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.