Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Why intercity buses aren’t the answer

As readers of this blog surely know, the recent surge in gas prices has helped Amtrak achieve record ridership levels. Congress has finally given the company a legislative boost. Things are generally looking up for passenger rail, right?

But Amtrak isn’t the only one benefitting from high fuel costs. New bus companies such as Megabus have grown even more rapidly, and are particularly popular with the coveted “young and hip” crowd. A casual observer (or the Heritage Foundation) might wonder why America would bother with rail transit at all. The Interstate system already reaches far more destinations than Amtrak, why can’t a more energy efficient future involve buses instead of trains?

The first mistake is to assume that rail’s only advantage is energy efficiency and emissions. It’s true, trains are certainly more environmentally friendly than cars or planes, but that can’t be all we focus on. Radio is more efficient than television, does that make it better? When compared to bus travel, the superiority of rail springs from its image, luxury, and speed.

The most obvious problem with buses is that they have a serious image problem. And perhaps deservedly so. Usually not very clean to begin with, many Greyhound terminals are in dilapidated areas of towns. In my hometown of Knoxville, the Greyhound station is the absolute epicenter of crime and violence in the city. As rail transportation developed in America long before the advent of buses and automobile sprawl, train stations were built in the core downtown area of towns, and many have remained there since. The image of these old stations, with their grand architecture, will always trump the dank Greyhound terminal in the mind of the public.

Although most probably haven’t taken an actual rail trip, Americans are raised on the mystique of trains. Have you ever seen a kid playing with a model Greyhound fleet? Would the Polar Express really be so charming as the Polar Megabus? This blog is about the future of trains, not their past, but it’s hard to deny that this historical legacy makes them more appealing to the public.

But trains aren’t just superior in the mind’s eye. A passenger train car and an intercity bus vehicle are two very different places. Buses, like planes, pack people in like sardines. Once you’re in your seat, moving around the cabin is an exercise in balance and politeness, and you don’t have anywhere to go except the bathroom anyway. Trains, on the other hand, generally provide much more space per passenger, and offer an environment where people can not only comfortably walk around, but can also have destinations to walk to, such as a dining car.

However, the real advantage of rail comes down to one thing: speed. Buses are slow. Unless you’re a [very] long-distance cyclist or a hitchhiker, buses are the slowest way to get from city to city. Not that some Amtrak routes aren’t far behind, but the issue is that we can make trains go faster. Buses have long reached their limit. High-speed rail is proven method of travel. High-speed bus is an oxymoron.

If we want to get travellers off of planes, we need to give them an experience and a speed that’s comprable to air travel. If we want to get drivers off of roads, we’ll need to tempt them with an MPH that would make any highway patrol officer cringe. Buses can’t do any of this. They’ll never be able to compete with air travel, never be able to give drivers a faster option, never become a real solution to our transportation issues.

NOTE: I’m also a firm believer in light/heavy rail over “Bus Rapid Transit” on the local level. But this isn’t a mass transit blog, so I’ll simply provide a link to a very excellent piece on the issue from the Seattle Transit Blog.

Filed under: Amtrak, United States High Speed Rail, , , , ,

6 Responses

  1. brian says:

    your argument that bus stations are usually in worse parts of towns than rail stations doesn’t really hold that well. In most of the cities I’ve been to, Amtrak and Greyhound stations are both downtown, often within 1 mile of each other.

    I agree that rail is a better option than buses though.

  2. logannash says:

    You’re right, whether that’s actually true or not varies from place to place. Not all Greyhound stations are run down or in a bad area of town, and not all Amtrak stations are Old Penn Station facsimiles. The image of these places are often what’s important to the public, not necessarily the reality.

  3. Kiran says:

    Station locations is a bad argument. Lots of HSR stations (in a national system) are going to end up being in bad parts of town where the land in cheaper; or out in the boonies.

    The real advantage is time. A bus isn’t going to go faster than 75 miles an hour. Its probably going to go closer to 55 in intercity travel.

    Steel-on-steel’s advantages over rubber-on-asphalt in efficiency, sound, etc. is a much better advantage to argue with.

  4. SusanaSanJuan says:

    Something that I think should have been mentioned is capacity. The Spanish AVE line between Madrid and Seville carries 5 million people every year. It would take thousands of buses just between those two cities to carry those people. The AVE only requires two railway tracks. The sheer amount of people that intercity rail can take off of both roads and planes is staggering.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Trains are not necessarily faster than buses. For one thing, intercity bus routes tend to be non-stop from origin to destination. Regular Amtrak trains (the ‘cheaper’ ones) stop at every station in between, however few people get on or off there.

  6. Anonymous says:

    And you haven’t mentioned cost at all, which is what most sane people use in deciding which mode of transportation to take. A NY-Boston trip by car costs about $15 in gasoline money. The same trip by Amtrak costs $100-$150 if you book just before the trip, $50-$100 if you book way ahead of time. An intercity bus costs you $15-$20, closer to the cost of driving. Yes, Amtrak is a much more comfortable and enjoyable means of travel than a crowded bus or a personal car, but not everyone can afford to travel in luxury, especially in these times.

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