Travel rebound? Not for intercity buses in places like York

York

YORK, Pa. (WHTM) — Airlines are expecting a decent summer, all things considered — at least for domestic leisure travel, and at least for the new normal.

Rail? Things aren’t nearly as good at Amtrak as they were two years ago when the government-owned company thought it could soon — finally — report an operating profit. But they’re not as bad as they were one year ago either.

But to a former degree intercity bus travel on companies like Greyhound remains a shadow of its pre-pandemic self, even as Americans get vaccinated and travel demand rebounds.

“We have a relatively high percentage of searches that yield no results simply because the bus companies that used to run those routes have not brought that service back,” said Staffo Dobrev, the head of communications for Wanderu, which helps consumers search routes and fares across various bus and rail lines.

Here are the number of Amtrak trains scheduled to depart during the month of May in 2019, 2020 and 2021 — in other words, before the pandemic, early in the pandemic and now — for three major Midstate cities:

CityMay 2019 trainsMay 2020 trainsMay 2021 trains
Harrisburg422115472751
Lancaster402217652307
York*000
Source: Wanderu analysis for abc27 News; *York hasn’t has passenger rail service since the 1970s

Here are the number of buses, on companies such as Greyhound and others, scheduled to depart during the same months for the same three cities:

CityMay 2019 busesMay 2020 busesMay 2021 buses
Harrisburg391532692915
Lancaster281770*
York15582
Source: Wanderu; *the upstart bus company OurBus began serving Lancaster prior to the pandemic

A couple of trends are clear: Bus companies have slashed service by a greater percentage in their smaller stations, consolidating service in larger stations like Harrisburg. And cities like York have lost a far greater percentage of all service than cities with rail as an option because people (including people who don’t own cars) in a city like Lancaster never depended on buses to leave town to the same degree as people in York.

If people are willing to buy bus tickets, as Dobrev says they are, then why aren’t bus companies meeting that supply with demand in the same way Amtrak is (or, for that matter, in the same way, airlines are at Harrisburg Int’l Airport, where service has rebounded in a similar way, based on an abc27 News analysis of Cirium schedule data?)

“The main reason for that is really the lack of support and funding from the government” for bus companies, Dobrev said. Airlines and Amtrak got billions of stimulus dollars in exchange for promises to keep people employed and maintain service for travelers. Bus companies got almost nothing specific to their industry, Dobrev said — just whatever general business aid they could get, competing for that aid against companies in other industries.

Dobrev attributed the difference in aid partly to the disparity in lobbying clout between companies providing the different modes of transportation. And although this might not have been the intention, he said the disparity is likely a bigger hardship for lower-income travelers, because bus travel — although it experienced a pre-pandemic rise in popularity among travelers in general — is cheaper, on average, than air and rail travel.

So why don’t bus companies restore more service back now to places like York, with demand clearly rebounding?

Some companies simply don’t have the certain money to invest in ramping up service now for tickets they might sell later, Dobrev said. And he said they’re being particularly conservative about waiting with “secondary routes” — in other words, routes to places like York as opposed to those they consider primary, to places like Harrisburg.

Even for the better-capitalized companies, he said, “it is still risky for them because while there is demand currently, it is not overwhelming.”

Wanderu uses the demand data it gathers from consumer search data to advise bus companies regarding where demand for unserved routes might exist.

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