Stranding at 17 Below Zero Uncovers Gap in U.S. Bus RulesJeff Plungis
Ankur Singh and about 10 other Greyhound bus passengers huddled outside a locked terminal at 4 a.m. in Des Moines, Iowa. The wind chill was -17 degrees Fahrenheit (-27 degrees Celsius), and their connection wouldn’t arrive for five hours.
Traveling from Minneapolis to Bloomington, Illinois, on Feb. 1, Singh, 18, had no idea he’d be waiting outside when he bought his ticket on Greyhound’s website. He assumed he’d sleep in a chair inside a lighted, heated station. Instead, he layered on clothes from his suitcase to stave off frostbite.
“Greyhound didn’t tell any of us we’d be outside,” Singh said.
Greyhound Lines Inc., a unit of Aberdeen, Scotland-based FirstGroup Plc, said March 27 it would ensure its terminals’ and agents’ hours correspond with scheduled arrivals and departures, after Singh started an Internet petition that’s attracted more than 90,000 signatures.
The Des Moines incident nonetheless showed intercity bus passengers aren’t covered by U.S. consumer-protection rules as airline passengers are, at a time bus traffic is growing as much as 10 percent a year.
“As the bus sector bounces back, this problem is rearing its ugly head,” said Joseph Schwieterman, chairman of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development in Chicago. “I’m sure there are a lot of people who do the mental calculation and decide a few hours of misery in the night is worth the savings.”
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood asked his staff “to do something” after meeting Feb. 20 with the Consumer Travel Alliance, said Charlie Leocha, director of the Springfield, Virginia-based advocacy group.
“We’re very pleased that Greyhound has taken common-sense steps to provide for their passengers during inclement weather,” Justin Nisly, a department spokesman, said in a statement.
Maureen Richmond, a FirstGroup spokeswoman, said she wasn’t aware of discussions with LaHood’s department. Its review was prompted by the petition, she said. Any increases in costs won’t be enough to affect ticket prices, she said.
The yield-management systems Greyhound and Megabus use to fill empty seats have created routes stitched together from short hops, with steep discounts offered to sell more tickets, Schwieterman said. Megabus is a unit of Perth, Scotland-based Stagecoach Group Plc.
Consumers are booking online, with no one to warn them what to expect when making connections in deserted locations in the middle of the night, he said.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, part of the Transportation Department, requires bus companies to make route information available to the public, including arrival and departure times for each stop, said Duane DeBruyne, an agency spokesman.
Companies aren’t required to provide an open station or heated space for connections. If stations are closed, companies are required to make available “to the extent possible” a public phone, lighting, overhead shelter and information about accommodations, taxi service and police, according to the regulations.
The Transportation Department is aware of the Des Moines incident and encourages companies to treat travelers “with the fairness and respect that they deserve,” Nisly said, noting the department lacks regulatory authority on the issue.
The Surface Transportation Board, which inherited some of the old Interstate Commerce Commission’s power to settle motor-carrier trade disputes, doesn’t have rules about bus passengers, said Dennis Watson, a spokesman.
Airlines can be fined by the Transportation Department if they strand passengers inside a plane parked on a tarmac for three hours or longer. Carriers must provide passengers access to restrooms, food and water in those situations.
That’s one of the few regulations on traveler treatment, and it only happened after a series of incidents over a 10-year period, Leocha said.
“Within D.C., not many people think about Greyhound,” Leocha said. “If we think about buses, it tends to be the Megabus or Bolt to New York. We don’t think about the people in the middle of the country. This was a wakeup call.”
Bus transportation was the fastest-growing form of U.S. intercity travel last year, with scheduled departures up 7.5 percent, the most in four years, according to a January DePaul study. The study excluded so-called Chinatown lines that don’t publish regular schedules.
Between 1980 and 2006, the industry declined an average of 2.9 percent a year. Since then, it’s grown between 5.1 percent and 9.8 percent a year.
Bus travel attracts “more adventurous young people” who might be tempted to select difficult, unconventional routes to save money, Schwieterman said.
Sarah Schwabe’s 778-mile trip turned into a 30-hour ordeal.
The 20-year-old boarded an Albuquerque, New Mexico-bound bus in Clarksville, Arkansas. An hour into the trip, at Fort Smith, Arkansas, she was told there would be a change of buses and a five-hour layover.
Passengers were let off at 10 p.m. She said she was told she could get on a bus going north, to Joplin, Missouri, to catch a different route along Interstate 44 that would get her to New Mexico.
The bus in Joplin was full.
It would be 18 hours until another bus with an open seat would arrive in Joplin. Schwabe said she spent the time trying to sleep on a bench.
“I got lucky, I could have been stuck outside,” Schwabe said. “It was more nerve-wracking because I was pregnant. Those places they have the bus stations at are located in the worst part of town.”
As a result of Singh’s petition on Change.org, “Greyhound: Don’t Put Customers at Risk for Hypothermia and Frostbite,” the Des Moines terminal, owned by Greyhound agent Burlington Trailways, now opens at 3:45 a.m.
Many people who signed the petition described similar stories, said Shareeza Bhola, a Change.org spokeswoman.
“It took off because people understood the problem and some of them had gone through the same thing,” Bhola said. “People are taking it upon themselves to fill in the gaps that politicians or companies themselves aren’t filling in.”
Greyhound has reviewed its schedules and confirmed terminal hours correspond with arrivals and departures, said Richmond, the FirstGroup spokeswoman. The company asked its partners to do the same, and make changes as appropriate, she said.
“The carriers set their own hours for agencies and terminals, but we have strongly suggested that facilities remain open when schedules are to arrive or depart,” Richmond said. “We are committed to providing each passenger with a safe and comfortable travel experience.”
Strandings are rare, said Peter Pantuso, chief executive officer of the Washington-based American Bus Association.
The industry faces challenges making connections in rural America, where pickup points haven’t changed much in decades, Pantuso said.
“With or without regulation, there’s an absolute need to take care of the customer,” Pantuso said. “We need to communicate and have a discussion among the carriers about what’s the best approach to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
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