1. Transport
  2. Mass transit
April 18, 2018updated 24 Aug 2023 3:19pm

Opinion: In the US, you need buses to make the trains work

By Mike Brady

One of our occasional forays into the CityMetric postbag

I was interested to read Simon Jeffrey’s article on what’s going on with buses in England (“We should talk trains less – and buses more”).

It’s nothing unusual, though: nearly every transit system in the US that has a rail line pours tons of money into it, sometimes cutting back bus service to cover it. Los Angeles was sued over that and lost, leading to court supervision at one point.

But the real sticking point is: you need buses to make rail work.

In the US, rail lines, except for some downtown subways, are often – even usually – not located where people live or work. There are many reasons for that, but a common one is that old freight rail lines, which urban rail transit tends to repurpose for light rail because they’re cheap, were built to serve industrial land uses that have mostly gone away (as rail-served properties, anyway).

So people who want to use those lines have to get to them in some way – either driving to a park’n’ride lot (in the ‘burbs), or riding a bus. And so, there’s a delicate balancing act. You need the buses to get the riders to the rail line, and need to coordinate services to minimise transfer hassles – but you don’t want to spend too much money on the buses because the rail lines need it.

One rail system I know of that has embraced buses with trains, rather than instead of them, is the California state-supported Amtrak service. The trains share freight tracks, as with most Amtrak trains. And those freight tracks are seldom where people live or want to go. So off-line service is needed to make the train practical to run as general transportation – otherwise, it’s too expensive for the state to support, relative to roads. To solve this problem, you can buy an Amtrak ticket on the state trains that are mostly, actually, a bus.

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Say you want to travel from Eureka on the far north coast, almost in Oregon, to Sacramento: you ride a bus 4-6 hours from Eureka to Martinez, then the train for another hour to Sacramento. The buses are part of the train system, with through tickets and guaranteed (most of the time) connections.

In fact, the fastest public surface transportation from the San Francisco Bay Area or Sacramento to Los Angeles currently is the San Joaquin train. That includes a bus from Bakersfield to Los Angeles: the journey takes 8 to 9 hours in total. Actually, there is an overnight sleeper bus from San Francisco to Santa Monica, that takes about 8 hours – but that doesn’t carry many people and charges more than double the Amtrak fare. Other bus options (Greyhound and Megabus) all start at about 10 hours overall, with comparable fares to Amtrak.

Of course, people who want to get to (or from) LA quickly fly (1 hour in the air; 2-4 hours total with terminal & access time). But the ground option does exist, and it’s mostly, except for one slow tourist train a day, a combination of train and bus.

Basically, you need buses to make the trains work.

Mike Brady

Folsom, California

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