Intercity Buses and Trains

In the three countries with the longest and traditionally largest HSR networks – Japan, Germany, and France – there is no large intercity bus network, with government regulations against the development of one. The US and Canada are in somewhat of the opposite situation – intercity buses are legal, but intercity trains are subject to a variety of regulations and operating practices raising operating costs so much that outside the thickest corridors they might as well be illegal. The best situation is in South Korea, which has well-developed networks of both buses and trains; the result is that on the Seoul-Daegu and Seoul-Busan city pairs, buses have 7-8% of the market and trains 67%.

On top of that, the express buses in North America do not get very high mode share. I’ve seen no reliable numbers, but when I looked at Megabus and Bolt schedules on the largest city pairs, the two carriers combined were about even with Amtrak, whose mode share on the entire NEC is 6% according to the Vision.

So why is Cap’n Transit suddenly telling us to love the bus (though he rejects the loaded term “love the bus”) and advocate for more investment into bus stations at various locations around the metro area? Doctrinaire libertarians have the excuse that the kind of regulations they are used to thinking of are the French regulations against domestic competition with rail and not the FRA’s safety rules. But the Cap’n of course knows exactly how pernicious FRA rules are. Since he thinks in terms of activist energy as the primary resource to manage, and not the government’s budget, this could be taken as a desperation at any attempt to reform Amtrak and the FRA.

But more likely, this comes from the fact that many intercity bus supporters fought (and lost) regulations against curbside pickups, which are the way Megabus, Bolt, and others could serve New York without paying for space at Port Authority, imitating the practices of the older Chinatown buses.

The immediate trigger for thinking where to place bus stops then is the impending loss of curbside space. Since buses are in many ways intermediate between cars and trains in terms of capacity and the point-to-point versus hub-and-spoke tradeoff, a bus expansion then has to mean finding more and more places to pick up. A legacy train station will run out of running line capacity long before it runs out of station track capacity, but a curbside bus stop uses valuable urban space and a bus station can and does run out of space.

And this is where buses stop being too useful. Frequency is freedom. Because the bus operators compete with one another, passengers need to be ticketed on a specific company, and that already cuts into frequency. On top of that, unlike trains, buses have a very large stop penalty, since they need to get off the highway and into the city. New York-Washington trains make intermediate stops in Philadelphia; express buses don’t. Even with dominant CBD stations, the frequency on the buses in the Northeast isn’t great: from New York, Bolt offers half-hourly service from to Philadelphia, hourly service to Boston, and less than hourly service to each of Baltimore and Washington, and all four city pairs have one dominant stop pair; Megabus frequency is hourly to Boston and hourly with a half-hourly peak to the other three.

Adding more stops means diluting this less-than-great frequency even further. It would work if bus stops were consolidated and people could buy one ticket good on any company, but the business model that has reduced ticket prices is probably not compatible with such cooperation. It would also work if the market share were 67%, but it isn’t and never will be.

The other problem is that people have not just origins but also destinations – and those destinations cluster in the CBDs, and the more the passenger is willing to pay, the likelier it is they’ll be traveling to the CBD. A train run from Woodside or Newark to New York will be full in one direction and empty in the other; the reason those trains can make money (they don’t in New York, but do in Tokyo, which is as CBD-dominant) is that they’re so full in the peak direction it makes up for lower reverse-peak occupancy. For intercity travel, this is harder. High-speed rail can make a profit on these asymmetric intercity runs because it’s so fast that it can cut costs that depend on travel time and not distance, such as operator wages, dispatcher wages, and some train maintenance. Buses don’t have that luxury, and need to be full in both directions, which favors CBD-to-CBD runs, or runs between neighborhoods that are likely to be destinations as well as origins (such as Chinatown-to-Chinatown runs).

Trains are unique among common-carrier transportation modes in that service uses corridors and not points. They are similar to cars this way: I-95 and the Northeast Corridor serve many overlapping city pairs. Bus services do not have this advantage, because the nature of an expressway network is such that they have to deviate to make a station stop, and in the largest cities this deviation is considerable; it can take an hour for a bus to navigate New York’s streets. This makes them more point-to-point, like planes, and on a corridor with four large cities on one line, this is much less efficient.

In general, I think a lot of the pro-bus attitude among liberals and general transit activists (as opposed to libertarians, who I will address in a future post) amounts to defeatism. We will never be able to improve government to the point that trains have high mode share, so let’s downgrade service. We will never be like France or Germany or Switzerland or Japan, so let’s import practices from China and Scotland.

Transit activists for the most part have not only political but also personal preferences for travel by transit. When I visited Buffalo, I took the Empire Service instead of flying. This creates a skewed impression for what’s good; to me, the Empire Service is a semi-useful service, even as to the average traveler it might as well not be there. If the existing service is straightforwardly a worse version of good service – such as a commuter train that should run faster and more frequently, or an intercity train that should be HSR – this is not a problem. But if it is different – such as a bus where a train is more appropriate, a light rail or dedicated subway line where an S-Bahn is appropriate, or even a rapid transit line in the wrong type of neighborhood – then the activism can be in a wrong direction.

The problem is that the 80-90% of travelers who drive are not currently agitating for the mode of transit most likely to get them to switch. Like transit users, they have at least to some extent made their peace with their current mode’s deficiency, and if anything they will demand more highway expansions even on corridors where transit is much more useful for the same cost. But we can take a step back and look at case studies from peer first-world countries and see that buses have mode shares in the single digits while trains can dominate corridors in the Northeast Corridor distance range.

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124 Responses to Intercity Buses and Trains

  1. JJJ says:

    “but when I looked at Megabus and Bolt schedules on the largest city pairs, the two carriers combined were about even with Amtrak,”

    An extremely imperfect comparison. Between Boston and NYC, Add in Lucky Star. Fung Wah, Peter Pan, Greyhound, Limoliner and Gobuses….that would give you a better indication of the market size. Id bet large sums of money that the intercity buses have a much larger share of the market between boston and NYC than amtrak does.

    This is what (ew) Cato (disclaimer Randal OTool) says

    “Overall, counting air, train, bus, and auto, Amtrak has about a 6 percent market share of Northeast Corridor travel, airlines have 5 percent, and intercity buses have an 8 to 9 percent share. The remaining 80 percent is automobiles.”

    That was a year ago. I post his numbers with a huge grain of salt, but as you said, theres not much data out there.

    And then consider that the schedule doesn’t actually show you the number of buses that depart. A 4pm departure can actually be two buses leaving together. On my most recent Megabus trip, the double-decker was full, so the rest of us were put on a Coach bus. That means about 100 passengers at a single departure time point.

    Also, note that Greyhound and Peter Pan offer both direct and corridor service (you can take greyhound and stop everywhere Amtrak stops…and more!)

    You know why Im pro bus? Because I can get between the two cities TODAY for $10 on a bus, versus, at absolute best, $60 on Amtrak.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Greyhound is also much slower than the rest and at least as expensive, precisely because of all the intermediate stops. When Amtrak pissed me off so much I was ready to switch to the buses, I checked schedules to Providence, and Megabus was bad (it was either a 6 am departure or a departure that would make me miss a seminar I wanted to go to) and Greyhound was worse. New York-Providence is about 3:20 on the Regional, 3:45 on Megabus and Peter Pan, and 5:25 on Greyhound. And a big chunk of Greyhound’s badness comes from deviating to serve Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, which infuriates me to no end since Mohegan Sun is on a legacy rail line with an easy connection to New London (they studied a commuter rail option but decided to widen a road instead).

