Why does going to Amherst require a transfer?

This past weekend, I was trying to get from Hartford to Amherst. This should be a reasonably easy trip. Peter Pan Bus runs about a dozen trips daily between Hartford and Springfield and eight between Springfield and Amherst. I went looking for tickets, figuring that at least some of those trips would be through-runs. All required a transfer in Springfield. Which is odd, because to get from Boston to Amherst—except for Fridays and Sundays during the academic year—also requires a transfer.

It got me to thinking: can you get to Amherst by bus from anywhere further than Springfield without a transfer at the decrepit-if-soon-to-be-replaced Springfield bus station? It took some reverse engineering of the bus schedules (update: somewhat available in PDF here), but I am pretty sure the answer is a resounding “no.”

This is a problem. It is an issue both in the time it takes to get from Boston to Amherst with a transfer—generally more than three hours for a drive which would be a direct trip of 1:45—and the psychological effect that people do not like to have to transfer (especially if they have to sit in a post-apocalyptic bus station that hasn’t seen a broom since the mid-’70s). There is research about transfer penalties in transit, and it is likely that this carries over to intercity bus travel as well.

Amherst to Boston should be a strong bus market, even at times when undergraduate students aren’t decamping for home on the weekend. Amherst to New York City should also be a well-traveled route. In theory, one bus could start in Amherst and run to Springfield an on to Boston in 2:00, with a transfer available to Hartford and New York. In practice, there is minimal schedule coordination, and every passenger is required to get off of one bus, wait in the bus terminal, and get on to another. By imposing a penalty which doubles the travel time (to Boston) and requires a transfer at a substandard bus station, it discourages students to use the bus system, and indirectly encourages them to use a private automobile, despite $4 gas and tolls.

I ran some times for these routes on a weekday (I chose May 7). The average transfer time for a Boston-to-Amherst trip is 27 minutes. The average transfer for a New York/Hartford-to-Amherst trip is 40 minutes. Departing Amherst the transfer times are a bit better: 20 minutes to Boston and 28 to Hartford/New York. But it still incurs a significant time penalty, and a significant issue of not having through service.

There is a model for this sort of service: Concord Coach’s service from Boston and Logan airport to Portland Maine and beyond. Several times a day, two buses leave Boston and Logan and run to Portland. Since the market beyond Portland is smaller, only one bus is needed to go beyond Portland to Augusta and Bangor. The bus which originates in Boston runs through, and passengers coming from Logan and who wish to go beyond Boston get off one bus and on to the other. The transfers are timed for minimal delays, and the buses will wait for each other if one is running late.

Peter Pan’s service could mirror this from Amherst. Buses would leave Boston and run to Springfield, a major market. At the same time, buses from New York to Springfield would be coordinated to arrive a few minutes before the Boston bus. Those passengers would still transfer if they wanted to travel beyond Springfield—and a few minutes of schedule padding could be built in due to traffic conditions south of Hartford (with more frequent service to come on the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield rail corridor, train services could be synched with bus service as well). Boston passengers to Amherst would stay on the bus, and instead of a 10 to 30 minute transfer, it would necessitate a five minute stop.

This would mean that passengers from Boston to Amherst would see significantly shorter trips and would no longer have to move from one bus to another. If Peter Pan claims that there is not enough demand for the market, perhaps it is because their service is substandard on the route. For anyone who has taken a bus to Amherst it’s a joke that you have to change in Springfield. In reality, it is a detriment to service.

A major stakeholder in this should be the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. They operate, in Amherst, a major research and educational institution, which should have strong ties to Boston. There’s no direct highway access to UMass; driving between the two requires an indirect trip via Springfield and Northampton, or a narrow road from Palmer. The state also, through it’s BusPlus+ program, subsidizes Peter Pan routes, buying buses for the operator in exchange for Peter Pan’s operation of commuter routes. MassDOT should, as part of this relationship, encourage Peter Pan to run direct service between Amherst and the three largest cities in the state: Boston, Worcester and Springfield. Not doing so is a disservice not only to the traveling public, but also to the state’s major public university. It’s nonsensical that you can’t get on a bus in Amherst and get to Boston. That could—and should—change.

The Portland-Boston options

If you’re going from Portland, Maine to Boston, you have several choices. You could drive … if you like to be aggravated, spend a lot, have it take no less time and lose two (or more) hours of productivity. Or, you could take the bus or the train. This page has, previously, talked about buses and trains further south along the Northeast Corridor, but the conditions are different further north.

