Saturday, April 23, 2011

Minnesota's intercity buses and air competition

Greyhound traces its roots to Hibbing, so naturally some folks decided to build the Greyhound Bus Museum (also known as the Greyhound Bus Origin Center) to celebrate the hometown business done good. Because of the subject matter, you might be tempted to hop a bus to get there. Unfortunately, that's a lot more complicated than it ought to be.

View Jefferson Lines - Minnesota in a larger map

[Icon meanings: Green is a city served by both Amtrak and Jefferson Lines. Blue are bus-served cities with freight rail lines. Yellow are bus-served cities either at the far end of rail lines or on lines that go the "wrong" direction. Red are bus-served cities without any rails. The map covers Minnesota along with border regions in Wisconsin and the Dakotas.]

Despite the company's history, it appears that Greyhound abandoned Hibbing at least a decade ago. Lorenz Bus Service, a charter bus company in the Twin Cities, used to operate a daily trip up U.S. 169 through Hibbing to Virginia, Minnesota, but that service ended in 2007. And, as you can see from the map, Hibbing is in a significant gap of the Jefferson Lines bus system.

The Iron Range itself is fairly well-served by Arrowhead Transit, which shuttles passengers on buses from Grand Rapids through Hibbing and onto Virginia and back again on a daily basis. However, there is only one weekly bus on Fridays which makes a round-trip to Duluth and back.

For all practical purposes, you can't get to Hibbing by bus. (If you could get there, you couldn't get back.)

Hibbing is far from the only place that has been abandoned by the intercity carriers. Minnesota's intercity bus network has seen significant changes just since 1995. There were major reorganizations of Greyhound in the 1980s and early 1990s, and in 2004, the company dropped 59 stops around the state.

Minneapolis-based Jefferson Lines took over much of that service and now has 70 stops within Minnesota's borders. Greyhound has a fairly marginal presence, mostly only serving the Chicago to Twin Cities route and on up I-35 to Duluth (though they could still capture significant ridership with that combination).

There have been more upheavals in the bus industry in recent years, particularly with the newer companies and divisions like Megabus where passengers can get fares as low as $1. They focus on express service in major corridors, and there have been concerns that they may be cannibalizing riders from other bus carriers and causing financial distress, though the American Bus Association says that there has been a positive spillover effect.

I have to say that I remain fairly concerned. According to Mn/DOT's Intercity Bus Network Study from last year, most of Jefferson Lines' routes in the state are subsidized, except for the services to Chicago and up the I-35 corridor. Jefferson provides all of the local match funding themselves, without any assistance from the state or local communities (according to what I could interpret in the report, anyway). If their profits slide too much on their major corridors, they won't be able to carry the costs of these other routes either.

In years past, bus corridors were managed by our old frienemy, the Interstate Commerce Commission. The ICC also regulated passenger rail service up into the Amtrak era, and was the source of a lot of poor decision-making. They also had the ability to say who could operate buses over certain routes, in an attempt to make sure that overly-aggressive competition didn't drive all service into the ground.

It sounds like bus routes are less strictly regulated and mandated than they used to be. Despite the overall industry growth in recent years, there have been some significant losses. Jefferson Lines service across the Canadian border to Winnipeg ended in October 2010, for instance. They only go as far north as Grand Forks these days. There had also been concerns about service along the Minneapolis – Rochester – La Crosse – Madison – Chicago route in recent years, and that service almost went away in early 2009.

So, what do you do when intercity buses go away? In some cases, local transit seems to pick up the slack if other services are close enough, but that is sporadic at best. Mn/DOT's Greater Minnesota Transit Investment Plan page is an interesting companion to the intercity bus plan and the state rail plan, and it has a number of slides showing where local transit buses jump from city to city on anywhere between a weekly and daily basis (though they didn't include the Rochester City Lines commuter network, which baffles me a bit).

There is still air service to Hibbing, though I tend to feel that it's exorbitantly priced at about $265 for a one-way trip with one checked bag. However, don't bother trying to take the bus to Duluth and then fly the rest of the way—at least unless you're knowledgeable about chartering your own flights. I looked into it, and you'll have to first fly to O'Hare or MSP and then turn around, which adds hours to travel time and hundreds to the overall cost.

That cost, and what I had already looked up for Rochester in my earlier post, made me start wondering what the costs are for other cities around the region that have been pondered for rail service.

One-way travel costs from Minneapolis–Saint Paul

AirAmtrakBus110-mph train
1x daily
6+ daily
8+ daily
6x daily
3x daily
8x daily
Eau Claire$280 (via ORD)
2x daily
4x daily
6+ daily
7x daily
1x daily
4x daily
2+ daily
3x daily
La Crosse$369
4x daily
1x daily
7x daily
8+ daily
5x daily
$75+ (Columbus)
1x daily
3x daily
8+ daily
14x daily
1x daily
3x daily
8+ daily
5x daily
20+ daily
6+ daily
Sioux Falls$486
8x daily
1.5x daily

I looked up ticket prices for these cities for Thursday, May 19th, 2011. In cases where there was more than one available price, I tried to average them out. I used Orbitz's total cost (including taxes and fees) for the flights, and added $25 for a typical 1-item baggage fee (which would be free for Amtrak and the buses). The Amtrak and bus costs are mostly taken directly from the websites, though I had to average them out in some cases. I tried to average out the travel times as well.

