Survival and Prosperity Part 1: Magic Corridors

Yes, there are still some opportunities for the motorcoach industry to get back on its feet. This series of installments will provide some new ideas – beyond those discussed briefly in a few previous NATIONAL BUS TRADER articles (see Parts 1, 2 and 3 of Motorcoach Survival in the Age of COVID- 19 in the May, June and August 2021 issues:

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  • Competing with airlines in corridors not serviced by AMTRAK.

    Frankly, the opportunity outlined below was here all along: Competing with airlines in corridors not serviced by AMTRAK. It was just never optimized. Not that AMTRAK is exactly competitive either: At far higher prices, AMTRAK is rarely faster than motorcoaches. Confined to selected freight rail track alignments, it is too inflexible to compete with motorcoach services in terms of coverage and too costly to compete in terms of frequency.

    A trip from Chicago to St. Louis takes about six hours by AMTRAK. A trip from Chicago to Austin, Texas takes 28 hours. While AMTRAK has been spreading COVID-19 like our West Coast wildfires (see “COVID-19, Shenanigans and Liability, Part 2: Making Money by Compromising Health” in the January, 2021 issue of NATIONAL BUS TRADER), this is nothing compared to what the airline industry has been doing lately (see mode-split-dividing-line-part-1-exponential- airline-industry-corruption/).

    Now that AMTRAK has been granted a king’s ransom by the passage of the recent infrastructure bill – $68 billion, when only years ago the railroad received annual subsidies of about $1.5 billion – it may expand to further reduce opportunities for motorcoach services to compete with it. This is true even while I suspect much of this money will be used simply to upgrade freight rail tracks. This dynamic will help AMTRAK spread more COVID variants. At least for now, the opportunities for motorcoach growth lie in competing with commercial airlines in those corridors in which AMTRAK does not operate. This opportunity is vast. Beyond some justifiable alignments like the Northeast corridor, most AMTRAK routes simply connect a hodgepodge of major and minor cities. The balance of the nation’s cities lie unserved, on a large scale, by anything but commercial airlines.

    Politics and Policies
    While free enterprise can accomplish much without help, it can accomplish far more with it. Among the most important transportation concepts to emerge during the 1970s was the “500 Mile Rule.” This concept would have prohibited commercial flights between cities closer together than this distance. Of course, rather than refine the concept (e.g., perhaps 500 miles were too much), it was abandoned altogether. This abandonment left us with aberrations like flights between Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Diego and Seattle and Portland. It gets worse – Denver and Cheyenne, Albany and Rochester, Chicago and Milwaukee and on and on. Of course, some of these flights are connecting flights. Otherwise, the travel time is triple or quadruple that of motorcoach travel, or worse, as one factors in the time wasted getting to and from the airport compared to the nearest motorcoach stop. (Forget about making reservations, arriving 90 minutes early, going through security, flight delays and waiting in lines to purchase grossly-overpriced fast food in the concourse – just to name the most obvious aberrations.)

    With all these gross imbalances, such flights are allowable. We are free to take them – to the detriment of services that could provide them far more cost-effectively (in some cases exponentially so), far more quickly, far more efficiently, consume a tiny fraction of the energy per passenger, and produce a minimal amount of pollution by comparison. Freedom is not endless. We cannot litter. In most urban areas, we must walk our dogs with plastic bags and pick up their feces. (Urine jars are not yet required.) Yet, we condone extraordinary waste that dwarfs such efforts.

    The motorcoach industry will have to tackle this challenge without help.

    Freedom is not a right. Nor is it free. It is a policy decision. Such travel options reflect a clear, irrefutable policy failure. Unfortunately, in our political system, the clout of the airline and energy industries smother gnats like the motorcoach industry. In the bigger picture, these distortions of time and space – with their exorbitant waste and other dysfunctional consequences – also undermine our ability to develop a rational hierarchy of public transportation modes (what the transit industry calls a “seamless transportation system”). Without any coherent or responsible thinking at the policy-making levels, the motorcoach industry will have to tackle this challenge without help. Fortunately, we can.

    Magic Corridors
    All Americans are not stupid. Plus, we have this thing called marketing. Occasionally, we get press and media coverage – particularly when the subject matter reflects dramatically-skewed reality. One finds a long article a week about such things in The New Yorker, but readers of NATIONAL BUS TRADER will get one right here.

    The lack of AMTRAK service in most corridors means that motorcoaches need compete merely with airlines.

    Forgetting about the often obsessively subsidized AMTRAK corridors (subsidies per one-way passenger trip were as high as $422.39 according to a 2013 study of 20 lines), most somewhat-direct paths between pairs of major cities do not “enjoy” AMTRAK service – at least not yet. At least the airlines keep the passengers in their seat belts until the plane has come to a complete stop. (Passengers riding on the upper deck of AMTRAK cars are encouraged to descend the steps while the trains are braking as they approach the stations.) Regardless, the lack of AMTRAK service in most corridors means that motorcoaches need compete merely with airlines. In the Land of Reason, this competition is child’s play.