From Boston to DC, Amtrak is a luxury product competing with air travel, boasting faster travel times and more amenities. Buses are cheap (cheaper than Boston-Portland for twice the distance) but offer cramped seats, sometimes shady equipment and the opportunity to sit in traffic for six hours if you happen to hit rush hour (likely). From Boston to Portland, travel times are faster for the bus, costs are similar, and there is a sort-of symbiotic competition between the modes; the train actually provides mostly for trips which don’t traverse the whole of the route, the bus serves air travelers, and both serve as alternatives to driving (there are no Portland-to-Boston flights).

Here’s a quick comparison between the bus* and the train in several metrics.

(* We’ll discount the couple of Greyhound buses along this route, which take longer, have no Wifi, and an overall inferior product.)

First, why is driving a poor choice? The costs, mainly (even if you have free parking at your destination).

Car Bus Train
Fare $16-27 $20-25
Tolls 6.50
Gas $14
Other maintenance $11
Total $31.50 $16-27 $20-25


  • Bus fares: $22 one way. $27 to Logan Airport. $32 same-day round trip and discounts for college students. Train fares depend on time of day, either $20 or $25 (a few very-off-peak trips are $15, college students can buy six trips for $76).
  • Tolls $3 in Maine, $2 in NH, $3 one way in MA (using Tobin Bridge).
  • Gas: 110 miles at 27.5mpg and $3.50 per gallon. Other maintenance: 10¢ per mile.
  • Add another $35 to get the IRS-computed cost of driving (55¢ per mile)
  1. Travel time — The bus is scheduled at 1:55, the train at 2:25. This seems like an easy win, right? Not entirely. Outside of rush hours or weekend getaway and drive-back times, the bus will probably arrive at its terminal faster than the train. During rush hour? The bus could spend an hour getting in to our out of Boston. Also, it partially depends on where you are going. If you are going to the Financial district or somewhere along the Red Line, the bus will get you nearer to the Red Line, although it’s a bit of a walk. For the Green Line or Orange Line, it’s more of a wash, and near North Station (say, for a basketball or hockey game) you’d be better off taking the train. If there’s bad traffic, the bus will spend quite a bit of time getting from one side of downtown to the other. So, verdict: Bus, but not always.
  2. Frequency — Here, the bus winds, rather handily. It runs every hour for most of the day. The train runs five trips daily, although there are more frequent trips during rush hours, quite useful for outbound commuting during rush hour when getting from South Station to Route 1 is particularly bad. Verdict: Bus, except perhaps at the peak of outbound rush hour.
  3. Guarantee of a seat — If you go to buy a ticket for the train and it says it’s sold out, it’s sold out, no ticket. (You could board and play dumb and buy a ticket on-board by phone, but you might wind up standing. I’m not sure if Amtrak overbooks, but if you have a ticket they will let you on. When trains are sold out they sometimes check tickets on the platform.) On the bus, you buy a ticket, and it’s good, well, forever, but there are no reservations: everyone lines up for the bus, and if there are more riders than there are seats, well, you wait for the next bus. At heavy travel times, this means that you have to show up half an hour before departure, negating any real travel time savings. Amtrak suggests you show up half an hour early, but I haven’t been the only one sprinting down the platform to make a train. Concord Coach would have to amend its ticketing policy to allow for seating reservations (i.e. sell tickets for specific times) to guarantee seats. Which would be nice. Verdict: Train.
  4. Comfort — Here, the train takes the cake, as it can exploit economies of scale in a way that the bus can not. A bus is, basically, an airplane with a top speed of 75 mph, legroom-wise (the windows are bigger). The train has seating pitch equivalent to airlines’ domestic first class and wider seats. And you can get up and walk around on the train. Verdict: Train.
