High-Speed Rail vs. Low-Cost Bus

Last week I mentioned I was about to take Amtrak from DC to New York. Well, it cost over $200 (and there was nothing particularly “high speed” about that rail experience).

Next time, I might take the bus instead. For all the attention given to the potential expansion of high-speed rail, there’s also been a concurrent but not-so-glamorous development: the rise of intercity bus travel.

Greyhound's fancy new buses, starting at $10. ##https://www.greyhound.com/en/buses/default.aspx##Greyhound##
Greyhound's fancy new buses, with tickets from Philly to NYC starting at $10. ##https://www.greyhound.com/en/buses/default.aspx##Greyhound##

Today Greyhound, in their neverending quest to beat first the Chinatown bus lines and then the deluxe Bolt/Mega/DC2NY service, announced that they will step up their service. In a campaign they’re calling Uncommon Transport, they’re lowering fares and dressing up their buses with Wi-Fi, power outlets, and more legroom. All that for just ten bucks between Philly and New York. And next time I head up to meet with my comrades at Streetsblog NYC, I can spend just $30 round-trip if I book it online.

These services have fostered a new era of growth for intercity bus travel. Back when gas prices were skyrocketing in 2008, a report from DePaul University [PDF] found that intercity bus service grew 9.8 percent in the previous year, and 8.1 percent the year before that. Meanwhile, air travel and driving were declining.

It’s great to see bus companies competing to give better service for lower fares. Intercity travel shouldn’t be the privilege of the rich, and a transit option that’s noticeably cheaper than driving is good for the environment. The DePaul study authors calculated that the growth of intercity bus travel had reduced CO2 emissions by 36,000 tons.

But here’s a question: If high-speed rail ever materializes on the northeast corridor, will it be able to compete with prices this low? If it can, will the bullet trains be affordable only for the wealthiest while the rest of us make the most of what Greyhound and the other bus companies have to offer? Interestingly, the same DePaul study noted that intercity rail service increased at the same time as intercity bus service, though not quite as rapidly. It’s definitely not a zero-sum game.

What do you think?

  • To me, the big advantage of train vs. bus travel is comfort. On a train, I can easily stand up and move around, whereas on a bus, I’m basically a prisoner of my seat for the duration of the trip. Trains also provide in general more spacious seats and offer nicer scenery. Then there’s the privilege of the train not having to sit in traffic congestion while entering or leaving a city, which, even if it doesn’t make that much difference in overall travel time, is mentally stressful and frustrating.

    As for pricing, there are many times I have taken the bus over the train due to the dramatic difference in costs. I, too, hope that high-speed rail does not become a travel mode only for the wealthy. Certainly when I lived in Western and Central Europe, train travel was very affordable. As in almost all matters transit-related, keeping fares affordable comes down to political will–will rail transit be considered an essential service (like education) that society is willing to subsidize to provide access to the greatest number of people or will it remain in the realm of luxury?

  • Mark Walker

    I’ve gone from NYC to both Phillie and DC, by bus and by train. The bus is certainly cheaper but being directly coupled to diesel engine vibration takes its toll on a long ride. I took the bus to DC and back on the same day and really felt battered when I got home. The train, even if diesel powered, keeps passengers away from the engine vibration. It is therefore more of a premium ride and there will always be people willing to pay more for the reduction in physical stress. As far as cheap buses go, they’re a product of the cheap oil age, both to power the vehicles and to keep fresh asphalt on the roads. As such they’re little more than an interim measure, not a substitute for longterm investment. I’d rather see my tax dollars invested in electrified rail, both on the inter-city and local levels.

  • eliot

    As a non-driver I love the growth of low-cost intercity bus travel options. But I’ve instituted a personal boycott of the Chinatown bus lines until they’re forced to park & store buses properly and have real pickup locations.

    Chinatown is plagued by double-parked buses — every single day there is a bus parked in the Chrystie Street bike lane at afternoon rush hour. Same goes for Bolt & Mega buses in midtown.

    Greyhound is more expensive partially because they’re more responsible: they have a real station and real storage depots and don’t clog up city streets when not in transit.

  • Ian Turner

    Don’t forget the bus services also partake of the extensive subsidy given to all motor vehicles, without which they might be much more expensive.