    Even forgetting about the stupid airline trips one can take cited above – between pairs of cities not served directly by AMTRAK – it is easy to identify a considerable number of trips between cities slightly further apart than those cited above for which travel by motorcoach makes infinitely more sense from any and every perspective. (The single exception might be that rare passenger residing, or staying in a hotel, on or near the airport grounds, and traveling to and from a visit or meeting in a similar facility at the other end of the trip.). As an illustration for folks who like round numbers, here are ten examples:
    1. Dallas to San Antonio (279 miles, 4hours of highway travel time)
    2. Nashville to Memphis (212 miles, 3 hours of highway travel time)
    3. Miami to Tampa (282 miles, four hours of highway travel time)
    4. Buffalo to Detroit (256 miles, 4  hours highway travel time)
    5. Atlanta to Savannah (248 miles, 3 hours highway travel time)
    6. Kansas City to Omaha (187 miles, 2 hours highway travel time)
    7. Detroit to Columbus (203 miles, 3 hours highway travel time)
    8. Albuquerque to El Paso (266 miles, four hours highway travel time)
    9. Richmond to Raleigh (170 miles, 2 hours highway travel time)
    10. Montgomery to Tallahassee (211 miles, 3  hours highway travel time)

    With minimal coordination, one rest stop at a nice restaurant would elongate the trip by perhaps 30 minutes. Keep in mind that one no longer gets any meals on even coast-to-coast flights any more. (There may be some exceptions for first-class passengers on some airlines.)

    Many corridors are begging for alternatives to airline travel.

    Otherwise, most of these trips lie in the same states. For those readers with a limited grasp of U.S. geography, these are major cities, between which 10 million people likely travel every year. Regarding the list below, planners have, for decades, been considering a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas costing $8 billion. Construction on Brightline West is expected to begin this year. We seem willing to squander bundles of money to accommodate them when subsidy-free solutions lie at our fingertips.

    To place these hypothetical-yet-likely trips in perspective, 10 million people would fill up 175,000 57-passenger motorcoaches. If even 10 percent of these trips were provided by motorcoach, this number would fill up 17,500 motorcoaches. If they traveled every day of the year, we would need about 50 motorcoaches a day. This number grossly underrepresents the mode split if the motorcoach industry made intelligible adjustments. Plus, this figure applies to only a single pair of cities. One studying a map of the U.S. alongside a map of AMTRAK routes would easily find 50 similar pairs of major cities (although many of them not as large as the ones cited above) not served directly by AMTRAK. With a similar mode split, this would translate into 2,500 motorcoach trips a day. Yet there are only 33,000 motorcoaches in the entire country – and many are deployed by transit agencies in commuter/express service. Many others provide charter and tour service from cities of all sizes to often out-of-the-way places with no intercity coach service whatsoever. I am talking about a mode split from the airlines of only 10 percent. If we were to increase this split, where would we get the vehicles? To some degree, the shortage of motorcoach services, or the public’s lack of awareness about them, likely accounts for some percentage of these foolish airline trips – particularly in corridors vastly underserved by motorcoach service.

    If we modified motorcoach vehicles intelligibly (see Part 2 of this series, coming in NATIONAL BUS TRADER, March, 2022), we would attract even more passengers. We could charge them considerably higher fares. The vehicle modifications mean that we would need even more of them. If we modified them intelligibly, even longer trips would make sense. Relying once again on round numbers, two lists of five pair of cities each make sense for this type of trip – defining both ends of the envelope (300 to 750 miles) for which air travel is senseless for many who use it. A sample of relatively short trips (for which airline travel makes little sense even without the sleeping component) might include:
    1. San Diego to Phoenix (355 miles, 5 hours of highway travel time)
    2. Des Moines to St. Louis (349 miles, 5 hours of highway travel time)
    3. Oklahoma City to Little Rock (339 miles, five hours of highway travel time)
    4. Los Angeles to Las Vegas (269 miles, 51⁄4 hours of highway travel time)
    5. St. Paul to Milwaukee (327 miles, five hours of highway travel time)

    A much, much longer set of trip pairings would be possible with passengers sleeping on board during a “night-and-owl” run. A small sample includes:
    1. San Francisco to Portland (635 miles, 11 hours of highway travel time)
    2. Santa Fe to Austin (703 miles, 11 hours of highway travel time)
    3. Pittsburgh to Atlanta (705 miles, 11 hours of highway travel time)
    4. Charlotte to Miami (739 miles, 11 hours of highway travel time)
    5. Denver to Las Vegas (749 miles, 11 hours of highway travel time)

    Truth and Consequences

    Would a traveler from Europe, South America, Asia or Africa wishing to visit two U.S. cities this far apart want to step on another flight as stupid as one connecting any pair of these destinations? Would such a traveler not want to look out the windows and catch a glimpse of the often breathtaking American countryside for at least part of the ride? Would he or she miss checking into yet another hotel or motel and everything that comes with it? Would he or she miss the reservation holocaust of broken Web sites and no telephone service? Would he or she cherish the inflexibility of pre-scheduling his or her entire tourist experience? Since a rational traveler with or without means likely would not, this notion has implications for international advertising.

    In Part 2 of this series, I will outline the salient features that a vehicle might contain to mode split large numbers of moderate and medium-distance airline trips to motorcoach travel. I will ballpark the radical differences between traveling via one mode versus another in terms of fares, as well as a long list of striking comfort and convenience factors, and other considerations. Of course, this discussion will compare totally unsubsidized trips using existing infrastructure (roads) with those requiring enormous infrastructure costs (airports and tarmacs). God forbid we should consider subsidizing something exponentially superior in this and countless other ways.

    As NATIONAL BUS TRADER readers familiar with my writing should expect, I will include a juicy set of comments about both the advantages of this mode split and the cost of our failure to effect it. The former will be breathtaking. The latter will be ugly.

    The opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of NATIONAL BUS TRADER, Inc. or its staff and management.

    Publications: National Bus Trader.