  5. Luggage — The train and bus both have advantages here. On the train, you can carry on however much luggage you’d like and store it above you on the (large) overhead luggage racks. On the bus you can put luggage in the under-bus bins. You can take skis, for example, on either. Verdict: Both
  6. Bicycles — Both modes allow bicycles, with caveats. For the bus, the caveat is that the bicycle is only taken if there is sufficient room, which may not be the case at busy times (especially weekends when many passengers have luggage). On the train, bicycles are taken at all times, but there is a $5 charge, although you could probably get on without a bike ticket and no one would be the wiser. The bike on the train doesn’t go underneath with the potential to get rattled around, an issue if you have an expensive ride. Verdict: Both
  7. Arrival times — While Amtrak suggests you arrive half an hour before your train, your ticket reserves a seat. On the bus, that is not the case. (see above) If the bus is full when you show, you may be waiting for the next one. (They don’t specify this on the website, but suggest arriving especially early during the holidays.) Both experience delays, although not very frequently. Verdict: Both
  8. Airport service — Concord Trailways serves the airport directly, although they charge an extra $5 for the service, it is generally direct to and from Portland. Amtrak requires two transfers to the terminal, but for a $20 ticket it’s less than the bus, even with T fare. Verdict: Bus
  9. Food — On the bus, you get pretzels and a bottle of water. On the train, you can go to the cafe and buy a beer. It’s not free, but if you have your own water bottle Poland Springs is not that exciting. Verdict: Train
  10. Wifi/power/entertainment — This depends on how much you like PG-rated movies. If you do, the bus provides them for free. If you don’t, the train provides slightly better wifi. Both bus and train have power ports. The peak wifi connection speed on the bus is 45 KB/sec. On the train the use several providers and it’s over 100 KB/sec. Neither is fast, but one will load Gmail a bit faster. (Also, you can use your iPhone for ticketing on the train.) However, the train traverses some cell-signal-free areas in New Hampshire and Maine, the signal along I-95 is better. Oh, and if you make a phone call on the bus, you get yelled at; on the train you can go to the cafe or a vestibule and talk away. Verdict: Both
  11. Restrooms — If you have the choice, use the facilities at either terminal. If you require the restroom during the trip, the one on the train is slightly better. Verdict: Train
  12. From a transportation planning perspective — This is a bit of a harder question. Ostensibly, the bus breaks even but, of course, it is subsidized, significantly, by government-built and funded roads (or roads funded by the tolls of other travelers). The train has significant government investment in infrastructure, and a direct subsidy to cover operating costs (they’d have to double costs to break even). Both are energy efficient. Both are quite advantageous over automobiles. Taking the train may take a bit longer, but it’s a more comfortable ride, and, perhaps, non-drivers shouldn’t be forced in to uncomfortable conditions. The bus is at its top speed, but with more patronage and investment, perhaps, a train could make a non-stop trip in 1:30, which would easily negate the bus’s advantages. But, for now, we’ll go with a verdict of Both
So, which wins? Well, the train wins, 4-3-4. But really, the traveling public wins, with 25 daily departures along the route. Take whichever is more convenient, especially since travel time is probably the main factor for most trips and the bus (usually) wins out there. If you’re interested in comfort more than travel time, the train is where it’s at. For speed (and a movie) the bus is hard to beat, especially outside of rush hour. If you’re in Portland and a bus leaves in 10 minutes with a train in two hours, by all means get on the bus. Plan your day around the schedules, but it’s perfectly easy to treat the corridor like a transit system (albeit one with poor headways, although they are better than most MBTA commuter rail lines). Take whichever you’d like.