  • Avi

    They can both survive but will serve different customers. HSR will be for the premium/business crowd that values speed and comfort. Buses will be for people looking for the cheapest options. HSR will primarily draw passengers from shuttle flights. HSR may draw some people from buses once there is more value offered for the price premium. But for most people currently buying a $15 bus, they will chose that over a $100 train regardless of the speed/comfort.

  • Tsuyoshi

    I used to live in Japan and they have a very nice high speed train. But for people with less money there are long distance night buses – you get on the bus late at night, go to sleep, and when you wake up next morning you’re at your destination. I don’t remember the prices exactly but I think the night bus was about 1/5 the price of the train. I took the bus once from Osaka to Tokyo and it was pretty nice. I tried doing the same thing on Greyhound from Louisville to Atlanta and it didn’t work out so well…

    It’s worth pointing out that, for the stretch between Tokyo and Fukuoka, both the trains and the buses turn a profit and are not subsidized at all – this includes the highways which are all tolled. In fact most of the buses are run by the same companies that run the trains.

  • MRN

    It’s OK if “the rich” get a high-speed train. The price will eventually drop to the point where their maximizing revenue (and if the government’s involved, below that price). Not engaging in the project because only the rich will receive it is short-sighted; it’s cutting off your nose to spite your face.

  • Bolwerk

    It’s hard to say what could be done about fares with Amtrak. A big problem is they’re service-based, rather than distance-based. Whether you take an Acela Express or a standard Amtrak Regional or some combination should be irrelevant to the fare.

    Taking it further, it shouldn’t even really matter to the user whether s/he switches to a regional commuter RR or even rapid transit or local bus service to get to a final destination either. That’s the kind of fare integration that’s needed to make public transportation truly regionally competitive, given the multitude of agencies in the northeast. Count ’em: Amtrak, MTA[LIRR,MNRR,NYTCA,MTA Bus,more], PATH, NJT, MBTA, Shore Line East, MARC, SEPTA, WMATA, God knows I missed a few. Regardless, the fare media should be the same, it should be distance-based, with transfers seamless to the user. Sorting out where the money goes, and to whom, should be an accounting issue.

    That said, intercity buses can be pretty efficient at transporting people. They probably compete better in energy efficiency and operating costs than local buses compete with local rail.

  • latron

    The bus is great — or would be if there is any way of knowing when one will arrive. I took the Boston-NY bus for two years once a month, and the trips took any where from four to seven-plus hours. Wi-Fi and a snazzy paint job only count for so much; after seven hours in a bus, madness is in the air. In the end, I switched to Acela Express and never rode the bus again — even at $30, it just wasn’t worth it.

  • Steve

    I doubt Greyhound is trying to “beat” Boltbus, since they own that company.

  • Rob B.

    The trip from NYC to eastern Long Island is one of the only trips I can think of where the bus gets wealthier passengers than the train. The bus is a one-seat ride, whereas the train typically requires changes or at least engine changes.

  • Radarman

    In Cincinnati, where there is phenomenally wretched (three times weekly in the middle of the night) Amtrak service, Megabus does great business to Chicago, even though there has been Greyhound service forever. Megabus screens for good behaviour by requiring riders to book online. That means that every passenger has internet access and a valid credit card. Greyhound is left with those that don’t. Middle-class riders would rather stand in the rain on the sidewalk than endure the bus station waiting for their ride. And Megabus goes straight to Union Station, just outside the Loop in Chicago.

  • Lehman

    Amtrak charges a premium because they can, and because they need to cash to subsudize less profitable routes around the nation.

    Many people do not realize that Amtrak actually pulls a profit in the DC to New York market. That’s a profit after paying for trains AND infrastructure.

    Greyhound and other bus lines pay very little for the infrastructure they use.

    Provide Amtrak with nearly free use of high-speed rail lines and you’ve got yourself a fair price comparison.

  • Tanya, to answer your question, go to any city pair at comparable distance to NY-DC served by high-speed rail: Paris-Lyon, Tokyo-Nagoya, Seoul-Busan, whatever. Note the relative ridership numbers of the buses (very little) and the trains (lots). Then ask yourself what distinguishes NY-DC from those corridors other than the fact that NY-DC trains are much slower.

