Ankur Singh and a handful of other Greyhound bus passengers huddled outside a locked terminal in Des Moines at 4 a.m. on Feb. 1, trying to stay warm. The wind chill was -17F, and their connection wasn’t supposed to arrive for five hours. When the 18-year-old college student booked his ticket to travel between Minneapolis and Bloomington, Ill., on Greyhound’s website, he thought he’d be dozing in a warm, well-lit station. “Greyhound didn’t tell any of us we’d be outside,” he says.
Hoping to save others from the same cold fate, Singh started a Change.org petition asking the company to keep bus terminals open for customers with layovers. More than 90,000 people have signed so far, many recounting horror stories. “It took off because people understood the problem,” says Shareeza Bhola, a Change.org spokeswoman. On March 27, Greyhound said it would ensure that terminal hours are in sync with bus schedules across the U.S. “We are committed to providing each passenger with a safe and comfortable travel experience,” says Maureen Richmond, a spokeswoman for FirstGroup (FGP:LN), Greyhound’s parent company.
Bus travel has grown between 5.1 percent and 9.8 percent a year since 2006, after declining an average of 2.9 percent annually for the previous 16 years, according to a study by the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University. Fares on lines such as Megabus and BoltBus can be as low as $1, and Wi-Fi is often available. No security pat-down is required, and shoes can stay on.
As Singh learned, though, the downside to traveling by bus goes well beyond the threat of traffic. Unlike air travelers, bus riders aren’t covered by federal consumer protection rules. “As the bus sector bounces back, this problem is rearing its ugly head,” says Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul’s Chaddick Institute. Bus companies have to disclose layovers in their schedules, but they aren’t required to publish information about terminals, including their hours. Nor are companies required to provide an open station or heated space for passengers making connections. Federal regulations say that “to the extent possible,” a public phone, lighting, overhead shelter, and information about accommodations, taxi service, and police should be available.
Airlines that strand passengers inside a plane parked on a tarmac for three hours or longer can be fined by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and companies are required to provide flyers access to restrooms, food, and water. That 2010 law is one of the few to deal with passenger care—and it came about only after heavy lobbying over a 10-year period that saw a series of incidents in which airlines left travelers sitting on runways for many hours without food as bathrooms overflowed, says Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance. He says the response to Singh’s petition “was a wake-up call” for his organization and regulators in Washington, who tend to be more focused on conditions at airports.
So far consumer advocates aren’t pushing for regulations to protect bus travelers, and the industry would like to keep it that way. Peter Pantuso, chief executive officer of the American Bus Association, says bus companies can make improvements on their own. “There’s an absolute need to take care of the customer,” Pantuso says. “We’ll certainly have a dialogue with the carriers and make them aware of the situation.” In Des Moines, where Singh got stuck in the cold, the terminal now opens at 3:45 a.m.