Amtrak is always cheaper than flying, and buses are almost always cheaper than Amtrak (the only oddball in my table comes from the shuttle services to La Crosse). I also included an extra column with estimated fares for 110-mph train service, which Mn/DOT has said should cost about $0.30 per mile. I generally estimated those travel times based on an average speed of 68 mph, about what the Northern Lights Express is expected to do these days.

Who in their right mind will pay $972 for a round-trip between Sioux Falls and the Twin Cities? I don't know, but obviously someone is—why else would there be 8 flights per day? Anyway, clearly there are a lot of people paying exorbitant amounts of money to fly around the Upper Midwest. I think these are insane fare levels for the smaller communities. I should note that I left out some places don't have any scheduled air service, such as St. Cloud and Willmar.

What is the effect of this? A lot of wasted money, fuel, and time. It is often cheaper to fly from one of these cities to O'Hare or Denver and back to MSP than it is to fly direct to the Twin Cities. Attempting to travel between outlying cities creates even more stunning scenarios. For those who don't want to bounce around the country, there must be vast numbers of people driving huge distances to drop off friends or relatives at the MSP airport because the airfares are so high. At these prices, you could go buy a beater off of a used car lot, make the trip, discard the car, and still come out ahead.

I would think that passenger rail must be able to compete directly against $1000 round-trip costs, even on relatively lightly-traveled corridors. An integrated web of bus and train service across the state could dramatically reduce the amount of wasted jet fuel and the number of people taking day-long journeys just to drop people off and return home. Even if the government has to significantly subsidize the service to attract riders, it would seem that rail would come out well ahead of air travel in terms of total costs to the state and communities along the lines.

Looking at these prices, I'm baffled why the Sabre company which operates the ticketing backend for travel agencies doesn't also integrate with the nation's bus and rail system. They claim to be connected to Amtrak's system, but I haven't found a site that uses it (except perhaps Amtrak's site itself). If you could go to Travelocity, Orbitz, or Expedia and get bus service included as a possible link, they'd probably attract a lot more customers considering the costs are so much lower for people traveling to and from smaller cities.

These prices have got to raise the eyebrows of a few railroad accountants as well. It seems to me that the fastest way for passenger rail service to come back would be if the railroads themselves started it up again. With rising fuel costs driving airfares upward, rail will become a lot more attractive. Fuel prices would affect rail viability a bit, but energy costs are a much smaller percentage of overall operating expenses for trains than for planes.

Well, I haven't been quite as coherent as I wanted to be with this, but I hope your eyeballs are bugging out as much as mine are with that table of fares I put together.


  1. I had a boss who was a former pilot for Mesaba - he had some good stories about flying those red-headed stepchild routes. I'm pretty sure the federal government is still subsidizing small-town flights (it would be interesting to see if this subsidy was on the Republicans' chopping block). I don't know which of the cities on your list are subsidized but I would think at least Hibbing would be. One cute fact about the subsidy - it requires at least two round trips daily.

  2. Yeah, there was some discussion about cutting it. As much as I'd like to pick on the airlines, the subsidy adds up to $200 million for the whole program (according to news reports, anyway), which was working out to $74 per passenger in 2006 according to the Wikipedia article.

    The article also says there are 10 subsidized routes from MSP, and Chisholm/Hibbing is one of them ($2.9 million per year on that route). Flights between Eau Claire and Chicago are also subsidized ($1.7 million per year).

  3. I'm not suggesting it be discontinued, but it seems strange that the fares would be so high even with subsidy. Also the requirement of more than one flight per day seems wasteful.

    Actually, I would suggest that airline subsidies be discontinued until there is some regulation of aircraft emissions. Seems wrong to subsidize in any way the most polluting form of transportation.

  4. Yeah, and it turns out that at least two of the daily flights to Hibbing continue on to Thief River Falls, which is also a subsidized service.

    The strangest thing for me is that Hibbing/Chisholm and Thief River Falls are both pretty close to other larger airports. Thief River Falls is around 55 miles from Grand Forks, while Hibbing is around 65 miles from Duluth.

  5. Did you see this article?

  6. Thanks for the link, Alex. It'll be interesting to see what happens.

  7. A few quibbles with your map's representation of rail service:

    Monticello and Big Lake seem far enough apart to not be in the same territory for "rail stop", especially considering the (lack of a) public transit landscape there.

    Fergues Falls is on a 40mph (freight speed) rail line that only goes towards Fargo. Perhaps worthy of a yellow marker instead.

    Same with Mahnomen, especially if you're including Alexandria as a yellow marker. The only line is that same CP line running north/south.

    I do realize that even the markers are outdated now. Bus service now goes down roughly along US 12 and MN 7/5 from Willmar to Minneapolis now, among other changes.

  8. I'm late in replying, but here it goes...

    With Monticello, I was referring to the rails on the south side of the river which currently terminate at the nuclear plant. They would need to be rehabilitated, but it's probably easier to do that than to rebuild other lines. It may be best to give that a yellow marker.

    I appreciate the comments for the other routes. We'll see if I ever update the map or not...