Low Fares Won’t Lure Some Train Riders To New Bus Service

May 23, 2012

A new bus service in the Northwest makes some eye-catching promises: Extra legroom, non-stop service between major cities, and fares starting at just a dollar. Boltbus could change the way people travel between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, BC. Correspondent Chris Lehman wanted to see which is better: Boltbus or an Amtrak train.

Boltbus has no stations so I have to wait on a sidewalk in downtown Portland to catch my ride up to Seattle. I wouldn’t want to do this in the rain. Despite that possibility, Dave Culpepper and his wife figured they’d give it a shot.

Culpepper: "We saw their ad in the paper and we were intrigued by a dollar fare. And also just by a comfortable bus ride. So we thought we'd check it out."

The Culpeppers are heading up to Seattle for the weekend... a trip they make a lot.

Culpepper: "Frequently we'll go up to go to a baseball game and take the train, because it's right there. If this works like I think it will, it would be a good way also to go to a ballgame because their drop-off spot in Seattle is near the stadium."

Boltbus and similar companies have operated for years in the Northeast. No stations and no ticket agents help keep costs low. Most tickets are more than a dollar, though. In fact, you can't actually buy a ticket for a buck, thanks to an online transaction fee. But the typical Boltbus fare is much less than a train ride between the same cities. Portlander Sam Coles took advantage of the cheap tickets to make his first trip to Seattle ever.

Coles: "I don't own a car, so this gave me a good opportunity to get up there for a decent price."

Lehman: "So have you ever looked at riding Greyhound up there or the train?"

Coles: "I've looked at the train and it's quite a bit more."

Soon, the bus pulls away from the curb and we're on our way.

Lehman: "Okay, we've been on the road about two hours now. We're heading north on I-5 just past Olympia. It's been a pretty quiet ride so far. I'd say the bus is about half full.”

An hour later, we pull up to the curb in Seattle and the passengers quickly scatter. I caught up with Dave Culpepper to see how he liked the ride.

Culpepper: "It was nice. It was quick. There wasn't as much leg-room as I really had hoped there was. And I did miss getting up and walking around. So it's probably still worthwhile, but it wasn't quite as comfortable as I had hoped."

The Boltbus drops you off about two blocks from the Amtrak station in Seattle, so I headed over there for my train back to Portland. That’s where I met Drew Milam. He tried a long-distance bus trip. Once. He’s six foot-three.

Milam: "For me, it was somewhat cramped. So I prefer something that's a little bit more room and kind of spread out."

Milam says Boltbus may have wifi, but he’s not sure there’s enough room for him to work while he rides.

Milam: "Depending on what I want to get done and the schedule and how efficient I want to be, I'm not too worried about the price difference."

Both Boltbus and Amtrak's Cascades train offer free wifi and power outlets. But even with the extra legroom compared to a standard long-distance bus, I found I couldn't even open my laptop the whole way on the bus. On the train, not a problem. But remember how cheap those bus tickets are? I paid two dollars to ride from Portland to Seattle. My train ticket back to Portland? 53 bucks. You can get a cheaper Amtrak ticket if you book it further in advance.

Stand-up on train: "Okay, I'm on the Cascades train heading southbound now, and doing something right now that I certainly was not able to do on the bus, which is I'm sitting in the café car enjoying a hot dinner and the Columbia River is rolling along to my right. Just generally a very relaxed atmosphere here. But on the other hand, the bus, barring bad road conditions, traffic accidents, what-have-you, is going to be a quicker journey for now. Of course it doesn't make any stops between Seattle and Portland, whereas this train does serve communities along the way that the Boltbus does not."

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network