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Bloomberg News, Published April 06 2013

Regulation fails to keep pace with surge in bus riders

WASHINGTON — 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, and their connection wouldn't arrive for five hours.

Traveling from Minneapolis to Bloomington, Ill., 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, 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 federal 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.”

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, Va.-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.

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.