Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Megabus will try again in California

Why does the USA, with such a good road system (which provides a huge government subsidy to road transportation operators including truck and bus companies) have such bad long-distance bus service?

Is it because for so long Greyhound and Trailways had a duopoly, and then merged to become the sole operator of a national bus network?

Is it because bus travel was (and largely is) declassé, the means of transportation of last resort for those people too poor to afford to fly or to own their own car?

It’s not because bus travel has to be this bad. Many other large countries and regions, rich and poor alike, some of them with significantly worse roads, have much better long-distance bus service. Long-distance bus service in the USA is peculiarly bad.

The good news is that in the last decade the offerings available to would-be bus travellers in the USA have begun to improve.

As with Amtrak, which has been most successful in high-density urban “corridors” first in Bos-Wash and then in the California corridors between the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento, and greater Los Angeles, better buses first emerged in the Northeast Corridor.

College students discovered that the buses carrying Chinese immigrants and restaurant workers between Boston, New York, and Washington were no less comfortable, faster (because they made fewer stops in smaller intermediate cities and towns) and much cheaper than Greyhound (or Amtrak). Seeing the potential to tap a much larger market, some of the “Chinatown” buses (which in Boston relocated to operate from the same terminal across from South Station as Greyhound) began to upgrade their equipment and advertise in English.

Mainstream U.S. investors stayed on the sidelines, leaving the U.S. market to foreign companies like Megabus, a major long-distance bus operator in the U.K. that started a U.S. division first in the northeast in 2006 and then expanding to the midwest and west coast.

Feeling the heat, Greyhound itself established a new Bolt Bus brand designed to compete with Megabus (and the Chinatown buses) and to look as little as possible like a division of Greyhound.

Megabus and its imitator “Bolt Bus by Greyhound” offer express services with few or no intermediate stops, free wi-fi, tickets sold mostly or entirely online, and airline-style variable pricing ranging upward from US$1 for the first few seats bought furthest in advance. They aren’t as comfortable as Amtrak, but they are often faster (unless you take the Amtrak “Acela” express trains) and almost always cheaper, even at the last minute.

By selling tickets only online, Megabus and Bolt Bus leave the unbanked behind. And because the poor people who scare wealthier people away from Greyhound are less likely to have Internet access and credit cards, online ticketing has been a key factor for Megabus and Bolt Bus in escaping Greyhound’s reputation as a transportation carrier of last resort.

Despite Amtrak’s success in California (the southern California “Pacific Surfliner”, the Capital Corridor, and the San Joaquins are Amtrak’s second, third, and fifth busiest routes respectively by number of passengers), better California bus service has lagged behind that in the east and midwest. Until recently, the only major alternative to greyhound has been the California Shuttle Bus, a no-frills (although seemingly improving) Chinatown-style bus operator.

In 2007-2008, Megabus tried to expand to California, focusing on routes between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. But it discontinued all its California services after a little less than a year.

Earlier this year, though, Bolt Bus started service between Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. And next week, Megabus is returning to California (and Nevada) with service between the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento, and Los Angeles; from northern California to Reno; and from southern California to Las Vegas.

Why did Megabus change its mind? And will it succeed on the West Coast this time around?

There’s clearly a market for mass transit faster than present-day Amtrak, and cheaper than is sustainable for airlines, between the urban concentrations of northern and southern California.

I suspect that the biggest (changed) factor for Megabus is its assessment of potential competition. Four years ago, California finally seemed committed to building a high-speed passenger railroad between S.F. and L.A. that would be far faster than any bus. But the project has bogged down in intra-state feuding and corruption in Sacramento, and no progress has been made despite statewide referenda approving the concept and the cost.

Amtrak California remains a surprisingly strong potential competitor for Megabus, however. The weakness of the San Joaquin trains is also their strength: Amtrak transfers passengers to buses for the portion of the journey south of Bakersfield, rather than operate trains on the current low-speed route over the Tehachapis. The station in Bakersfield has no services nearby, and the two hours on the bus are a bit of a drag. But the system allows Amtrak to provide an array of feeder buses linking each Bakersfield train to points throughout southern California, not just Union Station in L.A. It remains to be seen whether Megabus, with only one SoCal stop at Union Station, will be able to compete with Amtrak for passengers originating and terminating throughout the region.

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 12 December 2012, 07:11 ( 7:11 AM)

The only problem with Megabus vs. Greyhound is that it's not better, sometimes it's worse. I'm no fan of Greyhound, believe me (although I am an Amtrak fan). I rode Megabus, Amtrak, and Greyhound around the east and midwest this past summer, with 3 legs on Megabus. Favorite Megabus story: the bus drove to the wrong city with a new driver and their trainer, and then asked passengers for directions. Trainer used a customer's phone GPS to navigate the bus the extra 1 hour to the right route. Megabus is good on price, but everything else sucks, and that's been my experience with the Chinatown buses as well (one need only look at all the Chinatown bus closures for safety issues). Still, I'm happy to see them in the market for much needed competition.

Posted by: Six, 17 December 2012, 14:08 ( 2:08 PM)

Wow that story is hilarious. The driver asked the passengers for directions? That's good to know.

Posted by: Jerry Hingle, 19 December 2012, 10:05 (10:05 AM)

The major problem with Megabus' 2007 introduction to the LA-SF market was the complete and utter lack of advertising. I'm a travel-obsessed sort, and even I didn't hear about the service until it was closing down. They haven't made that mistake this time, with posters throughout the LA Metro system, web ads, media coverage, etc. etc.-- and it seems to be working, the buses I see pulling through Riverside on their way to Vegas or LA are full up.

Posted by: Justin Nelson, 4 April 2013, 17:15 ( 5:15 PM)
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