      I agree with you that counting all buses, including ones that people used in the Another One Rides the Bus era, Amtrak is probably behind on the top city pairs, but then again Amtrak is probably ahead on minor pairs like New York-Providence or New Haven-Boston. Either way, we’re not talking about the mode share that any HSR network gets or anything even in the same league.

      • Zach says:

        There is (was?) express service from New York to Providence on Bonanza at something like 90-minute headways for $20. Frequently faster than the equivalent Amtrak run, sadly.

      • Nathanael says:

        Greyhound is also continually on the verge of bankruptcy, because although it has a free ride on the roads, it actually builds bus stations and has to pay to maintain them.

        Which it can’t afford.

        It’s going to vanish, or deteriorate to “illegal Chinatown bus” levels.

        • Beta Magellan says:

          Greyhound is also, in some cases, barely able to keep its facilities open. The only Greyhound-only bus station I have any familiarity with—in Appleton, WI—isn’t open on Sundays, even though buses still depart then. Need to catch a bus out of Northeast Wisconsin on a Sunday morning in winter? Suit up!

    • You know why Im pro bus? Because I can get between the two cities TODAY for $10 on a bus

      OTOH, judging from the news one sees about chinatown buses, you have to spend the entire trip on your seat edge, ready to leap out the window when your meth-addled driver who hasn’t slept in a week starts doing wheelies down the wrong side of the highway…

      • Adirondacker12800 says:

        Except when the driver conveniently opens the windows for you with a streetlight stanchion.

      • Nathanael says:

        Megabus, meanwhile, has untrained drivers who don’t check whether their bus can go underneath bridges — one of their drivers killed 4 people in Syracuse, but a crooked jackass judge found him not guilty.

        • Nathanael says:

          Incidentally, finding a bus driver not guilty of criminal negligence when he ignored
          “13 low-bridge warning signs, some with flashing yellow lights, ”
          is completely inexcusable. This country doesn’t have a justice system any more.

    • Ryan says:

      You know why Im pro bus? Because I can get between the two cities TODAY for $10 on a bus, versus, at absolute best, $60 on Amtrak.

      And I am firmly anti-bus because of this. The idea that we should be ‘loving the bus’ and advocating in favor of making it easier for operations like Megabus to do what they do is, frankly, terrifying to me, because it’s not as simple as advocating for both transit modes. We can’t advocate for intercity buses without indirectly advocating against train service. Every man hour spent in support of operations like Megabus, Boltbus and the many criminal Chinatown bus operations is both a man hour not spent on Amtrak, and in fact an hour spent on Amtrak’s direct competition.

      Continuing to enable these services is going to draw people away from Amtrak. Someone who might have taken the train would instead take the bus, it’s cheaper. Indeed, every single empty seat on an Amtrak train that would have otherwise been filled by a bus rider, someone like yourself, drives up the price in turn because it costs the exact same amount of money to run a Regional wether there are 60 or 600 people riding it.

      So, no, I won’t love the bus. I won’t advocate for the bus. Anything that makes these inefficient, cut-rate and in some cases outright dangerous operations harder and more costly to operate, anything that could possibly drive people away from the service is a good thing to me.

      • JJJ says:

        You ignore the fact that cheaper prices get people to make trips they never would have taken. Its not a zero sum game. Of the 40 passengers on Megabus, 10 might have been on Amtrak, 10 might have driven, 20 might have not made the trip if the option didnt exist

        • Ryan says:

          Just the opposite, if Amtrak prices came down due to rising ridership (leading into additional trains creating extra capacity and faster headways, which in turn would encourage additional riders, creating a positive cycle), then perhaps 20 people who wouldn’t take the trip without a cheaper option might decide that the Amtrak fares have become a sufficiently ‘cheaper option.’ Amtrak should only be competing with flying or taking your car. Those are both fights Amtrak can win.

          The problem is things like “Bolt For A Buck,” and similar extreme cut-rate ticketing schemes. I’m not looking to outlaw intercity buses – just to make them impossible to run and turn a profit on while simultaneously charging fares south of $10. Amtrak is never going to be able to compete with those kind of prices, and, in fact, will continue bleeding business to those operations unless and until it becomes impossible to charge those kind of fares.

          Amtrak stands to do much better if Amtrak is charging $40 for BOS-NYP and Megabus can’t get their price lower than $30 without losing money.

          • Andre Lot says:

            Your discourse, Ryan, is wrong in so many levels. And I rarely use this word – wrong.

            For a starter, you are mixing a market and network design discussion in the same basket issues like traffic safety, driver qualification and vehicle maintenance standards, which are relevant issues on road vehicles (and rail, air, water vehicles for that matter) regardless of what kind of service they are operating and at what price and within what market context.

            Then, you blatantly advocates the politicization of what should be technical assessments as a typical fanboy (in this case of rails, but it could have been the other way around), by proposing unneeded regulation with the only purpose of killing Amtrak’s competition. Fortunately there are not that many people with your standing in charge of transportation! It reminds me of some fanboys of airlines “demanding” that FAA take some action to kill low(er) cost carriers like Jet Blue or Southwest that are “killing” the traditional legacy carrier.

            Moving on, you fail to realize that Amtrak can charge its high prices exactly because it has limited capacity and thus has no reason to charge less (in the NEC corridor services, and especially on Acela) since trains have high patronage.

            Merely attracting more passengers doesn’t necessarily bring lower fares, as there are many direct operational costs when you consider large fleet varying levels (and Amtrak’s fleet is already overstretched even if you decided to ignore that).

          • Ryan says:

            Then, you blatantly advocates the politicization of what should be technical assessments as a typical fanboy (in this case of rails, but it could have been the other way around), by proposing unneeded regulation with the only purpose of killing Amtrak’s competition. Fortunately there are not that many people with your standing in charge of transportation! It reminds me of some fanboys of airlines “demanding” that FAA take some action to kill low(er) cost carriers like Jet Blue or Southwest that are “killing” the traditional legacy carrier.

            Exactly right, because as a government agency, these things are already politicized for Amtrak. It’s far from a perfect situation but it’s the situation we’re in, so I’m arguing that we should accept the reality of the situation. Am I biased? Absolutely. I introduced myself as ‘anti-bus,’ which is the kind of self-labeling that doesn’t really go with an unbiased opinion.

            Moving on, you fail to realize that Amtrak can charge its high prices exactly because it has limited capacity and thus has no reason to charge less (in the NEC corridor services, and especially on Acela) since trains have high patronage.

            I do realize that, actually, and I realize that they’re running out of capacity. That, too, is part of the problem. And that’s why they desperately need to expand. That, in turn, means they need to continue attracting more people into the system.

            Merely attracting more passengers doesn’t necessarily bring lower fares, as there are many direct operational costs when you consider large fleet varying levels (and Amtrak’s fleet is already overstretched even if you decided to ignore that).

            There’s a fixed cost – I don’t pretend to know what that cost is, but it is a fixed cost. That’s the cost of operating the train plus the cost of labor for the crew manning the train. Once that train pulls onto the platform and starts boarding to begin its journey, that cost doesn’t change no matter how many people do or don’t get on that train. In other words, any time that train is not at 100% capacity, every single empty seat is a straight loss. Conversely, if you can reasonably expect to fill 100% of the seats, 100% of the time, you’re going to be able to lower your costs because you can expect every seat on the train to be bringing in money – so the fixed cost of operating the train is spread out over the maximum number of riders possible.

            My discourse may well be flawed, but I don’t think I’m entirely wrong.

          • Alon Levy says:

            When they run four full-length, 1,000-seat trains per hour through the North River Tunnels, we can talk about capacity. When of the four trains they run one has 304 seats and the other three have about 500 and aren’t at capacity, the problem 360 days of the year is not capacity but bad service and high fares. And the service has been bad and the fares have been high since before the Fung Wah days.