  • crack

    @radarman

    Um, that ain’t much of a screening. The advantage Megabus has over Greyhound is limited stops. The Cinci one stops in, what, Columbus? Greyhound doesn’t offer the same number of express buses that Mega does.

  • Paul

    I’ve taken the Bolt bus to and from NY from Boston, as well as Acela. One trip on the Bolt was enough to make me switch, even though I gave Bolt one more chance. The comfort just isn’t there on the bus. Very narrow seats (and I’m a slim guy), no legroom, and I had to hold my camera bag for 5 hours because it wouldn’t fit in the tiny overhead bin. The experience just doesn’t compare to a train where you have much more room to move around.

    I just took the Eurostar from London to Brussels. No bus will ever do that in 2 hours flat and have a bistro car! I love getting on a train and having a glass of wine or beer.

  • freewheel

    Alon, I’d beg to differ. My experience in Spain and France is that lots of people take the bus. It is cheaper and takes roots that get you to smaller cities inbetween the big ones. The train is great, but most younger people take the buses. Sadly, although it is against the law some bus drivers in Spain don’t enforce the smoking ban.

  • vnm

    Bus versus train. Bah, it’s all good! If the federal government has any hope of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it absolutely must prohibit air travel between proximate destinations easily served via ground. To accommodate the passenger volumes, we’ll need buses and trains, and each will develop a niche market. It’s hard to believe people still fly between NYC and Bo/Wash, given the aggravation and hassles.

  • Daniel Lafave

    Low-cost buses are great, but BoltBus has sometimes taken more than 7 hours to get from NYC to Boston. The traffic congestion coming into and out of NYC is unbelievable. It’s only going to get worse over time as traffic increases, while the train should get faster over time.

  • Jonathan

    vnm, it’s hard to believe that some people still believe that “aggravation and hassles” canard. If you are a time-is-money business traveler, the plane is the way to go. Always. As far as hassles go, Penn Station is full of them, like not knowing which track your train arrives on until seconds before.

  • Ray

    Another factor that drives the price of Amtrak up is that there is a limited supply –

    In terms of Acela, they are operating all the equipment they have, and can sell most of the product at those prices. They could probably free up some more Regional equipment, but the limiting factor at least from NY to BOS is the lift bridges in CT. They are kept open most of the time to allow free flowing access to boaters. Between Amtrak, Metro-North and Shore Line East, all 40 or so allowed slots are being used.

    Until there is a better agreement on bridge slots that doesn’t prioritize boating traffic over regional transportation or the bridges are raised, there is little hope of more affordable rail travel along the Shore Line.

  • Freewheel: in Spain, the trains are unusually expensive; they’re branded as a premium product. In France, the TGV has different brandings – it used to be TGV pour tous, and now is trying to develop a low-cost alternative, iDTGV, to cater to younger people. On the lines where the TGV is actually fast, it dominates the market, though.

  • Jim

    Every time you build infrastructure from the ground up, the amount of time to pay for it increases exponentially, not to mention maintenance costs. I’m speaking of the propsed high speed rail line between Northern and Southern California. As long as highways can support a dedicated bus lane, this is a no-brainer.

    In the not-so-distant future, ostensibly, we’ll have fully grid-powered electric buses. If transpo investment is made in a fleet of high-quality, comfortable buses, a la Google, the transportee won’t care the method of conveyance.

  • Walter

    How much do Greyhound or Boltbus have to pay when passing through a toll booth? I know they don’t pay a thing to take up highway space in Connecticut; there’s no tolls to charge them.

    Let’s face it, if the federal and state governments fully subsidized the trackage between Washington and Boston, instead of relying on Amtrak’s regional profit for upkeep, then Amtrak could charge much lower prices.

  • Fred Sanford

    When I lived in DC I did this trip a lot.
    If you’re traveling by yourself and you can plan 2 weeks ahead, take the regular Amtrak at union station in dc to Penn station in 3 hours and change for 50 * 2 = 100 bucks.

    The bus takes 4 hours on a clear day, but you leave Friday night into NYC, you can spend 5-7 hours given the traffic. But it’s only 40 bucks tops.

