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?

  • Nathanael

    If you get motion-sick, long-distance bus travel sucks big time.

  • Nathanael

    “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.”

    Bullshit. That commitment is called “road funding”.

  • Nathanael

    Regarding the one-seat versus multi-seat business, I think Alon’s right about good transfers; beyond that, it really depends on length of trip and amount of luggage carried.

    Most people aren’t quite such couch potatoes as to far prefer sitting in one seat to sitting in two seats and walking between them. They just don’t want crummy, uncertain transfers.

    If transfers are well-designed, many may prefer the one-seat ride for a short commuter-style trip. For an intercity trip, *nobody cares* — sitting in one seat for 5 hours is far worse than stretching your legs halfway through.

  • Not sure if anyone has seen the safety issue concerning Hi speed bus vs hi speed rails. For what I am able to gather, the bus may have their own lanes but still require to share the roads with other drivers.

    This means hi speeds vs. low speed vehicles which as you all may know it is not a great combination on the roads. Leading to the question; What would happend in case of an accident?

    Something to think about! I would not ride the bus!

  • Bob Davis

    Regarding transfers (or as one transit expert prefers, connections): Back in the late 1960’s I rode the Greyhound overnight from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The bus out of LA was destined to Sacramento, and I would have to change at Bakersfield to a San Francisco-bound bus. The coach seemed to be going at speeds more appropriate for a Wells-Fargo stage as we struggled over the Ridge Route, and as we neared Bakersfield a check of my watch showed that we might get there after the SF bus left. I had all my baggage in hand, and was prepared to make a mad dash for my connection as soon as the door opened. The driver noticed my state of readiness, and counseled, “Don’t worry, the San Francisco bus usually runs late, too.”


Can the U.S. Make Bus Rapid Transit Work as Well as Latin America?

In suburban Maryland, the debate about transit has often been cast as a decision between a light rail “purple line” and bus rapid transit. Democrat Martin O’Malley and local environmentalists lobbied for light rail while Republican Bob Ehrlich’s push for bus rapid transit was largely seen as an effort to “obfuscate, alter, study and delay” […]

What's Troubling Megabus Haters?

Despite the claims of Scott Walker et al. who say there is no market for intercity rail, the fact is there are a growing number of private companies offering intercity transportation service. One of them is Megabus. Megabus is cheap. Megabus has free WiFi. Megabus doesn’t frisk you and confiscate your toothpaste. Best of all, […]