            The buses are not what keeps Amtrak from having Shinkansen levels of ridership. Amtrak is. The buses aren’t even the primary competition. There’s only so much ridership you can squeeze out of low fares at highway speeds. The dominant mode of travel on the NEC is cars, and will continue being cars as long as things stay approximately the same. ($8/gallon gas and the Master Plan count as “approximately the same” for our purposes.)

          • alexandrian says:

            I am confused about the part where higher demand on Amtrak will lead to lower fares.

          • Ryan says:

            I am confused about the part where higher demand on Amtrak will lead to lower fares.

            Let’s say that, hypothetically, Amtrak is going to run a 1000-seat train from Boston to New York Penn Station. That 1000-seat train is going to require a means to power itself (electricity), two crews to staff it (there is a crew change in New Haven), and will rack up some maintenance costs simply by making the journey between these two cities. All these costs can change any time before the train rolls into South Station – but as soon as that train is on the platform and ready for boarding, these costs become fixed and are not going to change no matter how many ticketed riders board that train.

            For our purposes, let’s say that the fixed cost of the train to operate is exactly $20000. We divide that by the 1000 seats on the train and get $20 – i.e., that seat needs to generate $20 in ticket fares to break even. Suppose, then, that it costs $25 for a ticket to ride all the way out of Boston and into New York, and though it would cost less to ride for only a segment, the total cost of booking Boston – Providence, then Providence – New London, then New London – New Haven, then New Haven – Stamford, then Stamford – New York would be $50 (ie, $10 each ‘leg’ of the trip.)

            So, as long as there are 1000 people on the train at every point en route, the train is making money. (Depending on how many people are taking intermediate trips, the train may in fact be making quite a lot of money.)

            However, if every seat is not filled, then the $20 that seat needs to make back to break even has to come from somewhere else – another seat. So, if you assume that your 1000 seat train is only going to have 500 seats occupied at any given time, then each of those 500 seats doesn’t need to make $20 – they each need to make $40.

            And that’s why more demand means lower fares – the more likely it is that every seat is going to get filled, the less Amtrak has to charge per ticket to ensure the train breaks even.

          • Anonymous says:

            $10 vs. $40-50 is a huge difference; Adriondacker is right. Quite a few people stay with family and friends.
            Believe me, given the choice I would much rather take Amtrak to New York than a bus or fly if I needed to go down there. But while there is an imperfect situation, let’s not penalize entrepenuers who are simply responding to a demand.

          • Ryan says:

            You’re right, Anonymous, we shouldn’t penalize entrepreneurs who are simply responding to a demand.

            We should penalize entrepreneurs who resort to dangerous and illegal practices in order to deflate their operating costs to the point where turning a profit on $1 ticket sales becomes possible, and who then capitalize on their ability to offer an extreme cut-budget service to enter into direct competition against a struggling public agency, secure in the knowledge that because said agency is shackled to an inefficient bureaucracy, they won’t be able to adapt to the competition.

            Fortunately, passing punitive legislation against Megabus and friends such as requiring all buses be regularly inspected and permitted, all bus operators regularly renew a commercial driver’s license (and be held to a much higher standard than other drivers on the road precisely because they are driving a bus presumably full of people), and that all bus routes start and end at a bus terminal (no curbside pick-ups or drop-offs) will both force their operating costs up and drag the safety and quality of the intercity bus rider’s experience up in turn.

            I don’t think any of those requirements are even all that unreasonable.

          • Anonymous says:

            In reply to your last comment, how do these buses become unsafe simply by nature of being curbside operations? This claim would only hold water if a substantial number of the accidents you mention were related to curbside pickups and dropoffs (i.e: buses hitting pedestrians at stops, for example.)
            That Amtrak is a public agency does not make it immune from competition. Why stop at “low cost” buses? Let’s go after Greyhound and Peter Pan too! Let’s start penalizing airlines! And what about other trains? Let’s penalize All Aboard Florida and the Texas private high speed rail as well! Technically, NJ Transit and SEPTA compete with Amtrak for NYC-Philadelphia serivce; let’s get rid of NJT’s Northeast Corridor Line and the Trenton Line!

          • Ryan says:

            Your intercity bus trip doesn’t start and end right when you get on the bus – waiting at the curbside pickup location, loading your luggage up, then unloading your luggage at your destination and navigating your way over to local transit or being picked up by (a friend/taxi/Enterprise Rent-A-Car).

            I admit, the vehicular safety improvements for bus stations over unsheltered curbsides are negligible, but the rider safety improvements are much more significant. That holds true even for the most rudimentary infrastructure, such as basic weather shelters or curb juts (both of which the bus company would be responsible for permitting, financing, and maintaining.)

            Greyhound and Peter Pan… would be beholden to the same regulations levied against Megabus and friends. All Aboard Florida and the private Texas rail are going to be shackled to the FRA just like Amtrak is, and NJT/SEPTA (as well as the MBTA, MTA, MARC, VRE, etc.) are all state public agencies. Airline agencies are at the mercy of the FAA (and now the TSA).

            As I continue to say and have been saying, I want to create a level playing field where Amtrak can successfully compete. For other rail agencies and the airlines, that level field is there already. Not so much for the buses.

          • Anon256 says:

            @Ryan: I’m much less worried about your argument now that I’ve heard your proposed policies. Bus drivers already need commercial driver’s licenses. In Boston and DC Megabus/Boltbus already use the main indoor bus terminals and fares are still low. Finding a good place for a terminal in NYC might be difficult, but at worst they could find reasonably-priced parking lots near outlying subway stations. Nothing you propose would stop them from offering much lower fares than Amtrak’s incompetently-managed operation.

          • Anonymous says:

            So why don’t we work to reform the FRA rules which are frequently criticized on this blog, rather than lashing out at competitors?

          • Sascha Claus says:

            and that all bus routes start and end at a bus terminal (no curbside pick-ups or drop-offs)

            Would Amtrak trains be subject to this requirement? Port Huron MI (and a lot of other Amtrak stations) doesn’t look like a train “terminal” (neither does New Buffalo MI, but no route starts or ends there). Would Amtrak have to terminate all corridor services without proper “terminals”?

            […] but the rider safety improvements are much more significant.

            Would someone be so nice and point me to some rider “safety improvements for bus stations over unsheltered curbsides”?

          • Anonymous says:

            @SaschaClaus: There’s no evidence to my knowledge that curbside buses are worse in terms of safety, merely by nature of being curbside buses. Attacks on curbside buses are dodging the reform which Amtrak needs.

      • Anonymous says:

        Essentially, what you’re advocating for is screwing poorer individuals (immigrants, college students) out of the need to travel. The commentor below makes a good point in comparing this idea to the regulations which made low-cost air travel infeasible for decades.

        • Anonymous says:

          ^Ability, not need. Whoops.

          • Ryan says:

            I am a college student, actually. I’m well acquainted with not having tremendous amounts of disposable income at my discretion.

            And it’s a struggle, it’s really very difficult for me to imagine a scenario in which taking away <$10 travel on the Northeast Corridor screws anyone, because I have toyed with the idea of taking trips before and it's not the price of riding Amtrak ($40 at the time of writing this – about $35 if I decide it's worth transferring to Metro-North in NHV so that I can arrive in Grand Central instead of Penn Station) that's preventing me from taking that trip to New York. It's the cost of staying overnight in New York that's stopping me from getting on a train and going.

            People who are 'screwed out of the ability to travel' by taking away the ability to travel for $1 are people who are 'screwed out of the ability to travel' anyway by having nowhere to stay once they get there, unless you’re about to tell me that there’s a huge market of people riding Bolt for a Buck who get down to New York and get on the next Bolt Bus back. I just can’t imagine anyone doing that.

