Will Buses Lose Out to New Rail Lines?

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Allen Fugate is all to familiar with the romanticism surrounding trains. Fugate, the Madison operations manager for Van Galder Bus/Coach USA, recalled how excited residents of Janesville were a few years ago about new a high-speed rail line to Chicago.

The press played up the “revival of the rails” story, tapping into the public’s fondness for things nostalgic, yet new. Transportation planners no doubt hoped that once this option became available and motorists had a choice, they would find it less stressful and more economical than the automobile, and bus users would appreciate having another transit option.

Commuters couldn’t wait to take that first ride, and bus services braced for a drop in ridership they hoped would be temporary. Their prayers were answered because as the initial excitement died down, commuters realized that romance or not, the train service wasn’t frequent enough, price competitive enough, or even fast enough to make it a slam-dunk over bus service.

“Initially, trains are very sexy and they sound really cool,” Fugate noted, “and the bus is kind of old-school, so there is a lot of excitement about rail.

“When the train schedule hit and they realized that while it’s kind of cool to ride a train into Chicago, it doesn’t go when they want to go. It doesn’t have the frequency they’d like to have.”

About one year after the initial wave of anticipation, the train service to Chicago was discontinued. That’s why Van Galder and other local and regional bus services don’t view the possibility of local commuter and high-speed rail service with dread; in fact, their experience when rail comes into their service areas, whether or not it’s successful, is usually positive because it tends to shine more light on transportation options, and that awareness helps the bus.

Rail will not impact every local bus service. Kobussen Buses provides school bus service locally, and charter group service to specific events statewide, so commuter rail or a line service between Milwaukee and Madison is not likely to make much of a dent. In this look at transportation, IB examines area bus services that might be impacted by rail, including Madison Metro (commuter rail) and Badger Coaches (high-speed rail).

Madison Metro/Badger Coaches

Mick Rusch of Madison Metro not only believes that rail helps the bus, but that it can complement the bus. Should Madison build a light-rail (commuter) system, Metro would expect its ridership to grow, and service would be reallocated to accommodate new travel patterns created by a rail system. If anything, Rusch said a light-rail system would help free up resources to meet new service requests, especially further out in the periphery of Metro’s service area.

“In the long run, we do think high both the high-speed and light- rail projects will be good for the Metro bus system,” Rusch stated. “It’s been widely found that a city with a rail system will get more bus ridership. You can attract more transit ridership overall in a city that has multiple transit modes.”

Madison Metro is very early in its rail-evaluation process, and has not made any specific decisions on adjusting service in response to the high-speed rail system from Milwaukee to Madison or any potential light rail service inside of Madison. That includes specific plans for any changes to existing routes or estimates on our ridership, customer demographics, or daily operations.

“It would be difficult to make any hard-and-fast plans until we have more precise locations of the train stations, and then an estimated time of the official start up of the service,” he said. “Once we have the locations and start-up date, then Metro staff will start planning the best way to mesh its service with that of the high-speed rail service.”

Since Madison Metro is a municipal service, any service adjustments would be presented in a public hearing format to the Madison Transit and Parking Commission, which is Metro’s oversight committee. It would then have to be approved by the Madison Board of Estimates and the Madison Common Council.

Perhaps no company will be impacted more by high-speed rail than Badger Coaches, which makes six trips a day in both directions from Milwaukee to Madison, plus additional Friday and weekend service for students heading back to Milwaukee.

Jim Meier, vice president and part owner, and David Meier, CFO, haven’t done extensive number crunching just yet, but as they wait for details to emerge about the proposed high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison, they have entertained some hunches about the impact of rail on their service.

Their first hunch is that the train is inevitable, despite opposition from groups in Milwaukee and talk by Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker that he would seek to have Congress redirect the $810

million set aside for its construction to other transportation projects.

In terms of rail’s operational impacts, they have spoken to industry contacts to assess the influence of new Amtrack service, but even that is of limited value. Said David Meier: “We’ve got some relationships with bus companies out east, but they’re in a different situation in that they have high population density, so in those types of areas, the train really does make sense. The train really does fulfill a good need out there.

“Of course, here in Madison, that would be the concern of a lot of people: Do we have the population density to really justify this type of expenditure?”

One assumption they don’t make is that given the potential differences in price points — the lowest round-trip price for a Badger Coach is $24, whereas a round-trip train ride could at least double that — will result in a difference in customer profile. David Meier noted that Badger Coaches serve professionals and students, and he believes the train would serve a similar mix of riders. He also believes that Badger’s 90 minutes or less travel time (add 15 minutes if you’re headed to General Mitchell International Airport) will be competitive time-wise with a train that makes four or five stops.

