the job of his life. Twice a week, he drives a purpose-built Scania Interlink over the Alps at almost 3,000 metres on one of the world’s most spectacular and demanding bus routes. “These days I feel like a real driver,” he says.
In the early morning hours, tourists, cyclists and a few locals are queuing outside the Benedictine Convent of St John in Müstair, in the Swiss canton of Graubünden. Not for a visit to the 1200-year-old Unesco World Heritage Site, but for a bus ride that will live on in their memory for a long time.
The Stelvio bus route connects Val Müstair in Switzerland with the Valtellina region in northern Italy. The journey across the Stelvio Pass to Tirano is a mountain adventure offered from May to November by the Swiss bus company PostBus which is called PostAuto in German.
The original road was built between 1820 and 1825 by the Austrian Empire. It was made to connect the former Austrian province of Lombardy with the rest of Austria, covering a climb of 1,871 metres. Since then, the route has not changed much. Its 85 tight turns are a challenge to drivers. Forty-eight of the corners are located on the northern side of the mountain and marked with stones.
This route was nominated by the British automotive show Top Gear as the “greatest road in the world,” although it only covered Europe. Lamborghinis, Porsches, Ferraris and Alfa Romeos are all tested to their limits on these heart-stopping curves that never seem to end. Countless cyclists and motorcyclists have struggled to get to the highest stretch of road in the Eastern Alps.
But the Stelvio Pass is not all fun and games. Many people underestimate the difficulty of the zigzag road and overestimate the ability of their vehicles, which leads to accidents. This is especially true on the Italian side where the climb is steepest and most challenging. Even the British Formula One racing driver Sterling Moss – a man that has been called “the greatest driver never to win the World Championship”– lost control of his car and skidded off the road in a classic car race in the 1990s.
So, how can anyone come up with the idea of making Stelvio a regular bus route?
“Scania’s Interlink bus was very important to us, as it was custom-made to fit our exact specifications,” explains Bruno Brot from PostAuto.
The yellow Scania postbus is perfectly suited to master the steep roads, high passes, old and narrow tunnels and sometimes frightful hairpin corners.
The bus, which can be lowered by five centimetres when entering the narrowest tunnels, is 11 metres long, 2.55 metres wide and 2.3 metres high. While no vehicles longer than 10 metres are allowed to operate on the Swiss side of the route, an exception was made for the bus, which, despite its length, has a wheelbase of less than five metres.
“But of course, the overall package was important for PostAuto too. The vehicle costs, the customer benefits and the expected operating costs must result in a balanced overall package,” says Bruno Brot.
“The reduction of fuel consumption, which was noted already during the first week of operation, is extremely satisfying.”
When Walter Burch leaves Müstair with the postbus, he already knows what to expect. His bus is half full of excited passengers and a small rear carrier brings half a dozen mountain bikes and road bikes. There can be massive snowfalls, even in the summer and autumn, but today the forecast is sunny and clear.
“The distance between Müstair through Umbrailpass and Stelvio down to the Italian city of Bormio and the terminal station Tirano is about 80 kilometres. Müstair is 1,200 metres above sea level, Stelvio 2,750 metres and Tirano 400 metres above sea level, a difference in altitude of about 3,900 metres. This route could almost be added to the Guinness World Records. There are also huge temperature fluctuations of +30 to -30 degrees Celsius. It changes quite frequently,” Brot explains.
Walter Burch is thrilled by the adventure and drives his bus regularly, punctually and reliably. He manoeuvres the bus perfectly over ravines and approaches the many blind bends by playing the iconic, three-tone PostBus horn to warn other drivers that he is coming.
A few hundred metres after crossing the border to Italy, Walter Burch stops the bus at the top of Stelvio Pass at 2,757 metres above sea level. This is where many of the hikers and bikers leave the bus. This is also the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps, and the second highest in the whole Alps. At an altitude of 3,450 metres, The Stelvio Pass Glacier usually permits skiing year-round and is a frequently used training ground for elite alpine skiers.
“Grazia fich,” or thank you in Rumantsch, the local language, one of the passengers says as she leaves the bus.
With a break of 30 minutes, Walter has time to reflect on his life. He is a mostly retired driver and gets emotional when talking about his work.
“I really love this vehicle and route. When you drive a bus in the city or in the plains, you are just one in the crowd. But here, I feel special – like a real driver,” he says, patting on the yellow bus.
When every curve is a challenge, he and his passengers must rely on the Scania bus.
“To me, it is a great driving experience and I truly need to rely on my vehicle. It gives a stable driving experience, very good manoeuvrability and optimum torque. And the passengers are delighted to travel on such a comfortable, stress-free excursion in this spectacular alpine landscape.”
The three-tone horn
PostAuto is the leading bus company in Switzerland’s public transport network. With over 4,200 employees (including the drivers of the PostAuto companies) and around 2,300 vehicles at its disposal, PostBus carries around 155 million passengers each year.
Its trademarks – the three-tone horn and the yellow postbuses – are part of Switzerland’s cultural identity. The three-tone motif comes from the “William Tell” Overture by Andante of Rossini and is made up of the notes C sharp, E and A in the key of A major.
Listen to the music: