Gone to the dogs

Greyhound buses have lost their way - and travellers are paying the price. Katherine Griffiths reports on the decline of a great American institution
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The Independent US

A packed Greyhound bus arrives at Atlantic City, America's down-at-heel east coast alternative to Las Vegas. Under a drizzly sky, the passengers from New York disembark and head straight for Caesar's, a giant Roman-style casino, to gamble the $15-worth (£8) of chips they each got with their $27 return ticket on the specially named "Lucky Streak" route.

A packed Greyhound bus arrives at Atlantic City, America's down-at-heel east coast alternative to Las Vegas. Under a drizzly sky, the passengers from New York disembark and head straight for Caesar's, a giant Roman-style casino, to gamble the $15-worth (£8) of chips they each got with their $27 return ticket on the specially named "Lucky Streak" route.

Every day, more than 2,000 people go back and forth on the Lucky Streak - Greyhound's most popular route. But the story across most of the bus company's enormous network is quite different. Since an all-time high at more than 25 million in 2000, customer numbers have fallen by three million and in 2002 and 2003 combined, Greyhound incurred nearly $140m in losses.

Laidlaw, the private, Dallas-based corporation which runs the Greyhound Bus Line, has said that passenger volumes are no longer sustainable, especially in small, rural areas, where for decades it has held out as the only form of public transportation. As a consequence, the company has decided to cut 269 stops, largely in small towns, across 17 states. Of half of the stops to be discontinued, no outbound tickets were purchased in 2003. Last year the company laid off members of its administrative and supervisory staff, and abandoned an order for 200 new buses.

For the company that was set up in 1914 by a Swedish immigrant, Carl Eric Wickman, to transport Minnesota's miners for 15 cents a ride, this is a the last gasp for survival of a national icon. A spokeswomen for Greyhound explains why the radical restructuring, which will take two to three years, is necessary. "The primary reason is to return our company to financial health," she says. "And secondly, we want to improve service for the majority of customers by offering a faster service with fewer routes."

But for those who have relied on the bus service because they cannot drive or do not want to, it means isolation. One place to lose its service is Ritzville, a small, wheat-growing town in Washington state. With a population of 1,750, few people come off the nearby Interstate 90 for a visit. There has never been an airport, and the train station, which once used to service private passengers, is a ghost stop through which freight trains rush on their way to larger, distant cities.

Craig Ulleland, the major of Ritzville, says the termination of the Greyhound service has had a big impact on the community. He believes Greyhound could have been more imaginative in dealing with dwindling passenger numbers while still offering a service to the people of Ritzville. "I don't see why they wouldn't use cell phones to call ahead to see if there were any passengers," he says.

Major problems have been caused by Greyhound cutting its routes in America's sprawling rural hinterland for the local jails. Both in Adams County, where Ritzville is located, and Lovelock, one of the five destinations to be dropped in Nevada, prisons have always relied on Greyhound buses to transport prisoners who have served their time to wherever they want to go to restart their lives.

Rosemary Seals, an associate warden at the Lovelock Correctional Centre, says: "Our institution is 120 miles from Reno, the second largest city in Nevada. The closest town outside Lovelock is 60 to 80 miles away. When people are first on parole they usually go to Reno or Las Vegas. Without a bus service, we have to transport them weeks before to another centre."

It is not just the prisoners who are loosing out in Lovelock, which has a population of less than 2,000. "There is one hardware store here," she says. "If you need anything beyond the basics, you have got to drive to get it." But if you do not own a car - or know a friendly neighbour who will give you a lift - it is difficult to go anywhere.

It is a depressing climb down from the proud history of the Greyhound line, which has been at the centre of America's culture and history. Greyhounds' red, white and blue colours and chrome body were recorded in all their retro glory in films such as the 1934 screwball comedy It Happened One Night. Later, Greyhounds were to sum up the excitement of the road trip along the country's seemingly endless highways and through its different terrains in Simon and Garfunkel's anthem, "America". The buses have also been there at key moments of America's history. When people protesting against segregation between black and white people in the 1960s went south, many rode on Greyhounds.

These days, it is Greyhound's image which is one of its biggest problems.

Interstate buses, such as Greyhounds, may be officially the safest way to travel around the US - with a better record than cars, trains and even aeroplanes - according to the US transport department, but many people are put off choosing Greyhound because it is perceived to be the domain of the poor and the weird.

Greyhound is trying to appeal to a wider audience and argues that it is unfairly stereotyped. Greyhound points out on its website that a third of its customers earn more than $35,000 a year, and about the same number have "a college degree and are better educated than the US population as a whole". The Greyhound spokeswoman adds: "It is a young demographic. There are a lot of 18 to 34 year olds. Most people are travelling to see family and friends." Indeed, it is easy to wrongly stereotype Greyhound customers. At New York's Port Authority, the transport terminal in downtown Manhattan where the Lucky Streak service starts and finishes, there are plenty of people sitting on the floor with their belongings in plastic bags. On the bus there are a lot of people who appear to be going to gamble with money that they cannot afford to lose.

But also travelling is Steve, who works for the German investment bank Dresdner and is just back from a business trip to London - where he stayed in the hip St Martin's Lane Hotel near Covent Garden. He is visiting his parents who live just outside Atlantic City. "I take the bus because it is a hassle to hire a car from Manhattan," he says. "The buses come all the time, and it is the easiest way to get there."

This summer's cuts to its network are the first of many changes planned by Greyhound in its struggle to survive as a competitor to the increasing prevalence of low-cost airlines. It must also contend with the rival bus services which have sprung up along the more popular routes, such as the almost unfeasibly cheap routes operating out of New York's Chinatown, with their destinations written only in Chinese characters. Greyhound's plan is to offer a simpler network. It believes most of its customers do not want to stop at every small town along a journey, but instead go straight between large cities in as little time as possible. It says its second most popular route after Atlantic City is New York to Washington.

An alternative plan is to try to establish subsidies from the federal government or the individual states to help Greyhound run its loss-making rural routes. Six senators in affected areas are lobbying the company to reopen the services it has cut and have said they will consider ways to find public money so that Greyhound could at least break even on these routes.

Back in Atlantic City, just along the seafront from Caesar's, is this weekend's major attraction, the Miss America beauty pageant. Hundreds of young women have streamed here for the annual competition. Whether, in years to come, Greyhound buses will be on hand to deliver these sublime examples of American femininity from small towns all across America remains to be seen.