May 2, 2017

Trying to get home

Not too long ago I was in the position of trying to figure out how to get my elderly parents from the Four Corners area of New Mexico to Oregon.
Other recent issues have come up that brought this back to mind, and I decided to do some comparison shopping.

The scenario I posed: Someone is sick or dying and you have to get home, tomorrow. You can't drive and must take public transit to get there. What does it cost and how long does it take?

First, I used major metropolitan cities because the sad fact is that if you live in a lot of the US, especially the western half you are just shit outta luck. There are no trains or buses, and there may or may not be a regional airport that can get you to a major airport to fly from. Generally for a significant cash outlay - because they are the only game in town. So if you happen to live where my parents did, you either find someone to drive you or pay for a 4 hour taxi ride to Albuquerque. There IS a private shuttle service that runs once a week to the airport, sometimes. And this is representative, not exceptional.

Next: My criteria was round trip tickets leaving May 3 and returning one week later on May 10. The exception here wound up being Amtrak, which has a mudslide on the tracks on the Seattle to LA run. So for Amtrak I moved the dates to June 7-14 for both routes to give a fair comparison.
Travel times listed are one-way but prices are for round trip.

The purpose here is to provide some concrete numbers to demonstrate the cost of travel for those with the fewest number of options.
Note here also that the bus option is Greyhound because they have a monopoly on national bus services in the US. The train service is Amtrak because they are the for-profit but tax supported monopoly holder on passenger train travel in the US.

Prices listed are all the lowest prices available and are generally restricted as far as baggage limits, non-refundable and cannot be changed. Accommodations are the cheapest the service offers - a seat.

First route: Seattle to Los Angeles

Greyhound         $164.00      avg 28 hours one-way

Amtrak               $121.00      35.5 hours one-way

Airline*              $143.04      2.5 - ? hours one-way

*This is a Travelocity 'secret fare' so no info on airline or transit time until ticket is booked, but in this scenario it would be the cheapest choice.

Second route: Dallas to Albuquerque

Greyhound         $118           13.5 -17.5 hours one-way

Amtrak              $132*          35 hours

Southwest         $670             2.5 hours

*This fare does not include the "self-transfer" required in El Paso - i.e. taxi fare or city bus from one station to another.

As for availability for everywhere else, here are some maps of the two monopolies - Amtrak and Greyhound. Yes, I am aware that Greyhound has competition in some very limited markets, mostly on the Eastern half of the US. But for the vast majority of places it is the ONLY bus service, if available at all.

Albuquerque Greyhound Depot

 Searching for photos of Los Angeles, Dallas and Seattle Greyhound stations points out another big problem with bus travel - the terminals tend to be in seedy, rundown and frankly frightening neighborhoods. In addition to the pure discomfort and inconvenience of hours upon hours in a bus, to arrive in a frightening, dark neighborhood where nothing is opened in a huge city in the middle of the night is going to be a huge issue for vulnerable people. Bus travel has always been marketed as cheap travel for poor folks or for minorities who were at risk traveling by car in much of the south. 

Greyhound route map of the US and Canada

Coast Starlight - hard to fault the view!
Southwest Limited in Albuquerque
Amtrak's advertising in the west has tended to center on a theme of "you could drive, but why?" Marketing to families, seniors, vacationers, etc. Their market has generally not been competing with bus travel, but with car travel. The selling points are the convenience of not having to drive and being able to take in the sights, as well as amenities accessible right there on the train without having to stop.

Amtrak route map of the US *

*Note here that the routes marked in green are connected by bus. So imagine trying to get to Salt Lake City from San Diego or Portland...

Something for comparison - and this map is on their website, not hidden in a pdf!

RailEurope Map

Air travel is the most popular way of getting from one place to the other in the US. Because again, US is BIG - and anything else takes a lot of time. And currently most airline travel in the US is comparable in comfort and amenities to a bus, rather than a train. The incentive is that you spend many fewer hours on the plane. Usually...

And again - the biggest issue here is that despite the fact that we have essentially nationalized rail travel, and have allowed a monopoly on bus travel, huge areas of the US are completely unserved by either. People who cannot drive are literally stranded where they are with no options.

I also find it fascinating how much art created in the past to show what life will be like in the far future of post 2000, how much prominently features some form of mass transit. *sigh*

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