I will also point out that the Concord Coach provides one of the best intercity bus experiences I’ve had. Unlike many Boston-to-New York routes (and I’m including Bolt and Megabus, which will make random, 15 minute stops at gas stations in Connecticut for “snack” where is sure seems like there’s some payola from the gas station operator for bringing in 50 captive customers) the service is very professionally run. The buses leave from terminals, not streeetcorners, the staff answers questions, and it does not seem like a two-bit operation. Considering that 20 years ago the only bus service to Portland was provided by Greyhound, Concord Coach has proven that the market can be captured and expanded (in 1997 they only ran 9 round trips daily) with service and quality.

“ten of the drivers”

A quick follow-up to my recent post about buses in the northeast:

The driver of the bus has been suspended due to discrepancies in his license. Not that surprising.

More surprising is that, according to the Times, the New York State Police pulled over 36 buses at checkpoints (probably at those “all trucks and buses stop” weigh stations that you never see open). Of those buses’ drivers “Ten … had violations so serious that they were made to stop driving immediately; backup drivers were called.” Emphasis mine, as this was the last line of the article (burying the lede?).

Imagine if 28% of airline pilots had enough discrepancies on their airline pilot certifications that they weren’t allowed to fly? Or if more than a quarter of Amtrak engineers were unqualified? Or imagine the uproar if the MTA or MBTA or some other transit agency was found to have 28% of their drivers unfit to operate its vehicles?

Until there is any half-decent screening policy in place for bus drivers, I will think more than twice before taking the bus.

Are buses the wrong technology for the Northeast Corridor?

In the past few years, most every budget-conscious (read: cheap) traveler in the northeast corridor has jumped on the bus. Fifteen years ago, Peter Pan owned the Boston-to-New York corridor, and with an almost-monopoly charged fares which were not much less than Amtrak. Since then, the industry has changed very significantly:

  1. The trains have gotten faster, better, and more expensive. 15 years ago, train travel still required an engine change in New Haven and barely cleared 100 mph north of there. Travel times were four and a half hours. Despite Acela’s lack of actual high speed, travel times have been shaved by an hour (or, for the cheaper alternatives, half an hour). And the train has gone from competing to the bus to competing with the airlines, so fares have risen (as has ridership) significantly.
  2. Bus options have multiplied and fares have dropped. It was only in the late-1990s that the Chinatown Bus fad began. While Peter Pan would charge (and I’m going on memory here) $25 to $40 each way from Boston to New York, Fung Wah and its many competitors had fares of $10—often payable in cash to the driver. They had no overhead (bus stations), very low personnel costs and, with full buses running constantly, at high rates of speed, a profitable, if uncomfortable and traffic-prone service. But, $10! Almost instantly, fares were cut by 50-80%, and the bigger players, once they caught on, came up with copycat services for lower prices. Now there are as many as half a dozen buses running between Boston and New York each hour, most of them express service. It’s the free market at work.
  3. Technology has made non-air service much more productive. Fifteen years ago, if you had a laptop, it was big, clunkly and slow. Sure, you could write up a report on it, but only with the information you had on hand. Otherwise, if you got on the train, you were in the dark for four hours. Same with cell phones: keeping a connection through the wilds of Connecticut and Rhode Island was an iffy proposition at best. Oh, and if your NiMH battery ran low, well, hopefully you’d packed a magazine. Airplanes had the same downfalls, but you were only in the air for 45 minutes. Now? Cell service is uninterrupted. Most buses and trains offer free wifi (it has a way to go, but you can generally send email at least). Laptops are light and powerful, most have long battery lives, and many buses and Amtrak offer 110V power outlets. Productivity is attainable, at least on the train where you’re not packed in like sardines.
To boil it down, however, the allure of buses is their cheapness. The legroom of an airplane (if that) and the speed of a car (if that). If the bus and the train were priced similarly, would anyone take the bus?

But as cheap as buses are, they have several minor deficiencies which, when compounded, make for a transportation mode which lacks many safety features of air and train travel. It’s not just a question of oversight of small, fly-by-night (or, um, drive-by-night) companies. It’s an issue of buses using over-capacity infrastructure clogged with other large vehicles traveling at high speeds.

Buses are, in a sense, quite scalable, which is one of their selling points but also a cause of many problems. If you run out of room on one bus, you just add another bus (although buses have to run at or near capacity to attain the efficiency which makes them so cheap). One more driver, one more set of wheels—the only issue is that peak travel times tend to have more traffic, so companies often have to charter tour buses (known as wet leasing) at these times (which may not have the same amenities). However, this further segments the industry, and means that while airplane pilots and railroad engineers have stringent training and safety guidelines, bus drivers from tour operators may be driving routes for the first time (I heard a story recently of a bus which took the Merritt and somehow didn’t hit any bridges before it was pulled over by the state troopers).

The bus companies afraid to ever have prices above a set maximum (since their product is based solely on low prices), so they vary pricing on the low end of the scale (Buy in advance for $1 tickets!). No company has started charging $40 or $50 for travel on Thanksgiving weekend even though the extra $20 would be pure profit. The fear is that higher prices, even when demand may call for it, might drive their customers to other lines or other modes. But it means that during times of high demand, wet leasing is almost a given.

The issue with scalability then becomes the terminal facilities, which are more scalable than airlines and railroads simply because there is an alternative: load the buses curbside on the street. (At least in New York; Boston effectively banned this a few years back by threatening to write tickets to Chinatown buses which would block streets for twenty minutes at a time loading and unloading passengers.) This makes it much easier for the overall bus network to add capacity, but it impedes street flow in several locations in Manhattan.

