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Megabus Expands Columbus Service

The discount bus line Megabus says it will soon expand its Columbus service with daily departures to and from Pittsburgh. It's one more sign that intercity bus transportation in the U.S. is making a comeback. On a chilly morning one day last week people with luggage began gathering at the northwest corner of Nationwide Boulevard and North High Street. This is the downtown Columbus Megabus stop - no terminal, no shelter, just a small sign. Even though snow flurries began to fall it could not dampen some of these travelers' spirits. "Oh, I'm not freezing; it's nice. Snowflakes are coming down now but it's not bad." That's Kay Turner one of about 2 dozen riders waiting to board Megabus for Chicago. "Well, this is about the second time I've rode it and it seems to be pretty quick and it gets you there on time gets you there to Chicago. Running back up there now to see my children and my grandchildren." "We're going to a conference in Chicago and it's just a lot cheaper than flying." "Yeah." "I'm going to visit my sister in Chicago for a birthday trip. I'm very excited about it." Each Megabus has a limited number of one-way fares for $1; but you have to book well in advance. Turner says she waited til the last minute but was still happy with the price. "It usually be around $35," Turner says. "But since I waited so long, it was $51. So that's great." Passenger Rayna Flye got the lowest fare. "I actually got the ride for a dollar. So with the tax it came up to $2.50 round trip. I was very pleased with that," Flye says. Low fares aren't the only reason people ride Megabus says company president Dale Moser. He says newer buses, wireless internet, and reduced travel times have drawn about 9 million Megabus passengers since the company's start-up in 2006. "We've hit a market by reinventing motor coach travel," Moser says. "When we do a trip from Pittsburgh to Columbus we're not going to stop in seven towns or cities along the way. We've made it more efficient, more reliable and more affordable than driving your car." But it's also about image and amenities according to Joe Schwieterman who's a Professor of Transportation at DePaul University in Chicago. "You have double deck buses which sort of bring back images of Europe and of course you have express service," Schwieterman says. "And these companies do things like they have Wi-Fi on board and they stop right at Union Station in Chicago so it feels like you're on something that's designed for someone whose comfort and time matters and you just don't get that with a Greyhound bus." The Chicago-bound Columbus passengers agree "They have Wi-Fi and..." "The seats are good. They go back a little ways and they give you seatbelts which is good and..." "...lot of leg room and they're real comfortable..." Kay Turner says she's uncomfortable at the bus station. That's understandable says another professor in Chicago. Joel Goldhar teaches business at the Illinois Institute of Technology: "Frankly not having a terminal is probably not only an economic advantage but probably a customer advantage," Goldhar says. "They weren't pleasant places. If anything you worried about whether you were safe there." Terminals also became somewhat of a liability for the biggest bus company - Greyhound - because they helped set in stone the routes the company's buses would take - even if they those routes lost money. DePaul University's Joe Schwieterman: "In the United States we have just seen the inter-city bus industry go through a retrenchment that looked like it would never end," Schwieterman says. "And Greyhound really took it on the chin." Professor Goldhar says Megabus has implemented a Southwest Airlines model of operation: fast turnaround and high usage of its fleet with lots of flexibility. "They can move their buses and their drivers around as demand requires," Goldhar says. "It's just a very clever operating system design that minimizes fixed costs and also maximizes flexibility." Even so, Greyhound is still the dominant motor coach carrier in the U.S. While Megabus serves only a limited number of cities in the Northeast and Mid-West, Greyhound provides travel to a huge number of cities coast-to-coast. Greyhound spokesman Timothy Stokes: "Greyhound continues to transport around 19.8 million passengers every year. We operate 2200 buses and serve 3800 destinations," Stokes says. "We have a lot to offer our passengers in affordability and safety as well." But even Greyhound is being forced to adapt. It's partnered with another company to form Bolt Bus. With express bus service in the northeast, Bolt Bus is taking Megabus head-on. The Illinois Institute of Technology's Joel Goldhar: "Customers are notoriously fickle," Goldhar says. "If the Bolt Bus is on a better schedule or is a dollar cheaper and it offers the same free Wi-Fi there'll certainly be some competition." The big blue Megabus to Chicago arrived right on time and in a few minutes passengers and their luggage were on board. Company president Dale Moser says he expects about 4 million Megabus passengers in the coming year.