          • Adirondacker12800 says:

            They sleep on their cousin’s couch.

          • Nathanael says:

            And I assume their cousin provides food, too?

            Just *being* in NYC is expensive. Everything is expensive.

          • Ryan says:

            And frankly it’s kind of a stretch to assume that friends or family would be generous enough to put someone up in their home, feed them, and then not help pay for the ticket. Even if that is the case, the cost of paying for the ticket is weighted against the cost of [dinner/drinks/whatever] that aren’t being paid for by that person and everything is like as not to even out in the end.

            Otherwise, we’re back to the thrust of my original point – it takes an awful lot to reach the point where an inability to travel for $1~$10 is going to break a trip, but things like lodging and food would not.

          • Adirondacker12800 says:

            The convention, in a private home, is to feed the guests at no charge. Let them freely use the facilities too.

          • J B says:

            As someone who used to work near Boston but comes from NYC, there were a lot of trips I would not have taken had there not been Chinatown buses. Amtrak was simply not an option. You may feel it’s not a big difference, but you would in fact be screwing over a lot of people by eliminating low-cost buses.
            Also, as for the hotel argument, perhaps the savings gained from taking a cheap bus would make it possible to afford a hotel in New York. When people plan a trip they often look at its cost as a whole; if the cost of transport goes down they will be more willing to tolerate higher costs of accommodation and food.

          • Matthew says:

            My experience with Bolt Bus is rather mixed. I booked a ticket for $20 one time from BOS – NYC to try it out. It worked out as expected time-wise, about 4.5 hours. But I had to sit across from a drooling maniac who kept picking his nose and staring at me for 4.5 hours. Also, I’m one of the “33%” who experience motion sickness in rubber-tyred vehicles. So I avoid the Bolt Bus and its ilk.

            If $15-20 tickets is what it takes for operations like Bolt Bus to pay their fair costs in road wear and terminal space, then I think that’s a fair deal. Those $1 tickets are few and far between. I’ve never seen one. They’re a promotion, a loss-leader, usually one per bus. The $15-20 range is pretty easy for anyone to handle, works out to a low $0.05-0.06 per km. I don’t really mind the loss-leader tickets, as long as they are covering their externalities, whatever marketing techniques they choose don’t bother me. It’s the immense subsidies to highways that bother me. But remove those, and the economics works itself out.

            Amtrak is more comfortable, potentially faster, definitely more scenic. It’s worth some premium. Especially if they ever get their heads screwed on straight and start running it like a modern, 21st century train service.

          • Anon256 says:

            @Nathanael: NYC has some of the cheapest prepared food in the country. 99 cent fresh pizza! (If you’re staying a bit longer you might chip in on your host’s groceries, which are also no more expensive than elsewhere, see http://gothamist.com/2011/05/26/no_really_groceries_are_cheaper_her.php .) For the most part food costs in Northeastern cities are all about the same, so the main difference in cost between taking a trip and staying home really is the bus ticket (plus subway rides if you have an unlimited card at home). You should also keep in mind that there are about as many people from NYC taking trips to Boston/DC as vice versa.

            @Ryan: Of course their cousin/friend isn’t going to buy them an expensive train ticket, they can’t afford it either. Letting people stay on your couch has roughly zero marginal cost, so everybody does it for their friends.

          • Nathanael says:

            You got me; I forgot that food is expensive in Philly and Boston too.

      • MaxUtil says:

        Bit of a pricing fallacy here. If the trains always run at capacity, Amtrak COULD reduce prices and still run profitably, but why would they? A train is like a factory with limited output. If I can only make 1000 widgets and every one sells at $40, why would I reduce the price to $10 even if I could still make a profit. You set the price the price to maximize your profit, not to the lowest level at which you can make any profit. Unless you start having mandates on pricing on individual routes which would be a mess for multiple reasons.

  2. Wait, what? Do you have some specific definition of “large intercity bus network” in mind? … ’cause Japan most certainly has lots of intercity buses… it’s the “cheap alternative.”

    E.g., here’s a search on Tokyo->Osaka:

    http://bus.travel.rakuten.co.jp/bus/SearchOpenSeatAction.do?f_dpcpcd=tokyo&f_dpctcd=ALL&f_dscpcd=osaka&f_dsctcd=ALL&startDay=10&startMonth=10&startYear=2012&adult=1&child=0

    Note that most seem to leave from train stations!

    • Alon Levy says:

      I may be brainfarting. I remember reading about regulations against domestic intercity buses in France and Germany (they still exist, but there are very few of them – I think 1 or 2 per day on Paris-Lyon), and for some reason I’d remembered there was something similar in Japan.

      • I’d never take them if I can help it (more cramped, much slower, boring scenery), but intercity buses in Japan seem popular with low-income travelers like students.

        They also seem to be something of a staple in fiction…and I admit, there does seem something there that one doesn’t get with trains, which are maybe a little too nice, and a little too bourgeoisie…

      • orulz says:

        Yeah, definitely plenty of intercity buses in Japan. Not only do they serve markets not served by rail. My experience with them is that They are somewhat though not radically cheaper than rail travel. Importantly, they offer overnight trips, something almost completely absent on railroads in Japan.

        For example, if I am in Hiroshima and want to arrive in Tokyo before 10am (but not arrive the night before and shell out for a hotel), a bus is my only option. The Shinkansen is completely shut down between midnight and 6am, and the overnight sleeper train “Sakura Express” was cancelled in 2005. The bus rolls in to Shinjuku Station at a business-friendly 7:30 AM.

        • Alon Levy says:

          Fair enough.

          One other thing still bothers me, though – how come those buses are so slow? Tokyo-Hiroshima in 12 hours, Tokyo-Osaka in 8 – that’s an average of 70 km/h. Is expressway congestion that bad?

          • orulz says:

            In mountainous areas which is much of the distance, expressway speed limits are just 80km/h. Google maps predicts the travel time with no congestion as 10h31 minutes. The bus also makes several stops at locations in suburban Hiroshima before hitting the expressway, and there are a few stops at rest areas presumably where they change drivers, and passengers can stretch and grab a snack. And at least in Tokyo you better believe expressways are congested.

        • Andrew in Ezo says:

          “Importantly, they offer overnight trips, something almost completely absent on railroads in Japan.”
          Many of the overnight trains were axed because the cheaper overnight buses took away the customers. The most recent victims were the overnight sleeper train Hokuriku and overnight seat express Noto, between Tokyo and Kanazawa.

          • Andre Lot says:

            Overnight train operations are usually very expensive on a per-passenger basis because it requires several stand-by services to be operated all-night long for just a handful of trains, when the networks are not heavily used for freight at night.

            Then, if you have many night freight trains, another problem occurs: conflict with the operational practices of many freight train operators.

      • orulz says:

        Oh, and contrary to Miles, I found the seats on the bus to be MORE comfortable than the train. Three-abreast seating and enormous recline. Of course it was slower than the train; but that didn’t matter as much because it was an overnight trip.

        • Andrew in Ezo says:

          The buses must have become more comfortable recently. My experiences with overnight buses here in Hokkaido (more than 13 years ago) were that the seats didn’t fit my 185cm frame and the interiors were overheated in winter, forcing me to prop my feet against the frosted windows to keep cool. The drawn curtains, darkness, and rocking motion of the bus also made me feel claustrophobic.

          • orulz says:

            My experience was about 9 years ago. I am 184cm and found there to be quite enough leg room. Maybe the buses from Hiroshima were just better. I rode the buses to Nagoya and Tokyo on a couple occasions and it doesn’t seem like the accommodations have changed much or at all since then.

