Sleek buses seek passenger rail’s cargo on routes to the South

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 30, 2014 

— About an hour before the crowds began to arrive in Washington’s Union Station for the morning rush hour, about 50 people stood in line in a muggy third-floor garage, waiting for a Megabus to take them to Charlotte, N.C.

At 10:30, after the rush-hour crowds had begun to clear, a separate group started boarding an Amtrak train from the air-conditioned halls of Union Station. They were also bound for Charlotte, but they’d paid up to three times more for their tickets than the early risers who’d left by bus and would have an hour longer scheduled travel time.

If all went according to plan.

At 7:30 a.m., the bus that was supposed to depart Union Station by 7:20 a.m. still hadn’t arrived, and some of the customers were growing impatient.

“I’m pissed. You can write that,” said Rhonda Adams, 47, who was moving from Maryland to Charlotte to be closer to her family. “I wanted to rent a car but I just didn’t. This is more cost-effective, but not again.”

A few minutes later, the bus arrived and the riders were quickly on board. At 7:42, the bus finally departed.

The low-cost intercity bus market has seen an explosion in demand in recent years, mostly from young urban professionals. But experts caution that long-term attitudes toward buses and a narrow market might prevent them from striking down the railroad.

In 2013, publicly subsidized Amtrak announced a record annual ridership of 31.6 million, its 10th record year of the past 11. However, it recorded a slight drop in riders along the Northeast Corridor, where multiple discount bus services operate. Last week, Megabus estimated it had served 38 million customers since starting in April 2006.

“It’s not exactly a level playing field,” said Joshua Schank, the president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a research center in Washington, referring to Amtrak’s $1.5 billion federal subsidy last year. “But those bus services force Amtrak to be more competitive with some of their services.”

One example, Schank noted, was on-board Wi-Fi, which Megabus operates on all its buses. Amtrak began adding Wi-Fi to some trains in 2006; currently 85 percent of customers receive the service.

Steve Kulm, a spokesman for Amtrak, said the railroad didn’t view low-cost bus services as competition, and he accused the bus industry of “abandoning small-town America” by concentrating hubs in major cities.

“We would certainly like more riders, but Amtrak has seen record ridership in recent years, even in corridors with bus service,” Kulm said. “We go to key locations, key stations.”

Robert Poole, the director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian research center based in Los Angeles, disagreed. He said a lack of efficiency of American rails compared with European counterparts led consumers to scout other options, such as buses.

“I strongly suspect they are taking some passengers that would otherwise be taking Amtrak,” Poole said. “Should the taxpayers still be supporting a nationwide rail network that is heavily subsidized . . . when there is a rapidly growing bus industry that is not subsidized?”

In Union Station that recent morning, Kyle Long, 30, and his fiancee, Stacie Burroughs, 29, were waiting to travel the 79 Carolinian to Charlotte to visit friends. The D.C. couple said they often rode BoltBus on visits to New York.

“The price is not helpful,” Long said of his choice to bypass the train and take the bus to New York. As for his travels south, he said, “It never occurred to us to take a bus to North Carolina. . . . For a trip that far, it seems like it’s better to have more space.”

The Carolinian left Union Station on time at 10:55 a.m.

Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation attributed the growth of cheap intercity bus services largely to the demands of young urban professionals, who increasingly choose to live in cities. In addition, he said, economic factors have led many millennials to put off or avoid purchasing cars.

“Our biggest competitor isn’t the railroad or another bus company, it is the car,” said Mike Alvich, a spokesman for Coach USA, the parent company of Megabus.

Several predecessors to the more modern discount buses _ informally known as “Chinatown buses” for their pickup and drop-off locations – have been shut down since 2010 after several high-profile fatal accidents.

In 2011, a bus headed to New York’s Chinatown from Charlotte flipped over in Virginia, killing four passengers. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration later shut down the Charlotte-based carrier, Sky Express, citing safety concerns.

But new, sleeker-looking bus companies also have raised concerns stemming from similar accidents.

A year later, a Megabus traveling from Atlanta to Charlotte caught fire in northern Georgia. All the passengers were safely evacuated, but video that aired on local news outlets showed the double-decker engulfed in flames on the side of the highway.

Don Carmichael, the executive vice president for safety at Coach USA, said the company had “constantly and consistently” upgraded safety measures, including new training programs for drivers and monitors that feed data on speed and tire pressure to a central location. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has given Megabus a “satisfactory” rating, the highest awarded by the division of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Services such as Megabus keep costs down by operating at curbside stations, so the companies don’t have to pay overhead on physical stations. In addition, Megabus’ double-decker model allows it to carry more passengers.

“It is relatively easy if there is a demand, to start a bus route to meet that demand, and it is easy to stop,” said Poole, of the Reason Foundation.

Using a hub-and-spoke model, which relies on direct routes with few or no stops, Megabus and competitors such as BoltBus, which is operated by Greyhound, can schedule routes that are as fast as or faster than Amtrak trains.

The main exception is in the Northeast Corridor, where the Acela high-speed rail lines serve a large number of passengers on several trains a day.

The Eno Center’s Schank, who said Amtrak was faster than the intercity buses, was skeptical of the buses’ scheduled route times, noting that they were more heavily influenced by external factors than Amtrak was.

“That’s only if there is no traffic. There is no way they can compete with Amtrak when there is traffic,” Schank said. “And there is a lot of traffic along the Northeast Corridor.”

Kulm, the Amtrak spokesman, said the railroad had increased on-time percentages into the 70s and 80s after being slowed down by an unusually harsh winter. Service from New York to Charlotte operated on time 54 percent of the time in the past year, and 81 percent of the time on the return.

Megabus reports an on-time departure rate of more than 90 percent nationally, said Alvich, the company spokesman. The on-time departure rate for Charlotte was above 95 percent, he said.

However, several passengers waiting in line recently spoke of experiences in which they were left waiting.

“The absolute worst experience on Megabus you can imagine,” recalled Melissa Pollack, 60, in line for Charlotte. Pollack said she was taking a bus out of Boston that was delayed six hours and had further delays when she reached New Jersey. Still, she said the price of train travel would have to come down before she’d switch to Amtrak.

Email: jmoritz@mcclatchydc.com

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