Buses, rail, and airlines compete for short-distance intercity travel

By Robbie Webber

For trips between 100 and 500 miles, express buses, trains, and airlines are all vying for customers and contemplating the future of these shorter trips. At the same time, drivers are seeking relief from crowded highways and high gas prices. Add in the desire of travelers to be in constant internet and cell phone contact with the world, and intercity travel begins to seem a very competitive market.

In the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s success is well known. But Amtrak is breaking ridership records around the country, including in Virginia, North Carolina, California, and the Midwest. In the Midwest, Amtrak is upgrading service on existing routes with faster speeds to lure travelers away from airlines. In addition, improved wi-fi connectivity on trains and no need to arrive early for security checks can appeal to busy business travelers who hate being out of touch or wasting time sitting in departure lounges. (Private rail companies are also considering jumping in to the intercity battle in Texas and Florida.)

But Amtrak is not just competing with airlines. The company is also finding it must compete with bus lines, especially “curbside buses” such as Megabus and Bolt Bus, which pick up on the street and run express routes between urban areas. According to a DePaul University study, bus travel was the only intercity mode that increased nationwide in 2011, showing growth in both service hours and up to a 30 percent increase in ridership. Many of the passengers surveyed for recent research reported that they would not have made the trip if the bus had not been available.  Some do not have cars, and especially in the Midwest, curbside buses often operate in cities not served by Amtrak.

Although the majority of curbside bus riders are 18-35 years old, passengers over 35 are making up a larger share than in past years, and women now outnumber men. And as with rail, passengers report that continuous communication connectivity, on-board power outlets, comfortable seats, and lack of airport security requirements often make up for slower travel times compared to air travel or even rail. 91 percent of passengers report using an electronic device en route. Finally, despite rising prices in recent years, bus travel is generally cheaper than other alternatives.

While air travel will continue to be the dominant mode for longer trips, and driving continues to offer maximum flexibility, rail and bus service upgrades in comfort and accommodations for electronic connectivity are attracting a larger number of travelers each year.

Robbie Webber is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.