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Planes, Trains ... and Buses? - WSJ

Boarding a Greyhound bus in Washington, D.C., on a recent evening, luggage in hand and collar undone, David Martinez grabs a seat and pops open his laptop. "This is definitely a step up," says the 26-year-old Harvard graduate, who was headed for New York after interviewing for a job with the U.S. State Department.

WSJ's Anne-Marie Chaker takes a trip to Baltimore on Greyhound and finds that -- with luxurious seats, power outlets and other amenities -- this is not the bus you remember from your childhood.

It's the new face of bus travel. After years as the ugly stepchild of intercity transportation -- thanks to its long-held reputation as unfriendly, uncomfortable and tawdry -- bus travel is bouncing back. Recession-battered travelers, looking to spend as little as possible, are increasingly open to taking the bus, despite the havoc that traffic can wreak on a schedule. But they insist on certain amenities they've grown accustomed to on planes and trains -- such as Internet access and cushier seats, not to mention cleanliness. In response, bus companies are upgrading, and hoping they'll retain some of their new customers even when the economy comes back.

In April, Greyhound Lines Inc., which is based in Dallas, launched 102 new "motorcoaches" in the Northeast featuring leather seats, additional legroom, Wi-Fi access and power outlets in every row. It took a page from BoltBus, an East Coast joint venture it launched with Peter Pan Bus Lines Inc., based in Springfield, Mass., last year. BoltBus boasts similar perks, giving its buses a more "luxurious feel," says Greyhound spokeswoman Kim Plaskett -- and fares that run as little as $1 each way if you book far enough in advance., a Chicago-based unit of British-owned Stagecoach Group PLC, offers similar features. The line was launched three years ago with seven city destinations -- where ridership has since tripled -- and now services 30 cities in the Northeast and Midwest. Peter Pan itself is in the process of installing Wi-Fi into 150 of its existing buses this year, while its new buses will come Wi-Fi-equipped, says spokesman Bob Schwarz. Amtrak trains, by contrast, offer passengers electrical outlets but no Internet service.
A Cleaner Feel

The new breed of buses also has a cleaner, more-luxurious feel -- whether it's cupholders at seats, spiffier bathrooms or tables that allow commuters to spread out and get some work done on the ride. "The amenities were created to attract those who might not have otherwise considered bus travel," says Greyhound's Ms. Plaskett.
The Bus Bounces Back

View Slideshow
Bryan Derballa for The Wall Street Journal

A double-decker Megabus idles before leaving New York.

When Rachel Snyder, 25, moved to New York from Washington, D.C., four years ago, she took Amtrak for weekend visits to her family the first year, but grew tired of paying more than $100 round-trip. Then she discovered the Chinatown buses -- which lowered her round-trip fare to $35 -- but stopped using them after several midtrip breakdowns. Then, about a year ago, she came across BoltBus.

"It's always clean, always on time," says Ms. Snyder, who works in artist relations at an entertainment company. She says she particularly likes being able to check email and the Web on her laptop if she's traveling on a workday. The most she has ever paid for a one-way ticket is $22. But she has also bought tickets for as little as a dollar, when ordered far enough in advance. "I don't do Amtrak anymore," she says.

The market for bus travel began to shift in the 1990s with the advent of ultra-low-cost buses operating out of New York's Chinatown to other cities in the Northeast with immigrant communities. The buses caught on with other travelers seeking an aura of cheap chic and started cutting into the established carriers' business.

On routes where Greyhound competes with the Chinatown buses, fares are much cheaper -- typically $40 for a round trip between New York and Washington, D.C., for those who book online. (Silver Spring, Md., to Newark, N.J., by contrast, costs $65 round-trip.) "Pricing is based on a number of factors, including customer demand and gas prices," says Ms. Plaskett. Still, she says, "curbside carriers" such as the Chinatown buses "certainly grew the market." That, in turn, spurred other innovations in the bus industry. Greyhound, for instance, introduced a frequent-rider program that rewards passengers with free trips, much like airlines do.

"For a long time, the bus was seen as a mode of last resort," says Joseph Schwieterman, a professor at DePaul University in Chicago who studies urban transportation. Buses had not evolved much in 50 years, he says. "Upper-income people dreaded the thought of stepping into a Greyhound station."

A recent study by Dr. Schwieterman showed that scheduled intercity bus departures in the last quarter of 2008 grew a record 10% from the same period a year before. "Wireless for people is a huge incentive, and it gives the image of a bus a huge boost," he says. The upshot: "We're starting to see briefcase-carrying travelers venture back to the bus."

Other forms of travel are slumping. For the first three months of 2009, the number of scheduled passengers on U.S. airlines declined by 10.3% from the same period in 2008, according to the U.S. Transportation Department's most recent data released this month, which also marked March as the 13th consecutive month with a decrease in passengers from the prior year. The number of passengers on Amtrak slid 7% for the same three-month period, compared with a year ago.
Loath to Drive

At the same time, people are more loath to get into their cars. The Federal Highway Administration says Americans drove 81 billion fewer miles in the year ended January 2009 than in the previous year.

"At first we thought, 'Are we going to be successful getting people out of their car and into the bus?' " says Dale Moser, Megabus's president. But a Megabus ridership study conducted last year revealed a ridership that was "more affluent" than expected, he says.

Particularly surprising was the "30-to-55-year-old affluent female who tells us they left their SUV at home to take this trip," Mr. Moser says. Ridership, he adds, has nearly tripled in the past 12 months. He believes concerns about fuel costs, combined with interest in traveling "green," have played a big role in the increased interest in bus travel.

Philadelphia-to-New York commuter Darnell Sulaiman, an analyst at a nonprofit group, compares the experience of riding the Megabus each day to a five-star hotel. "The seats are fluffy," he says, adding that his favorite driver plays opera music when people are boarding his bus and greets each passenger.

Mr. Sulaiman, 35, favors the double-decker bus, which features tables where passengers can spread out and work, as well as a top floor enclosed by panoramic windows. While he once paid $1,250 a month to commute on Amtrak, he now pays only about $200 a month for the bus. And even though it gets him to his destination about 15 to 20 minutes later than the train would, "it's worth it," he says.

Still, as nice as the buses are, they can't fight the traffic, and it's particularly bad on Friday nights. "Friday is your no-no day," admits Mr. Sulaiman, as the bus might add an extra hour commuting time to the usual two hours. On those days, Mr. Sulaiman still takes the train.