Buses and Trains: No Competition

by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC President – For well over sixty years, Greyhound has had a near monopoly over intercity bus service in the United States. In the last twenty or so years Greyhound has been losing business and cutting back service. Greyhound has often been a critic of rail passenger service, claiming it was “stealing” their business. The real problem is that in the last sixty years America has changed, but Greyhound hasn’t. Many places that didn’t exist sixty years ago are cities today. Greyhound either didn’t or couldn’t serve places where people have moved to or now want to go.

In most cases the bus station is not in a fashionable part of town. The experience many people have from riding the bus is that many of their fellow passengers also are not from a fashionable part of town. Greyhound suffers from an often deserved image as the choice of travel of the last resort. These factors, not rail passenger service have been the cause of Greyhound’s decline.

We know in California that people will ride the bus when the service is good. Back in the late 1970’s the SAN JOAQUIN was a one train a day service in danger of being eliminated. After the State started financially supporting the SAN JOAQUIN, Caltrans had Amtrak make some changes to improve service. Caltrans had the schedule changed to get two trains a day instead of one using the same equipment. This also allowed day travel from the San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area and vice versa. But a major factor which also increased ridership was improved bus connections to the SAN JOAQUIN trains from Bakersfield to Southern California and Stockton to Sacramento.

I doubt the SAN JOAQUIN would have survived, let alone done as well today without Caltrans feeder bus connections. Many people who had never ridden a bus before rode the buses connecting the SAN JOAQUIN. Greyhound’s response was not to see an opportunity, but a threat. At their urging legislation was passed in California so only passengers making connections from a bus to a train could ride the train feeder buses. In other words you couldn’t buy a ticket to ride the bus from Santa Clarita to Bakersfield. You would need a ticket to Wasco to show you rode the train part of the way. This year Greyhound is cutting service to 64 cities in California. Clearly this law has done nothing to help Greyhound, or the 64 cities losing service.

There are a lot of places just in California where you will never travel to by train; there are no tracks. There are also many places you can’t get to except by car. We need bus service for both local travel and connections to rail service. Buses and trains shouldn’t compete for business, they do best when they help feed traffic to each. This is true for transit as much as for intercity service. Allowing the train connecting buses to service the places in between endpoints is a win-win situation for all, particularly the public.

Caltrans’ bus budget is small, so most of the bus service Caltrans sponsors is largely self-supporting. Caltrans doesn’t run any buses per se. They contract service to private operators who must maintain standards set by Caltrans and be competitive in costs to keep their contracts. Legislation needs to be changed so that bus service can be expanded to connect with the trains and the places in between. We don’t need a new large bureaucracy to create this service. Private bus companies and bus lines can coordinate their service and offer seamless ticketing to provide local and connecting service to trains. Combining these services will lower costs and increase revenues.

There are many places were new bus service is needed. More connections by bus to trains to major airports and college campuses come to mind. A connection with the PACIFIC SURLINER to LAX and West Los Angeles/UCLA is long overdue. More buses can run parallel to train lines as “sweep trains” stopping in places the train can’t stop, at more stops than the train, or offering more frequency than would be economical by train. Connections between the coast, San Joaquin Valley, and the deserts and mountains, are all possibilities.

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