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The worst kept secret in transportation circles is how inefficient high-speed rail is on both environmental and economic grounds. An equally poor secret, yet one that planners do not like to make well known, is just how efficient and convenient intercity buses are. In terms of both energy use, safety and carbon emissions, buses blow trains out of the proverbial water.

I’ll let your imagination run wild to guess some reasons why you think buses are totally ignored by those hoping to “transform” our economy and rebuild our vital infrastructure? In any case, here is a summary from a recent paper by Randy O’Toole (he has two great books on transportation in case anyone wants the nitty gritty of this stuff) via Tim Taylor:

Entrepreneurial immigrants from China and recently privatized British transportation companies have developed a new model for intercity bus operations that provides travelers with faster service at dramatically reduced fares. New-model bus companies save money by selling tickets over the Internet and loading and unloading passengers at curbsides rather than in expensive bus stations. They speed service by running most buses non-stop between major cities rather than making numerous intermediate stops. Some companies distinguish themselves from their competition by providing
leather seats, free wireless Internet, more legroom, and—in a few cases—onboard meal
service and movies.”

“In 2006, scheduled intercity bus service reached its lowest level in decades, yet intercity buses still carried almost three times as many passenger miles as Amtrak. Since then, intercity buses have become the nation’s fastest-growing transportation mode, with ridership growing almost twice as fast as Amtrak. Intercity buses carry at least 50 percent more passenger miles than Amtrak in Amtrak’s
showcase Northeast Corridor. They do so with almost no subsidies and at fares that are about a third of Amtrak’s regular train fares and little more than 10 percent of Amtrak’s high-speed Acela fares. Intercity buses are safe and environmentally friendly, suffering almost 80 percent fewer fatalities per billion passenger miles than Amtrak and using 60 percent less energy per passenger mile than Amtrak.”

“Policymakers can encourage expansion of intercity bus services by ending subsidies to Amtrak and minimizing regulatory barriers to new bus start-ups.”

A round-trip bus trip from RIT’s campus to New York City (midweek) would cost me $90. And I’d have wi-fi the entire way so I could read, e-mail, blog, work, etc. Plus, I don’t have to walk through a nudie scanner or pay for airport parking. The same trip on the lowest (nonrefundable) JetBlue fare would be $248. And by the time I had to get myself to and from the airport and deal with the delays and uncertainties in getting off the ground (for example, I had an important flight to Chicago flat out cancelled last week) the time difference is not all that great. Finally, here is Amtrak to NYC: $116 and “only a 7 hour trip.

5 Responses to “Toy Trains and Buses”

  1. Sounds good in theory, but the practice lags. Granted that buses are superior to Amtrak.

    I just returned to Ann Arbor from two weeks in Austin. I looked at Amtrak but chose the bus. I simply refuse to fly now. I went both ways by bus.

    Greyhound is still vastly dominant. Though Greyhound advertises wifi, it is not always available on every coach, only the newer models. We had a breakdown in southern Tennessee (four hours) and our replacement was an older vehicle, itself replaced at the next stop when the air conditioning failed. In Memphis, riders going to Nashville were subjected to a TSA search and confiscations (a guy with tats and a circle-A shirt gave up his Leatherman).

    On the return, though two buses were scheduled from Tulsa to St. Louis (9:20 PM and 9:45 PM) at the later time, they put all 55 of us on one bus, which was eventually 45+ minutes behind schedule. At St. Louis, they held five buses for us, which was nice for us, but, of course, had consequences for 250 other people.

    That said, when the bus is not crowded, when the restroom is serviced and stocked, when the wifi works – and some coaches have 3-prong electrical taps – when the person next to you is not bigger than one seat and is going on one short ride, rather than having been on the road for two days as you were, also – then, yes, the buses are an example of the superiority of the marketplace over the government agency.

    Also, ultimately, wise shopping is imperative. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Intercity_bus_companies_of_the_United_States)
    Read a success story here:
    Read the book before you take the ride:

    Airlines have squeezed themselves into a least-price competition. Value-added competition is limited to First Class. The bus lines have the same management models. (I look to the university MBA programs for that.) And as buses cost less, they attract poorer people. That also brings sociological problems, though some amusment: I saw a skinhead and a black guy both with Iron Maiden t-shirts. I wonder if they saw each other.

  2. jb says:

    Buses are far more flexible. Consider what happens when populations shift say, from one suburb to another or from suburb back to city or vice versa. With a train, what are you going to do, lay new track? With buses you just change the route to meet the demand.

  3. RIT_Rich says:

    JetBlue from ROC to NYC, if booked a couple of weeks in advance, is usually around $170 including taxes (at least it was about 2 years ago). It compares very favorably to Amtrak, given that its a 45 minute flight, as opposed to a 10 hour hell march (its never 7 hours, and if its in the winter, there’s a 50% chance it will be snowed in). The “Chinatown bus” also leaves from multiple locations in Rochester. Its certainly really neat.

  4. Michael says:

    I looked at Amrtrak from WA to MO once when I had a week of leave. It would have taken 3 days, one way, and cost a lot more than a flight.

    I know for intra-city travel, the bus is insufficient where I live. It starts at about 7, ends at 6, doesn’t work weekends. If you just miss the bus, it’s an hour before it comes back around. Don’t know much about intercity travel.

  5. Sanket says:

    lets not forget Chinabus, the awesome and way to get around, with sometimes crazy cheap deals. The drivers speed the whole way and a lot of crashes have been reported in the media, but I wonder whether these crashes exceed the accidents caused on Greyhound and other commercial bus lines. As expected, the feds are trying to crack down on this business.


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