Ridership estimates are a different matter. “They are projecting three or four times the number of passengers that we currently carry,” Meier said. “Where all these additional passengers come from, we’re not quite seeing it just yet.”

Historical Impacts

Bus company executives that provide coach service from Madison agreed that rail can only help bus service because its gives automobile owners something to think about. Maureen Richmond, director of media relations for Greyhound Lines, said the Greyhound experience when high-speed rail is introduced in its service areas is that it does not necessarily change the demographics of ridership, or the different numbers of schedules or routes offered. “When it does raise awareness for potential passengers, we do have the opportunity to give a look at additional things [services/amenities] that could be added, but it’s not automatic,” she said.

Count Richmond among those who believe that if you provide it, they will consider riding. “I think you’ll see on the east coast versus where we are in the Midwest, there is a propensity to use a wider variety of transit options,” Richmond stated. “I’ve lived in the Midwest my whole life, first in Indiana and now Ohio. I joke with friends that live on east coast, who ask, ‘Why would you not take a train or bus?’ My answer is because I live in Midwest, but we’re starting to see that [east coast mentality] come across here, which is very exciting.”

Still, not every rail service is a hit, especially when it is not optimally designed. Due to the number of stops along most train routes, the time advantages of rail, whether its high-speed or average-speed, can be diminished. In the failed Janesville example, Fugate said Van Galder’s buses pulled into Chicago only 15 minutes after the train — even though the bus left Janesville and stopped in Beloit and Rockford en route. He said the marginal time advantage, combined with the greater frequency of the bus schedule, route flexibility, and comparable pricing, led people back to the bus.

Eric Stadler, charter sales manager for Lamers Bus Lines, also views rail as a complementary service. He predicted bus service would continue to prosper because of its adaptability in terms of the number and tailoring of routes, and the different types and sizes of buses that can be applied to different business and consumer traveling needs.

Stadler also believes there will be room for both modes of transportation because the public increasingly is taking the green movement, with its emphasis on reducing carbon emissions, more seriously. As a result, he sees an expanding pie for all forms of transit.

“Rail definitely heightens the awareness of transportation in general,” he said, “and with the green image being out there so strong nowadays, anything that takes additional vehicles off the road is a good thing.”

The major challenge posed by high-speed rail to bus service is the non-stop option, Richmond noted. That’s where the time advantage of rail becomes more acute, and where coach services between cities have to put themselves in the traveler’s shoes, weighing the importance of their time and the cost of their time, and the productivity of their time. Even though train service promises modern business amenities like wireless Internet, which makes travel time productive time for business travelers, buses either have or will beat them to the punch. Amenities like leather seats, electrical outlets, 3G wireless, and satellite television on many buses provide evidence that bus services are adding features that passengers require.

According to Fugate, the motor coach is viewed as a safer mode of transportation, as illustrated by the increasing use by students and by single women. For these and other reasons, Fugate said buses are no longer viewed as cramped cattle haulers.

“Buses are much more comfortable today,” he said. “If you’re going for a more professional type of commuter, the offerings you’d want to have would be two-in-one type seating with leather seats, Wi-Fi capability, and 110-volt outlets. Those are the kinds of things that we do in our buses that cross the country, so why not Madison?”

Within metropolitan areas, attempts to improve transit include a new type of service called Bus Rapid Transit. According to Rusch (Madison Metro), Bus Rapid Transit refers to a higher-speed vehicle transit service that usually is accommodated with improvements to the infrastructure of an existing transit system, its vehicles, and scheduling. He said BRT scenarios will likely be considered by the new regional transit board for service improvements in high-use transit corridors.

Municipal transit systems might be feeling the competitive heat from trendy urban services like Greyhound’s BoltBus, which is targeted to young professionals commuting for business or pleasure and using high levels of technology. That service, which offers Wi-Fi, plug ins, and extra leg room, is still limited to dense urban areas of the east coast, where it competes with public mass transit. However, it shows that buses can respond to consumer tastes. “You’re seeing a shift in the consumer as they have the opportunity to travel and be entertained,” Richmond said.

Oiling the Skids for Rail

With all the factors pointing to continued bus competitiveness, Rusch compared the introduction of rail service to the occasional oil price spike, which not only roils national economies, it forces people to think hard about alternatives. That was true in 2008, when gas hit $4 per gallon in the Midwest. “Two summers ago, due to the high price of gas, we experienced some of our highest ridership numbers ever,” Rusch noted. “When gas prices dropped, our high ridership continued on. We felt that the high gas prices enticed riders and work commuters to try public transportation service. Once they learned it and worked it into their routine, they saw the benefits of continuing to use it. I think rail will work the same way.”

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