            I also rode an overnight train a couple of times during Seishun 18 season. (They weren’t all dead back in 2003.) Actually it was the train that crosses the Seikan Tunnel. Now THAT train was overheated.

        • BruceMcF says:

          Those sound like the kind of sleeper buses that run in the Southern Cone. I took one in the 80′s between Curitiba and Paranagua, and they were very comfortable seats, and it must have been 60degree incline.

        • Nathanael says:

          Well, if you don’t get motion sick.

          Buses are consistently far worse than trains for motion sickness for most people prone to motion sickness.

          With over 33% of the population prone to motion sickness, this is a HUGE factor against buses and in favor of trains.

      • Harald says:

        The situation in Germany is this: There are regulations in effect, dating back to 1935, that no new long-distance bus lines can be created, except for when there are no equivalent alternatives (usually by train). This meant that there currently are very few intercity bus lines. Two that come to mind are Berlin – Hamburg and Berlin – Munich. I’ve used the Berlin – Hamburg once, and it is pretty similar to Greyhound et al.: well utilized, fairly cheap, slower than the ICE and travel by car, but faster than taking the slow train. If you have enough money you’ll take the ICE which is much faster. Not sure how popular Berlin – Munich is — the train alternative isn’t quite as good there. Just recently legislation has been introduced that basically get rid of the old rules, coming into effect next year. From what I’ve heard it’s unclear if this will actually lead to a significant growth in intercity bus lines. Deutsche Bahn has significant ownership stakes in pretty much all the big bus companies and they’re probably not too interested in creating competition for themselves.

        • ant6n says:

          I thought bus travel in Germany (before the liberalization now) was allowed to/from West-Berlin, some sort of cold war rule.

          • Harald says:

            I believe the fact that there were a couple of buses from/to Berlin was just a corollary of the general rule “no new lines if there is an equivalent alternative.” Since train connections through GDR territory were were limited, a number of bus alternatives were allowed (and not shut down after the reunification).

        • Sascha Claus says:

          The situation in Germany is this: There are regulations in effect, dating back to 1935, that no new long-distance bus lines can be created, except for when there are no equivalent alternatives (usually by train).

          After the WW1, the surplus of the Reichsbahn had to be paid as reparations. To circumvent this (or simply because it had money), Hitler ordered the Reichsbahn to build “his” Autobahns and pay for them. Quite sensible to ban the bus competition.
          For the planned liberation, bus routes under 50km/31mi or under 1h travel time will still be banned to protect the state-subsidized regional rail.

          • Andre Lot says:

            This is non-sense. The reparations were paid in marks, which generated huge inflation b.t.w. Reparations in-kind were put in place after WW-2.

          • Nathanael says:

            The initial reparations had to be paid in gold. The history here is complicated.

  3. Anon256 says:

    For intercity travel, I don’t follow your argument that needing to be ticketed for a particular operator and stop cuts into the freedom of frequency. Intercity trips are almost never completely spontaneous (at the very least the passenger generally needs to pack), so there is little cost to booking them hours in advance and they will often be booked weeks in advance. Frequency is important for allowing passengers to choose from a variety of departure/arrival times to find one that fits their needs, but it does not matter significantly if these are with different companies or at different stop locations, since they’ll be taking the subway to whichever stop location they booked regardless. Grand St, 34th and 42nd are approximately equally convenient on the subway from most of NYC; Flushing or Newark would be less convenient but compensate with a correspondingly shorter travel time in their respective directions.

    Relatedly, CBD stops seem overrated to me; in congested metro areas I am more than happy to get off the bus at an outlying rapid transit station (e.g. Newark Penn or Paris Gallieni) to avoid unpredictable urban traffic and possible backtracking. (Though outside NYC most US cities have such overbuilt freeway networks that staying on the bus is faster.)

    Also, I’m surprised that this discussion doesn’t mention the largest bus station in the developed world, which seems to handle a reasonably high intercity mode share. (Though I guess some intercity buses go to Arlozorov instead.)

    • Miles Bader says:

      Frequency is important for allowing passengers to choose from a variety of departure/arrival times to find one that fits their needs, but it does not matter significantly if these are with different companies or at different stop locations, since they’ll be taking the subway to whichever stop location they booked regardless.

      It certainly matters a little: if buses (or whatever) leave from 25 different locations, it increases the mental effort required for a trip; not only do I have to be sure to leave on time, etc, but need to find the correct route to a random location, with all the potential for screwing up when it’s unfamiliar, or even going to the wrong place out of force of habit!

      Leaving from a small number of consistent locations means that I’ll probably have already internalized the details necessary to get there, and my trips will be that much easier and less stressful (and time-consuming, as you need to allocate less time for local travel to a familiar location).

    • Alon Levy says:

      Israelis aren’t particularly proud of their bus network. They think it’s slow and inconvenient and uncomfortable, and are sure their country is much more auto-oriented than it actually is. (It could be because the ones I talk to tend to be from the Tel Aviv-region middle class and they almost universally own cars, but among the poor cars are still aspirational.) Car ownership is low by first-world standards, but it’s increasing, and the reason it’s low is not good transit but high car and fuel taxes, which leftists who think of themselves as pro-environment and pro-transit still oppose. The sentiment I hear is that public transit is nice but people really need to drive nowadays so the government should make it easier.

      The issue with frequency is really a couple of things. First, when frequency is good and the ticketing system allows it, you can just get to the train station and get on the next train, like you would on the subway. The advantage is that it cuts your access time – essentially it means your waiting time will be random and low (if the frequency is one train every 15 minutes, it’s 7.5 minutes) rather than higher because of the need for slack time. And of course slack time at Megabus means waiting on the curbside in the rain, which is usually much worse than Penn Station and sometimes worse than Port Authority.

      Second, if you miss your train/bus, you can rebook, and this means organizationally you need to stay with the same company, and more fundamentally in the same general area.

      Third, the operators aren’t arranging their schedules so that they interpolate perfectly. From Providence to New York, Peter Pan and Megabus combine to give you departures at 6:30, 7, 8:30, 11, 11:45, 1, 3, 4:30, 6, 8, and 9:35. And the 6:30 and 7 departures arrive after 10, so it’s not even a real peak.

      Finally, re CBD stops, as you can see by looking at the schedules of Megabus and Bolt, the frequency on each city pair is never high enough to make it easy to split services between many destinations; even when there are multiple stations in the same metro area, one is dominant. So if there has to be just one stop, it should be at the mean location of the destination.

      The issue with Newark Penn and other off-CBD stations is that those transfers are inconvenient. Of course you’d take transit there and transfer. So would I. But I also took the TGV between Nice and Paris, and walked from near Brown to the gaming store in Pawtucket and back twice (it’s 8 km each way), and used Amtrak to get to Buffalo, and frequently used the two-hourly MBTA to get to Boston, at one time even when my destination was in Chelmsford. We are the 5%, or the however many percent use buses on the NEC. What transit companies want from us is to induce more trips, rather than to capture market share.

      • Anon256 says:

        Throughout the developed world, flexible-schedule intercity tickets (on any mode) seem mutually exclusive with affordable fares, so I don’t think they are a reasonable point of comparison.

        Even if we grant that there are benefits to frequent buses to a given destination leaving from the same stop, having separate NYC bus stops for Boston-bound, NYC-bound, upstate-bound, etc buses can increase capacity without harming frequency. (Transferring passengers are inconvenienced, but there was no hope of buses being time-competitive for them anyway.)