Buses also seem prone to rather catastrophic failure, as is the case with most mass transit. However, while train derailments and airline mishaps—despite the over-capacity infrastructure—are rare, bus issues are commonplace. Several years ago, after watching Chinatown buses roll along well above the speed limit and seemingly take corners on two wheels, my mother offered to pay the difference between them and a more traditional bus line (whose drivers’ main concern didn’t seem to be their next cigarette break). It’s not to say that bus travel isn’t quite safe: it is. Buses on city streets never get going too fast and drivers have rest at the end of their routes, and buses on rural highways don’t have much other traffic to contend with. Which leaves buses on heavily-traveled highways, with drivers behind the wheel for four hours straight, or, with traffic or weather, much more.

In a most of the country, this is not as much of an issue as in the northeast. But in the northeast, there is very little highway which resembles rural interstate. Every conceivable route between Boston and New York is three lanes wide (save 95 or 395, which is narrower in portions but significantly longer than other routes). Exit ramps are often short and abrupt, speed limits change continually, and gridlock is frequent. Complicating the matter, south of Hartford, there are several automobile-only parkways, concentrating commercial traffic on I-84, I-684 and I-95. (And thank goodness that buses aren’t trying to buses aren’t vying for space on the raceway known as the Merritt.) (Update: This doesn’t necessarily keep buses off of low-bridge roadways; a driver in Syracuse got lost and took a cars-only parkway, resulting in four deaths in 2012.)

Finally, buses are solely dependent on the vigilance of their drivers, who often drive long shifts under less-than-ideal conditions in traffic and weather. Airlines are heavily regulated and operate under the auspices of the air traffic control system as well as their own companies’ dispatchers. Oh, and they have “operator redundancy” in the form of a copilot (if one pilot nods off there’s another to fly the plane). While railroads can implement systems such as positive train control, speed limiting and, in the long run, exclusive right-of-way to separate their operations from other traffic, buses assuredly can not. There’s no backup safety system: one minor slip-up by the driver can result in a major incident. There’s also little oversight: bus drivers are not tracked by speed (some claim to speed limit their buses, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen buses over 80 on the Mass Pike), leaving that up to state highway authorities, who may not be particularly vigilant in ticketing speeding or otherwise unsafe drivers.

These are all relatively minor issues, but they compound. Let’s run them down:
  1. Bus scalability results in frequent wet leases, and drivers who are unfamiliar with roads, routes and traffic patterns
  2. Buses frequently speed, increasing the likelihood of an accident
  3. Buses, due to their profile, are prone to rolling and flipping
  4. Drivers are often poorly paid and work long shifts in excruciating traffic, leading to fatigue
  5. Roads between Boston and New York are confusing and often have short merges and sharp turns, and congestion, in addition to delaying buses and fatiguing drivers, creates more dangerous traffic conditions
  6. Many roads are car-only, so buses are squeezed on to roads with heavy truck traffic.
It is this last point, truck traffic, which was responsible for the recent bus catastrophe in New York. No one knows if the bus was actually clipped by a tractor trailer or was attempting to avoid it, but it is clear that an incursion by a truck’s trailer played a part in the accident (as did driver fatigue and the geometry of the roadway). And another driver cites trucks as a major problem:

“Tractor-trailers are our biggest problem,” Mr. Ha said. “When the rear of the truck slides toward you, you have to stay calm because if you steer too hard to avoid it, you might flip.”

Drivers know that trucks are a problem. And accidents—truck-related or not—are frequent. While there haven’t been any accidents of this magnitude yet, the bus service in the northeast has been a powder keg with a lit fuse, and the frequent breakdowns, fires and rollovers have had remarkably few deaths. Until now. It will be interesting to see if this accident, which seems more related to the structural operation of buses over busy highways with fatigued drivers rather than glaring driver error, changes the demand curves for transportation in the NEC.

In any case, it’s time to look at our regional transportation structure and decide whether the low end of our transportation structure should be road based or should be modernized for safety, speed and reliability. Amtrak’s antiquated Northeast Corridor is maxed out, New York’s airports are as well, and the roads are congested and not particularly safe. Perhaps Amtrak’s $100b+ proposal for the Northeast Corridor, with the potential to have capacity to move most traffic off the road, is a safety issue.