Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Is it the end of the road for Greyhound?
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The Independent Travel

America was built on the framework created by the railroad. The woebegone state of the 21st-century US rail network - slow, unreliable and debt-laden - has been well documented. Now its successor appears to be on the same depressing, downward spiral.

America was built on the framework created by the railroad. The woebegone state of the 21st-century US rail network - slow, unreliable and debt-laden - has been well documented. Now its successor appears to be on the same depressing, downward spiral.

The origins of Greyhound can be carbon-dated to 90 years ago. As the First World War began in Europe, a trio of Swedish immigrants in the small Minnesota mining community of Hibbing were trying to make their fortune. Carl Wickman, Andrew Anderson and Charles Wenberg started a rudimentary bus company with a seven-seater car called a Hupmobile - a rudimentary motor vehicle built in Detroit.

Their scheduled service operated to a nearby town called Alice, fare 15 cents. The transport empire expanded fast, and as the Hibbing Transportation Company they ordered some of the first recognisable inter-city buses at the start of the 1920s. These soon acquired the nickname of "greyhounds" because of their appearance (sleek) and colour (guess). In 1930, the company appropriated the name, and hungrily bought up rivals until it emerged with a nationwide network.

"The greatest public works project in history" is how the Americans describe the Interstate and Defense Highway system, which was launched in 1956. The expanding grid of fast roads across the US enabled Greyhound to get ahead of the railways. But as air travel and car ownership rose, Greyhound's demographic became less democratic.

After the 1978 deregulation of the skies, air fares tumbled. A series of cost-cutting measures resulted in two long and bitter strikes in 1983 and 1990 that threatened Greyhound's future. Yet it endures as the lowest common denominator of long-distance transport.

Three years ago, Greyhound was counting the cash following its best week for years. When flights were grounded on September 11, Americans suddenly rediscovered the bus. For many people who found themselves stranded hundreds or thousands of miles from home, the national bus line was the only option for getting home until planes were once again allowed to take off.

Some former airline passengers, traumatised by the images of aircraft hitting the World Trade Center, stayed on the bus. But within three weeks, Greyhound experienced its own murderous attack when a passenger cut the throat of a driver in Tennessee; 10 people died when the bus turned over. Since then, passenger numbers and revenue have fallen relentlessly.

"Loser": that's a commonly held view among Americans about anyone who takes the bus. Yet not everyone on board is too poor to own a car or fly: one in three Greyhound passengers earns more than £20,000 a year. For British visitors, the Greyhound is an essential part of a US trip. You can follow Paul Simon's journey as he sets off to look for America by bus from Pittsburgh to New York, or join Chuck Berry's voyage from Norfolk, Virginia to California as told in "The Promised Land" ("Straddled that Greyhound, rode him past Raleigh"). Besides living the American dream, you can get from New York to Boston for only $15 (£9), watch America roll by, and meet plenty of interesting folk - not losers.

Most coast-to-coast travellers these days choose to spend five hours on a no-frills flight rather than three days on a bus. Greyhound's owner, the Laidlaw Corporation, says the bus operator has not been viable for two decades. So the firm has begun a "network transformation" - cutting routes to achieve "a smaller, simpler network".

Unprofitable journeys are being chopped, and some stops are being removed to improve average speeds on routes that survive. No longer can you travel from Warm Springs in Oregon via Lone Rock and Lake Tomahawk in Wisconsin to Sweet Springs Junction in Missouri. Most casualties, from Abilene in Kansas via Dinosaur, Colorado to Zigzag in Oregon, are forgotten small towns that the average British visitor will not miss. But not all are in this category: links to the Colorado ski resorts of Steamboat Springs and Winter Park have gone off-piste from Greyhound's tracks, and Wyoming's state capital - the historic cowboy town of Cheyenne - has been erased from the schedules.

The state worst affected is the place where it all began. Fifty-seven varieties of towns and cities in Minnesota, including the town of Twig, are to be axed as part of the route-and-branch cuts.

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