        • Anon256 says:

          s/NYC-bound/DC-bound/

        • Alon Levy says:

          Oh, the issue is not separate stops for separate destinations. That happens all the time for trains in some cities, and the mode share for O&D trips is just fine. The issue is that it’s hard to provide services to many destinations within each metro area on the same city pair without cutting into frequency, especially if those destinations are as far from one another as Midtown, Chinatown, Flushing, Secaucus, and GWB.

      • Nathanael says:

        “The sentiment I hear is that public transit is nice but people really need to drive nowadays so the government should make it easier.”

        That’s what happens when your public transit is buses and you have sprawl. :-P When your public transit is trains and streetcars and they cover the region, you don’t hear this. (You may, as in the 1950s, hear “Flying cars are the future”, but you don’t hear “We need cars”.)

  4. Beta Magellan says:

    Ticketing and frequency are very important and probably the big reason why the Hiawataha has managed to crowd out a fair amount of intercity bus ridership between Milwaukee and Chicago; I mentioned this on Cap’n Transit’s blog, but a friend intended to make a Cleveland-Milwaukee trip, with a transfer in Chicago, via Megabus, but bus frequency was so poor he ended up taking the Hiawatha for the Chicago-Milwaukee leg). The Hiawatha has published schedules that don’t vary from day to day (sadly not clockface, but easy enough to memorize after you’ve taken a couple of round trips), auto-competitive (or, during peak periods, faster) travel times and decent on-time performance, and (from what I understand) is unusual among Amtrak trains in that there is no advance booking. Although Chicago-Milwaukee is not quite the sort of market you’re talking about—there are Hiawatha supercommuters and the ticket practices seem closer to commuter rail than most of Amtrak (there are even passes for frequent users)—I recognized the rail-bus dynamic you talked about in this post.

  5. Joel Azumah says:

    The private sector can buy buses (cheaply) and service new markets (cheaply and quickly) without any government subsidy. There are not very many places that this happens with trains. This is the logic behind ramping up more and diverse bus service.

    • Alon Levy says:

      You know that there are multiple countries in which the intercity rail networks are profitable, right?

      If you want to know why it doesn’t happen in the US, ask yourself how much money you’d be making if you were subject to government regulations on bus crashworthiness that do not raise safety but do raise your equipment and operating costs 50%, had to have a conductor on each bus, and had to perform various tests at each terminal that raised turnaround times to half an hour to an hour.

    • anonymouse says:

      And once those markets have been built up, it can become more effective to serve them with trains. That’s what is slowly starting to happen in California, where one of the biggest intercity bus operators is also the intercity train operator, and the buses and trains form an integrated network.

    • BruceMcF says:

      No, they cannot do that without government subsidy. Its just that the subsidy is provided first, and they take advantage of the subsidy where it makes commercial sense to do so.

      • Paul Druce says:

        Government subsidy isn’t necessarily needed; toll roads after all.

        • Nathanael says:

          I’ve never seen a 100% toll road route. I’m not sure it’s even possible.

          • Paul Druce says:

            Then you simply aren’t looking hard enough.

          • Stewart Clamen says:

            Here’s a close one: Greyhound: Mt. Laurel NJ to Port Authority Bus Terminal Manhattan

            Drives 1000′ or so on county roads in Mt. Laurel, before getting on NJTK at Exit 4. Takes the 1.5 untolled miles of I-495 to get to the Lincoln Tunnel. Once exiting the tunnel in Manhattan it travels a couple of blocks on Manhattan surface streets before entering the PABT.

          • Nathanael says:

            Yep, proof that 100% toll road routes do not exist. :-)

            Paul Druce, thanks for showing that you’re stupid! Because there aren’t any 100% toll road routes.
            The key reason is that NYC is the only city with “toll terminuses” like PABT, so you are on non-toll roads at the other end of every trip. Minimum. And that’s if you take the direct ramps from the Lincoln Tunnel to PABT, which Mr. Clamen’s example doesn’t.

            Thanks for finding the closest possible example, Mr. Clamen. It’s the example which proves that there just aren’t any 100% toll road routes.

          • Nathanael says:

            I have a funny image of Mr. Druce searching the world for his mythical 100% toll road route. Maybe if he did that he’d stop posting nonsense.

      • Anon256 says:

        While it’s true that road transportation in the US benefits from a significant net subsidy (even when it uses toll roads), it’s much harder to make this claim about most of Western Europe or the UK given their petrol taxes. Nonetheless, Megabus UK and Eurolines are profitable private companies and generally the cheapest (though not the fastest) way to get between the cities they serve.

    • Nathanael says:

      By “without any government subsidy”, of course, you mean “with an enormous government subsidy to road repairs, road construction, bus stops, etc.”

      • Andre Lot says:

        The majority of freeways in Italy and France are tolled. And tolled to prices that would produce a revolt if they were applied in US (think of US$ 0,15-0,20km as being the normal toll range for long-distance routes).

        On top of that, diesel is massively taxed. And fuel-specific taxes are not substitutes for regular VAT which is charged on top of that. So even in countries like Germany where roads are not tolled with very few exception, income charged from road users and/or their vehicles should and indeed is more than enough to pay for any maintenance cost, and often for capital costs as well.

  6. trainphilos says:

    This is just a little FYI regarding the Intercity bus lines in Germany. The German government has changed the regulations vis-a-vis passenger rail and long distance buses. As of 01 January 2013 long distance buses will be allowed. It will be interesting to see how this will affect passenger numbers on certain lines operated by Deutsche Bahn and some particular lines economic viability. For example DB has given up on a direct rail connection from München to Prague. However they do run a bus service between this city pair. The run takes a little under 5 hours and costs 29 Euros. A private rail operator (Alex) serves this city pair, but they take over 6 hours and charge 66 Euros.

  7. ant6n says:

    As previous commenters mentioned, frequency doesn’t matter for intercity trips so much. If you travel by bus, as opposed to Amtrak, you do so because it’s cheap. And you get cheap fares if you book in advance, with tickets bound to a specific seat. So as long as you have reasonably many times that you can travel throughout the day (i.e. 5-6 times), you’re fine on the scheduling point. This also means it is more economical to provide point-to-point service, rather than corridor service. Firstly, it’s faster (->cheaper). Secondly, you can fill up the bus with passengers interested in going from point-to-point; if you provide the corridor service, it is much more difficult to ensure that the bus is full for the whole trip.

    I think it’s up to Amtrak to compete with the buses. Just provide some cheap high capacity trains that are a bit slower, travel at less frequent times during the day, and start at easily reachable outlying stations (Hoboken?) so that they don’t cut into the cbd capacity. That could compete with the buses, and could sway bus advocates towards advocating for trains.

    Amtrak seems more interested in competing with airlines, and trying to create premium services, they don’t seem to be interested at all to compete with buses.

    • Ryan says:

      Amtrak being able to compete with $1, $5, even $10 fares would require them to 1) grab every last inch of track that they operate on through eminent domain, and then charge freight companies for the privilege of operating on those tracks rather than the other way around,
      and 2) have track maintenance subsidized 100%.

      Saying it’s up to Amtrak to compete with the bus is sort of like breaking a guy’s leg and then telling him to run a race against Usain Bolt and win.

      • Adirondacker12800 says:

        The new bus companies are clustered along the NEC. Amtrak, Metro North or the MBTA own the tracks.

        • Ryan says:

          Amtrak doesn’t own the entirety of the NEC tracks, and it’s the corridors they don’t own that act like a giant albatross. You can’t aggressively price down if your profit margin has to be wide enough to support less profitable sections of the network.