    For me the time savings and better experience are worth 60 bucks.
    Acela saves maybe 30 minutes

  • brian g

    as someone who recently moved back to the east coast and frequently takes the baltimore – nyc boltbus trip i have to say I’d have to be pretty wealthy to take Amtrak instead. Granted I have an Amtrak guest rewards account and right now I could travel between these 2 cities 13 times if i wanted to, but why would I? Amtrak’s regional service takes just under 3 hours while Boltbus takes about 4 hours. I’ve even been on a Boltbus that took 3 hours. The fact of the matter is that as long as you aren’t traveling during a peak travel time there isn’t that much of a difference in travel times. However, if I had to travel farther, say from Baltimore to Boston I would almost certainly take the train. In fact, few people would take the bus here because of the longer travel times. However, most people I know who travel between these 2 cities fly. Until high speed rail prices are similar or better than airfare and travel times are similar or better then high speed rail doesn’t have a chance.

    In conclusion: the big market isn’t so much between NYC and DC (with the exception of those traveling during peak times, such as commuters or business people who can probably afford the extra fares). The big market is between cities that are much farther apart. This is where HSR can really make an impact.

  • Carwil

    Tanya, welcome to the new job!

    I’ve only taken Acela once on the NYC-DC segment, but it was a much nicer afternoon, and pleasant pace. There’s something refreshingly outside of the city about being in the only vehicle anywhere near where you are for much of the journey. Despite its junior-grade high speed rail status, Acela gets close to the really fast, but nothing is yet a blur ideal for window gazing, I think. (If you travel on the German ICE trains, you get the feeling of being too close to the ground for how fast you’re going.)

    But if you’re making a trip more often than once every few months, ten hours gets to be too much for a weekend. If it’s a matter of spending 10 hours on Amtrak or on Bolt, I’m for Amtrak, though only when my budget has room for it. If it’s a matter of spending 3 hours on high-speed rail (which keeps getting faster with new versions) or 10 hours on a bus, I could definitely fork over more money for the zippy ride. And just as the Chinatown bus craze has opened up DC as a possible easy trip, I think HSR would make me more open to spending a weekend in North Carolina, something I would never have considered before.

    But the reason I’ve only taken Acela once has been my student budget. And that one time, I had a travel grant for a conference. Which is not such a bad pattern: today, those who fly are often those who aren’t paying the bill themselves; so much the better if those people make high speed trains have books that balance in the future.

  • Einztine

    To fully expand intercity bus service to and from NYC, it’s imperative that the Port Authority build a bus garage at the Manhattan end of the Lincoln Tunnel.

    As of now there is no where to park buses moving in and out of Manhattan and the PA Bus Terminal cannot handle more capacity. Buses parking on local streets in Midtown West is a growing problem that will become more exasperated as intercity and commuter bus travel increases.

    If Christie kills ARC, a portion of the PA’s $3 billion could be well spent on a bus garage. In addition to new storage capacity, it would make it feasible to add more bus lanes to the Lincoln Tunnel, further improving bus travel time and convenience.

  • Mad Park

    When diesel is US$10/gallon, I’ll bet we’ll find LOTS more folks on the train than on the bus or in their autos.

  • Jordan

    Bolt Bus is actually owned by Greyhound.

  • Boris

    Einztine,

    There’s plenty of room for a bus garage in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and convenient areas of New Jersey – locations which would help get buses off of Manhattan streets while improving service (some riders from Jersey are OK with completing their trip via the PATH from Jersey City, for example, or have an outer borough or Long Island as their final destination).

    There are many creative solutions out there. The hub-and-spoke model with a single bus terminal and two unconnected train terminals in a huge metropolitan area makes little sense, and should be replaced with a point-to-point model Alon and others have described so eloquently here and elsewhere. Best thing is, we have the roads and active/abandoned railways to implement it.

  • Anon256

    Does anybody have any idea why none of the Chinatown bus lines from Boston go to Flushing? One would expect their core market to exist there at least as much as it does at Canal street, and the biggest (and most unpredictable) delays are usually on the BQE. From Flushing they could head straight over the Whitestone to I-95. I’ve also been on a bus from DC that spent over an hour in the Lincoln Tunnel approach; if available I would prefer a bus that dropped off at Newark Penn, Journal Square or Hoboken, though the local markets in these might be weaker than in Flushing. The GWB bus station is an option from both directions. On the DC end, some Boltbus trips already terminate in Greenbelt.

