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Traditional, curbside bus firms battle it out for market share

PHOTO/PABLO ROBLES Bruce Westcott, vice president of business development at Peter Pan, says that as the ground transportation market gets more competitive, bus lines have gone to an airline-like pricing model.

As gas prices soar past $4 a gallon in Connecticut, Springfield-based Peter Pan Bus Lines has partnered with Greyhound to launch a new express bus service between Boston and New York.

The new service, with nine daily round trips featuring fares starting as low as $1, adds to an already crowded marketplace for low-cost, express bus trips on the Boston-Hartford-New York route.

With no apparent end in sight to steadily climbing gasoline prices, bus companies are counting on more drivers to choose bus travel for trips. And traditional carriers — such as Peter Pan and Greyhound — seem willing to do battle with the newer, low-cost curbside carriers to offer the lowest prices to consumers.

Demands for more on-bus amenities, a more convenient schedule and express trips have forced changes in the industry to meet the requests of the evolving bus traveler.

Bruce Westcott, vice president of business development and senior director of sales and marketing at Peter Pan, said because Peter Pan offers regular line runs and is a provider of contract services, the company considers itself a higher level of transportation than some of the newer curbside services that are springing up. He said Peter Pan has brand recognition in the industry with a loyal following, but he said the marketplace has demanded change over the past couple of years.

“They’re demanding more express services, certainly cost-competitive pricing, but they also want the amenities such as Wi Fi, plug-ins and more leg room,” Westcott said. “We’ve priced it competitively, similar to airlines.”

Since the buses have to run whether there is one person on board or 54, Westcott said the goal is to fill the buses.

“During peak times, which are Thursday nights, Fridays and Sundays, we price our product as competitively as we can, but it’s higher than mid-week.”

Peter Pan was recently offering one-way trips from Hartford to Boston or New York for as low as $15. BoltBus, a service offered jointly through Greyhound and Peter Pan, offers prices as low as $1.

Greyhound spokesman Timothy Stokes said the earlier a customer buys, the better the chances are for getting a cheap seat.

“The price of a BoltBus ticket starts at $1 and can go up to $5, and continues to increase as more people begin to book a seat on a certain schedule,” Stokes said. “Our average fare for service between New York and Boston is $16, with there always being a possibility of a customer grabbing that $1 fare.”

Megabus, an intercity express low-cost bus service from Coach USA, came to the Northeast in 2008 and has seen rapid growth.

Dale Moser, president and chief operating officer for Coach USA/Megabus, said Megabus uses a yield-managed pricing concept similar to that of BoltBus, with tickets starting at just $1.

“There are companies who have copied our business model and we are extremely flattered by that,” he said. “The concept is not much different than what discount airlines have been doing for years. You spread out your ridership, and you’re filling your buses.”

While some company managers don’t admit to basing their pricing on the competition’s, Jack Ho, general manager of curbside carrier Boston Deluxe, said he’s always keeping an eye on other carriers.

“Our prices don’t change unless the other companies change,” Ho said. Boston Deluxe, which runs its business online, had recently listed prices of $15 for one-way trips from Boston to New York

Curbside carriers such as BoltBus realize some savings because of increased use of internet ticketing.

“As a curbside carrier, we save a lot of money by not having to pay for terminal costs and the costs included with printing tickets,” Stokes said. “Passengers order online and print their tickets at home. Technology has been a great asset to our rise in the industry.”

Carriers which offer terminals, such as Peter Pan, aren’t offering the lowest prices available, but there’s a reason for that, Westcott said.

“We’re proud to be a union shop,” he said. “Our drivers are union wage, our mechanics are union wage. Others like Dattco and Fung Wah, they’re not union so they have a different cost structure.”

Large terminal carriers also encourage their customers to check out their safety records when choosing a bus company.

“Peter Pan has the best safety record in the industry when it comes to motor coach transportation,” Westcott said. “We carry the highest liability insurance in the industry. Our drivers are union drivers that go through weeks of training and go through re-training every year.”

Westcott said safety is a top priority.

“You’re going to get there when we say you’re going to get there, and you’re going to get there safely,” he said.

Moser said Coach USA/Megabus has years of experience, safety and training behind it.

“It doesn’t mean we’ve cut corners on anything,” he said of the service’s low prices.

While customers want to be assured they will get to their destinations safely, they also want to get there fast. Many carriers are offering speedier express service, including a new venture from Peter Pan called Peter Pan Express.

Westcott said Peter Pan Express will offer new services to Peter Pan customers used to taking the bus from Springfield to Hartford, to New Haven and beyond, and offering them a much faster service.

“We’re taking customers that historically rode the bus and giving them a price competitive product, and we guarantee that person a seat on the bus,” he said. “We’re capacity-managing it to 50 passengers. It really is a unique model that is going to cater to our customers.”

Between Peter Pan and Greyhound buses, Westcott said passengers have a long list of options. “We have Greyhound or Peter Pan leaving every half hour from all the major destinations in the Northeast, so customers have a lot of flexibility,” he said.

While a large portion of bus travelers tend to be college students and young people, some bus carriers are hoping to tap into the growing number of people who are environmental conscious.

“We’ve invested over $60 million in buses with the highest technology, and the most efficient engines from a miles-per-gallon standpoint,” Moser said. “Our buses help to mitigate congestion. We’re using double-deckers. We’re the first company to initiate those into their service.”

Moser said the industry as a whole is strong.

“It has the most significant capacity of growth of any transportation mode there is right now, so we must be doing something right,” he said. “We think we’ve reinvented bus travel. We’ve turned it around and made it sexy again to travel by bus.”



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