          • anonymouse says:

            You also can’t aggressively price down when the meddling micromanagers in Congress have explicitly prohibited you from doing so. I’m sure Amtrak would be more than happy to sell seats for $1 and have every seat of every train full, but they’re prohibited from offering more than a 50% discount off the peak fare for any train, because some Congressperson though that letting them do that would mean they lose even more money.

          • Anon256 says:

            @Ryan: Are you actually suggesting stunting the Northeast’s economy (by deliberately making intercity travel unaffordable) in order to subsidise land-cruises in the middle of nowhere?

            @anonymouse: I wonder if there are loopholes in that restriction. For example, in many cases it’s already cheaper to buy Amtrak Guest Rewards points and use them to book the train than it is to pay for the same train in cash; since points are of indeterminate cash value they presumably are not subject to restriction on discounts, and so might represent a vehicle for further price discrimination. Amtrak could also have a setup based on “consolidators” (as once common with airlines) where Amtrak sells a large block of seats for $50 each to a third party and the third party sells some for $25 and some for $100; I don’t know whether the law would permit this or not.

          • Ryan says:

            Are you actually suggesting stunting the Northeast’s economy (by deliberately making intercity travel unaffordable) in order to subsidise land-cruises in the middle of nowhere?

            No, I’m suggesting creating an even playing field on which Amtrak can successfully compete by inhibiting the ability of the intercity bus services to operate in the way they do now (e.g., cut costs as much as possible so that $1 tickets can be offered). If it becomes impossible for Megabus to offer tickets any cheaper than even half of the cheapest possible Amtrak ticket, I would consider that a tremendous success.

            That’s not going to stunt the economy. That’s not even going to come close to stunting the economy, and, in fact, it’ll likely go a long way towards bolstering Amtrak by improving their ridership numbers even more.

          • Ryan says:

            Rather, so that $1 tickets can‘t be offered. Oops.

      • ant6n says:

        But you don’t need to charge 1,5 or 10$ to compete with buses, charging 20$ is just fine (for bos-nyc, dc-nyc).

        • Alon Levy says:

          Even higher fares can work. On New York-New Haven, trains are generally half-hourly with a few hour-long gaps, the fare is $14.75 off-peak ($19.50 peak) and is perfectly flexible, and you can show up at the train station 3 minutes before departure. I don’t know the ridership on the city pair, but New Haven has 4,000 inbound Metro-North boardings on both weekdays and weekends, so it generates 3 million one-way trips per year, more than Amtrak carries on NY-DC and NY-Philly combined; my recollection riding those trains is that some but not many people get off before Grand Central, so that the city pair’s ridership is indeed close to 3 million. In contrast, Megabus runs one bus per weekend day on the city pair and none on weekdays, Bolt doesn’t exist, and Peter Pan sends you to a couple of daily Greyhound departures that cost more than Metro-North.

          It is my belief that a train service that optimizes for low operating costs, idTGV-style, could profitably charge about ¢10 per km. The KTX charges about ¢12-15 per km but offers various small discounts – for backward-facing seats, for online bookings, etc. So if you go for flexibility, this means New York-Boston for $36, or maybe for $49 (current cheapest fare) at the highest but with discounts. Korea offers these trains but also two classes of lower-end legacy trains, of which the cheaper has comparable average speed and fares to Megabus and Bolt. And more than ten times as many people ride the KTX on Seoul-Daegu and Seoul-Busan as do slower trains; on Seoul-Daejeon, which is comparable in distance to New York-Philly, more than twice as many people ride the KTX as do slower trains. (See mode shares here and distances here under the Route Map tab).

    • Adirondacker12800 says:

      Hoboken, meh, It’s faster to take PATH between Hoboken and Penn Station Newark than it is to take NJTransit.

      • Davey says:

        As one who takes NJ Transit’s Main, NEC Lines and PATH several times a week, I have to say I disagree, Adirondacker…. I board at my stop in Clifton, New Jersey and it takes me ten minutes to get to Secaucus. At Secaucus, I transfer to the NEC to get to Penn Station. I don’t usually have to wait more than a few minutes to connect, and the trip from Secaucus into Penn takes all of ten minutes. All of that to say that I can get from where I live in Clifton to Penn Station, door to door, in 25-30 minutes most days. By contrast, it takes me about an hour to do the same trip via the PATH (20 minutes from my stop to Hoboken, then the time it takes to transfer to a PATH train, then the five stops to 33rd Street, and a 10 minute schlep from the time I exit the PATH train to the time I reach Penn Station.

        • Adirondacker12800 says:

          Your train from Clifton isn’t trying to merge onto or off the NEC. Compare the schedules for Penn Station Newark to Penn Station New York and the schedules for Broad Street Newark to Penn Station New York. Or use NJTransit’s trip planner and put Penn Station Newark in as your origin and Hoboken in as your destination. Even the direct trains, the ones that are a one seat ride are slower than PATH can be.

      • Davey says:

        And nobody would go from Hoboken to Penn Station via NJ Transit – they would only take PATH or bus.

        • Anon256 says:

          I think Adirondacker was questioning whether it was worth running hypothetical budget NEC trains (as proposed by ant6n) to Hoboken or just terminating them at Newark Penn (since passengers would have to transfer to PATH either way). I think Hoboken probably makes more sense for the sake of turnback capacity, but agree that from the riders’ point of view the benefits are pretty marginal.

  8. ari says:

    The Portland-Boston bus market is sort of a microcosm of this, with a couple interesting twists. It has train and bus service, and while the train service takes longer and is (slightly) more expensive, it serves several intermediate markets (accounting for much of its ridership) while the only buses that serve the market go express. The buses are also significantly more expensive, per mile, than Boston-New York (about 10¢ per km, NY-Boston at $15 is 4¢ per km) but the level of service provided by Concord Coach is superior to what you can expect on the super-cheapo buses further south. Concord only launched on the route 20 years ago, driving Greyhound (almost completely) out of the market with superior (albeit less-CBD-focused in Portland) service. (Greyhound’s station, while closer, but certainly not close to, Portland’s center, is a real dump. Imagine a Greyhound station which hadn’t been updated since 1972. That.)

    Still, buses suffer from a high personnel-per-passenger maximum (1 driver per 50ish passengers) so they have to pack seats in to the bus. For a two hour trip, this is tolerable, but for a traffic-prone four-plus-hour New York run it is less so. So far, three factors have kept rail service from overtaking the bus service. One is that low track speeds mean the trip takes longer (although a nonstop trip would probably be time-competitive, at least). A second is that significant single-track running severely cramps potential frequency. And a third is that many of the buses directly serve Logan Airport from Portland (all serve the airport, but some run express from Portland), which is a major destination. Since the airport is so close to Boston (2 km), and since there is direct access to it from the main bus station in Boston, there is not the penalty that other bus routes have in serving secondary markets.

    Finally, intercity buses are much less regulated than any other form of transit. They travel on roads thick with buses and trucks with single drivers for hours on end. And the drivers are barely vetted, such that in an investigation after a couple of fatal crashes in 2011, ten drivers (out of 36 stops) were made to stop driving buses immediately due to previous citations. (Bottom of this article.) I can’t imagine that, if a third of Amtrak or Delta or Metro North employees were considered safety violations it would be buried at the end of an article.

    • mulad says:

      The CEO of Jefferson Lines, which has a network extending from North Dakota/Minnesota down to Texas, has claimed that they only need coaches to be about half-full in order to make a profit. They don’t have much competition in many corridors, though, and I’m sure there are various costs that are different in that corridor versus the Northeast.

      • Nathanael says:

        Jefferson Lines is effectively a monopoly on most of its routes. They were previously competing with Greyhound on most of them, but service quality on Greyhound dropped below zero and then Greyhound just started cutting services.