    I don’t understand how anybody can justify spending $60+ to save an hour; very few people are paid that much after tax, and the things they’re paid to do are generally a lot more difficult/inconvenient/stressful than sitting on a bus. The Regional trains don’t even have Wifi, which even Fung Wah has now.

  • In Japan, high-speed rail attains its highest mode share between Tokyo and Osaka, which are 500 km apart. In Korea, high-speed rail has a 63% share between Seoul and Busan, which are about 400 km apart. In France, I believe the mode share peaks at a somewhat longer distance on account of the higher average speeds and the sheer awfulness of air travel. So the optimal distance seems to be somewhat longer than NY-DC, but not by all that much.

    Intercity buses are popular if and only if there’s no good train alternative, and the roads are relatively uncongested. In California they’d be a total disaster even with Amtrak’s current problems, and wouldn’t stand a chance against high-speed rail: neither the LA Basin nor the Bay Area is known for its free-flowing traffic.

    By the way, re: point-to-point versus hub-and-spoke, the usual model for regional transit in a metro area is hub-and-spoke, not point-to-point. Even Tokyo doesn’t have that great of a point-to-point transit system. The disadvantage of having two unconnected train stations with (nearly) zero through-routing is that it makes transferring inside the hub too difficult for most people to bother, so it’s only good at serving trips to and from the hub. A good hub-and-spoke system can serve diametric and diagonal trips, not just radial ones.

  • Doug G.

    When diesel is $10/gallon, the price of train fares will go up, too, even on routes powered by electric engines. Amtrak’s maintenance crews drive trucks and cars and those vehicles are powered by gas. The cost will have to be supported somewhere and it will come from higher-priced train tickets.

  • Ginger B.

    We need both bus and rail – preferably buses on priority lanes. They’re different services and the provision of a wide array of transportation options is the key.

  • zach

    Amtrak offers no small cramped seats, which would get more paying customers per car. For the same price, I’d rather stand for a three hour smooth train ride than sit for seven hours inhaling highway exhaust fumes.

    Want train seats for the working class? Get rid of the damned seat cushions. They breed bedbugs anyway.

  • GetReal

    The only way HSR would *not* become A mode of travel “affordable only for the wealthiest” is with large public subsidies. In other words, only if ordinary taxpayers pay most of the fare.

    HSR is the transfer of wealth from people of average means to the well-to-do.

    This isn’t the change I voted for!

  • roberto

    One thing I love about buses is that the provide an almost immediate way to transition away from car dependency, whereas it takes a lot of time to put rail infrastructure in place. Imagine replacing 50% of the cars on the road with buses. There would be no such thing as bad traffic anymore. Or the need for more roads. (at least for quite a while)

    Existing roads are kind of like train tracks, except the trains are buses. We should take advantage of this infrastructure that’s already in place.

    Other great things about buses: they are privately run. There’s no natural monopoly in the market. And there’s no never-ending taxpayer commitment. The politics are easier too. Subsidizing and encouraging private bus services is a lot easier to do politically than enormous infrastructure projects. The results for taxpayers can RIGHT AWAY. Not years down the road.

    And while the Megabus may not provide the comforts of a train, there’s no reason a bus COULDN’T provide that. Ever been on a luxury bus? If Megabus costs 30 bucks round trip from Philly to NYC, how much more luxury could a person get if they were willing to pay twice as much? A lot.

  • tacony palmyra

    The question is: WHY are these new low-cost buses so much cheaper than the train? Real estate costs? The buses use city sidewalks as their terminals for free (does NYC charge them some sort of fee for this?), while Amtrak has extremely expensive passenger facilities to pay for. Labor? Amtrak has legions of employees while the bus companies do their ticketing online (practically no customer service employees required) and have a single driver per bus and only sometimes have an extra employee to help load bags in NYC. And these drivers are non-union and make far less money than their Amtrak counterparts. I’d be interested to know how the Bolt/Mega passenger safety record compares to Amtrak in light of that deadly crash in Upstate New York last month. The driver was using a personal GPS unit to find his way so it sounds like training wasn’t up to snuff. Lastly, paying the price of New Jersey Transit tolls doesn’t come close to the costs of owning, operating, and maintaining the Northeast Corridor trackage. So it’s no wonder they’re so much cheaper than the train.

    The real benefit that the train could provide would be faster service, but Amtrak would rather serve more stations than serve more customers. Even the Acela has WAY too many stops, as the popularity of these buses prove. There’s huge demand for service between New York and Philly, DC, and Boston– not anywhere in between, save Baltimore (maybe). The fact that Boltbus can sometimes match Amtrak’s trip time from Philly to New York is sad. Late at night, the bus is faster! Amtrak needs to run trains that skip the Trentons and the Metroparks and the New Londons, otherwise they’ll never catch up.

    And as far as comfort… these aren’t the Greyhound buses of old, not the refuge of prisoners and drug addicts visiting family in podunk. They’re just as comfortable as Amtrak in my opinion, and the addition of free WiFi makes the time difference less of a burden. Unless you’re traveling during rush hour or a holiday weekend when Turnpike traffic is bad, they’re already the better option for NY-Philly travel, at a tiny fraction of the cost. NY-Boston, I’ll give you Amtrak, because traffic tends to be worse. But considering the cost difference it’s still not that bad an experience if you have the time.

    And lastly, what benefit does a bus terminal provide? Unless it’s pouring rain, sidewalk pickup works for me. Even in the rain I think I’d rather wait on the corner of 33rd and 8th with an umbrella than have to enter Port Authority. I don’t need any other services other than getting to my bus quickly, which the sidewalk provides far better than the terminal. I can see the bus when it pulls up, and it’s right there. I don’t need or even want a ticket window, because that would increase the cost of my bus ride. A bus trip through Port Authority involves walking through endless stairwells past baffling signage (I’m taking bus number WHAT but looking for gate WHAT?), finding a ticket counter, waiting on line, and another line, and another. I understand the complaints that curbside pickup causes too much congestion around Penn Station, but there are lots of east-west streets in Midtown West that are basically deserted where they could be moved to (say 35th, b/t 8th and 9th or something).

  • Chris L

    “Amtrak needs to run trains that skip the Trentons and the Metroparks and the New Londons, otherwise they’ll never catch up.”

    I wouldn’t lump Trenton and Metropark together. Metropark is just an office park/park&ride along the NE corridor. Trenton is the capital of New Jersey.

  • Bolwerk

    The only way HSR would *not* become A mode of travel “affordable only for the wealthiest” is with large public subsidies. In other words, only if ordinary taxpayers pay most of the fare.

    HSR is the transfer of wealth from people of average means to the well-to-do.

    Why is that? HSR routes tend to have middle class ridership in Europe, and also tend to be profitable. Is the USA already too third world for this?

    If anything, what you’re describing is the Interstate Highway System.

  • Albigensian

    Well, buses do compete with passenger trains. As they have since 1920 or so.

    Lower cost is certainly part of the attraction– if it’s publicly funded, you can buy an awful lot of buses for the cost of just one train line And for what you’d pay for that train, you can provide much better service with buses.

    Because you can afford lots of them, and because they don’t carry as many passengers as a train, it becomes affordable to provide freqnent, one-seat service between a great many places.

    Not only can’t trains do that, they never have– even ‘back in the day,’ many train rides consisted of a ride on a branch line to the mainline to another branch line. Today we’d substitute buses for the branch lines, but, it’s still a long, muilti-seat trip– even if the mainline is truly high speed.

    Summary: A one-seat bus ride will win over a multi-seat train ride (or a bus-train-bus) ride every time. It’s more convenient, more comfortable, and often faster.

    Finally, although it’s off-topic, someone really should compare the fuel efficiency per passenger mile of a hybrid bus vs. diesel-electric train.

  • I don’t think this is a fair comparison because the Acela Corridor is not true high-speed rail…yet. I think if you had a system like the proposed system in California, with 220+ mph trains, then the time convenience starts to sway toward HSR. There will be various pricing structures where there will be lower fares at off-peak times, just like air travel. It may be too expensive for low income individuals, but I do know that the California system is looking at pricing at 50% of airfare (granted toward the last minute airfare prices, but with trains leaving every few minutes at peak times, that’s still quite the bargain).

  • Bolwerk

    Lower cost is certainly part of the attraction– if it’s publicly funded, you can buy an awful lot of buses for the cost of just one train line And for what you’d pay for that train, you can provide much better service with buses.