  9. Andre Lot says:

    International bus services within EU have been de-regulated for almost a decade now (and to an extent so have been international passenger rail travel where there was spare capacity in 2006).

    Medium and even long-distance international bus services in Europe have been the bottom feeder of those markets. Those buses are cramped, and for a while developed a reputation of being less subject to police scrutiny than trains (but now that changed).

    Now SNCF started an international bus operation centered in Lille (http://www.idbus.co.uk/), serving routes competing with Eurostar and Thalys (and from Decebemer, Fyra) services. They are betting on an “everyday low prices” model to knock out the competition of smaller bus operations that compete on that route.

    In fact, you can always get cheaper fares than the bus fares if you buy in advance on those services, but not 2 or 3 days before departure,

    Maybe Amtrak should start more aggressive pricing techniques on its train services. I’m still amazed how little they use modern yield management resources, from last minute fire-sales to a much wider price spectrum on medium distance services.

    • Adirondacker12800 says:

      Amtrak doesn’t set their prices, Congress does.

      • Nathanael says:

        To be more specific, Congress has set a restriction on the price variation allowed on Amtrak tickets. Amtrak already uses that variation to the maximum extent possible.

    • snogglethorpe says:

      I’m still amazed how little they use modern yield management resources, from last minute fire-sales to a much wider price spectrum on medium distance services.

      “Modern yield management” has drawbacks as well as benefits. Great uncertainty about prices can make traveling quite miserable for passengers, and is one of the big problems with air-travel, where in many cases they’ve pushed it to its limits.

      As long as they can keep prices “cheap enough”, there’s virtue in pricing consistency.

      • Andre Lot says:

        There it nothing “miserable” about that, as long as price information is easy to get and transparent. The problem with airline pricing is more about hidden fees and ever-moving goalposts when it comes to what is included in a ticket than it has to do with prices that vary all the time.

        The more diverse (in terms of price elasticity, priority to travel, income etc.) a ridership is, the more opportunities are out there to adopt yield management. Especially if a railway decides to go for an all-seated model, which reduces uncertainty of whether someone might be the unlucky one to travel 1h30 standing.

        • snogglethorpe says:

          You’re wrong. I’ve experienced it (who hasn’t), and there’s everything miserable about it, and that has nothing to do with “hidden fees” or “ever moving goalposts.”

          It has to do with the feeling of stress and uncertainty whenever its necessary to book a ticket that costs less than $3000, and feeling that one must make travel plans farrrr in advance to avoid risk (but of course incurring additional risk with non-changeable tickets), just in case the price shoots up, never really knowing for sure when that might happen. It has to do with the feeling of helplessness when one is trying to book a ticket online and the price shifts by hundreds of dollars every five minutes, with flights being available one minute and sold out the next (and then available again the next!), fighting with all the other schlubs to grab that last seat.

          Flying is horrible for many reasons, and the clusterfuck that is ticket pricing is definitely one of them.

          Airlines apparently have a very thin profit margin and are constantly skirting with bankruptcy, so maybe they have an excuse for eeking out every cent even at the cost of passenger happiness. I don’t think rail has the same excuse in markets where its sanely run.

          That doesn’t mean all variable pricing is bad, but there are very definite tradeoffs, and it would be idiotic to just follow airline practice blindly, because the airlines have made a complete hash of it.

      • Anon256 says:

        I disagree that there is any particular problem with the way the airline set fares; it seems like a well-implemented system of price discrimination. The very risk-averse pay more, those who only travel when they see a cheap fare pay less. (Why should the latter subsidise the former?)

        • Andre Lot says:

          Exactly. Despite some pitfalls (typical case: a relative dies and prices are sky-high for a flight to the funeral at the airport counter), it is a model that works reasonably well. Sure, it creates anxiety, but it works well.

          • Anon256 says:

            Of course people attending a relative’s funeral are going to pay a lot; their demand is extremely inelastic.

  10. Nathanael says:

    Regarding the snarky reference to Scotland, the fact is that the Scottish Executive (the government of Scotland)…. is expanding train service and building new train lines.

    Oh yeah, and they run the Scottish train network as a single integrated government-run operation.

    • Andre Lot says:

      There is virtually no freight rail traffic in Scotland and most rural lines are branches with not much traffic at all.

    • Anon256 says:

      They also have much higher petrol taxes than the US, such that the net subsidy for road transport is very low (maybe even negative). And yet Megabus and similar services are still popular and profitable there.

    • Nathanael says:

      You’re both making my point for me. Even with “successful” buses, the government knows what people want: they want more trains.

      • Andre Lot says:

        Childish line. People “want” a lot things. I want a big house a prime country estate, and other glassy hose overlooking a cliff in the Ocean. I also want an helicopter to travel between both…

        People show what they want by buying/subscribing/patronizing. And there is the catch: things people want cost. And certain things can’t be provided at a direct cost that generated enough demand.

        • Nathanael says:

          You mean things like roads? Yeah, you mean things like roads.

          Right?

          No? You’re just being a moron?

          • Nathanael says:

            OK, sorry to be rude. I will assume that you DO mean things like roads, in which case, of course you’re right, roads CANNOT be provided at a direct cost which generates enough demand.

          • Anon256 says:

            Yes they can. Obviously in the US they are massively underpriced, but in Western Europe and Japan tolls and petrol taxes are generally high enough to cover the costs of roads. And buses are still the cheapest way to go (except in situations where the government forces them out of existence through regulation or by oversubsidising passenger rail).

            I certainly agree that most roads in the US (and some roads elsewhere) could never be provided at a direct cost which would generate enough demand. Building such roads was a terrible mistake. This is exactly why I think we should be careful not to make the same mistake again with a different mode.

          • Andre Lot says:

            Roads can be provided, if their use and/or users are properly charged. That is the case of most Western European countries. In some cases of heavily populated countries, like Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, road mobility is actually an enormous source of additional revenue (even after excluding things like taxes that are charged for all products) that is several times higher than all maintenance and capital amortization costs of roads.

            I have no problems with high fuel taxes/fees/charges to pay for a prime road network. I also have no problem with moving most parking to exclusive facilities under/overground (multi-stack). It is all fine by me.

          • Nathanael says:

            OK then!

            Local roads are *still* property-tax funded in the US. Got any ideas for changing that?

          • Anon256 says:

            Best I’ve got is, campaign (especially in the Democratic primaries next September) for candidates for NYC office who support congestion pricing or similar.

            While not addressing the specific problem you mention, another potentially politically-feasible way to decrease road funding is to push for congress to get rid of the highway trust fund and leave gas tax revenues and highway costs to the states. Because more urban states generally pay more in gas taxes than they get back, this would mean more funds in places where they are more likely to be spent on transit and less in places where the only transport is roads, but the Republicans could still support it as a tax cut. (This would also cut off the periodic infusions of federal borrowed money towards road-building.)

          • Adirondacker12800 says:

            The people in the Red States would still figure out ways to grift money from the Blue States. While they complain about how much money the Federal government spends.

    • Sascha Claus says:

      (the government of Scotland)…. is expanding train service and building new train lines.

      Not that this would be intercity lines; the only one that doesn’t feed into a city is a connection of two lines each feeding into one city (Glasgow – Airdrie – Bathgate – Edinburgh).

      Oh yeah, and they run the Scottish train network as a single integrated government-run operation.

      Government-run? It’s contracted out like all (at least almost all) other rail services in GB, but with government-run branding.

      • Nathanael says:

        Yeah, contracted out; they’re stuck with the franchise system. But in Scotland, they have a single franchise, the Scottish Executive controls the process, and the contractor basically does what the Scottish Executive tells ‘em to.

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