    Buses are only possibly lower-cost when there is low ridership.

    Because you can afford lots of them, and because they don’t carry as many passengers as a train, it becomes affordable to provide freqnent, one-seat service between a great many places.

    At several times the operating costs per vehicle? It’s a good idea for introducing new services, but a bad idea for moving tens of thousands of passengers a day.

    Not only can’t trains do that, they never have– even ‘back in the day,’ many train rides consisted of a ride on a branch line to the mainline to another branch line. Today we’d substitute buses for the branch lines, but, it’s still a long, muilti-seat trip– even if the mainline is truly high speed.

    What exactly can’t trains do? The only caveat is that the capital expense of laying track and signaling needs to be economically justified. In some cases, it can’t be, so buses make sense.

    Of course, this is true of buses to a certain extent too.

    Summary: A one-seat bus ride will win over a multi-seat train ride (or a bus-train-bus) ride every time. It’s more convenient, more comfortable, and often faster.

    This is almost platitudinal. Sure, and a single-seat train ride will win out over a multi-seat bus ride. Just like it will win out over a multi-seat train ride.

    Finally, although it’s off-topic, someone really should compare the fuel efficiency per passenger mile of a hybrid bus vs. diesel-electric train.

    It’s been done. Buses aren’t so effective in the energy department either. Even behemoth American mainline passenger equipment does pretty well in comparison.

    I saw some statistics a few years ago that long-distance buses do very well per passenger-mile, though LD buses are rather impractical vs. LD trains – at least in theory, if not in practice.

    I couldn’t find current LD bus consumption rates in the Transportation Energy Data Book. http://cta.ornl.gov/data/chapter2.shtml

  • It is a matter of supply and demand. Amtrak was able to generate a profit with the equipment that it has and with the price point it is charging. The same goes for bus companies.

    Unless and until either other companies to run coach class HSR trains on the tracks, or if Amtrak buys more coach class trains/cars, do not expect the price point to come down to really take business from the buses. Even so, the trains can still be more expensive in order to maximize profit (since many people have a preference for trains).

    I also question the notion whether HSR should be the only inter-city provider in a given market. Rail, unlike bus and airlines, have essentially a monopoly status in most parts of the world, and it is difficult to have a competition among rail providers themselves. In order to have a healthy HSR system, it has to compete with bus and air. NEC rail has found a good market for its service. People who tend to ride the bus are not the market that Amtrak is really interested in, as well as those who tend to fly (one of the reasons why people fly short distance is to connect with other flights at hub airports. If you live in DC and need to go to India, you fly from DC to JFK and connect, and not take a train to Midtown NY, take local transit to JFK and fly.)

  • Since 1920, buses have been competing with trains because of a more favorable regulatory regime. For example: Denver’s streetcars had to pay 25-50% of road maintenance costs, which became a very heavy burden as car traffic grew; the buses had no such rule.

    The one-seat ride question is a non-issue. People care only when the multi-seat rides are done poorly. When the transfers are timed and cross-platform, the ridership models assign the transfer zero penalty. It’s as good as a one-seat ride. Ever wonder how come so many people on the LIRR change trains at Jamaica whereas hardly anyone on NJT changes at Secaucus?

  • Some people are OK with transfers, but not others. There’s no one-size-fits-all transportation mode. I have seen situation where the transit agencies want people to transfer from bus to rail but many people choose not to transfer for the one seat ride.

  • Anon256

    The idea that fares are so high because of pent-up demand ignores the fact that Amtrak isn’t the only rail service on the Northeast Corridor. Between NY and Philadelphia it already competes with NJT+SEPTA. Are they making windfall profits on this route? Could MARC get in on the profits by running to Wilmington with a timed transfer to SEPTA (allowing NY-DC by rail for about $35)? NJT, SEPTA and MARC all apparently get decent ridership at peak. If running cheap low-speed trains full now is not profitable, why would we expect running cheap high-speed trains full in the future to be profitable?

  • Alexei

    Because they would effectively compete with airlines? I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that an HSR trip is often preferable to an airplane trip, where both are available, and at similar prices. As such, if there’s heavy air traffic between two points, it’s likely that HSR could capture most of that (as has happened in other places).

  • Andy, I’m going to guess that your experience is limited to the US, to transfers that were not well-timed.

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