It was nearing midnight when a sleek coach adorned with galloping canines inched through the new Greyhound terminal in Washington. The 45-foot-long vehicle rolled past a glass-enclosed ticket counter emitting a warm glow, a wood-paneled waiting room and me sitting on a bench, watching for the 12:01 bus to Chicago.
The driver pulled into a spot and hopped out, dressed in the same shades of blue as his charge. Despite the hour and the long road ahead, he was a ball of energy.
“The ride is faster than you think,” Tony Stevens assured the dozen or so passengers bound for destinations between the capital and the Midwest.
As part of the boarding process, Stevens matched our IDs to our tickets. He looked at my ticket — Washington to Hibbing, Minn. — and exclaimed, “I’ve been there. That’s where they have the museum.”
And that was why I was going: to visit the Greyhound Bus Museum in its place of birth 100 years ago this year. My pilgrimage would take one day, 14 hours and 19 minutes and would include three transfers (Chicago, Minneapolis, Duluth), countless rest stops (RS Midway Plaza, Pa.; Tomah, Wis.; Pine City, Minn., etc.) and several teeth-brushings in bus station bathroom sinks (Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Minneapolis).
I was also trying to give Greyhound a chance to redeem itself.
I last took the bus line several years ago to New York. Two buses departed without me, even though I was standing in the station and holding a ticket. (The company is serious about not guaranteeing seats.) Once aboard a third bus, I sat beside a mentally unstable man who was shouting into an imaginary phone about a CIA conspiracy. I built a fortress of luggage around me and hoped that agents would nab him at the Delaware travel plaza. They never did.
And so for Greyhound’s birthday, I was hoping to find beneath my seat the gift of pleasant travel — with no exchange required.
Greyhound Lines has improved with age. In defiance of its years, and its long-standing image as the chariot of absolute last resort, the bus line is growing more youthful, more spirited and more relevant. And much less scary.
“We’ve had a reputation that’s somewhat unfounded,” said chief executive and president David Leach over the phone from Greyhound headquarters in Dallas. “We had to figure out how we were going to rapidly change the perception of our company.”
It’s a tough challenge. For years, a dark cloud of disrepute has shadowed the bus company across North America. The homeless camped out in the terminals. Riffraff and troublemakers poisoned the atmosphere onboard. The bathrooms reeked; the seat fabric itched. In the past decade, a couple of horrifying murders — one of a driver, another of a sleeping passenger — hardened the line’s image as a dangerous charnel house on wheels.
Those incidents were the extreme, but a lax and uncontrolled party-bus atmosphere was commonplace.
“You don’t want to know how many times the bus driver called the cops because of pot-smoking,” Christo Karsikis, a passenger I met on the final leg, recalled of a Miami-to-Los Angeles odyssey in 1979. “Those days, people were drinking on the bus. It was fun.”
Add to these problems the return of the bus as a viable and even fashionable mode of travel. On inter-city routes — Washington/New York, Philadelphia/Boston, San Francisco/Los Angeles — today’s highways host a parade of bold-colored vehicles, all rivals to the sprinting pup.
“The stigma of bus travel has fallen,” said Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development in Chicago. “There’s some romance in riding the bus because, sitting way up high, you can see vistas that you can’t see in cars. And there’s adventure, too.”
To meet the competition and the challenges, Greyhound has been drastically overhauling its strategies and rebooting its image. The Dog is moving on, leaving the bus line of your crazy, boozy uncle’s day by the side of the road.
At Union Station, several of Greyhound’s game-changing initiatives are on view, a flat business plan brought to life.
Over the years, the company has started to relocate many of its stations into “intermodal facilities,” or, less formally, Malls of Transportation. It has abandoned the deserted islands in shadowy neighborhoods (see: the Washington terminal pre-September 2012) for central hubs with links to other modes of travel (see: Union Station).
“We have new terminals in Nashville, Memphis and Miami, and we’re building a new one in Baltimore,” Leach said. “In Milwaukee, we cohabitate with Amtrak. The terminal is well-lit and smells good.”
After 9/11, Greyhound followed the airline industry’s lead and bulked up security. It installed plastic shields to protect the drivers, added security forces in the terminals and surveillance cameras in the vehicles, heightened screening, and rooted out loiterers from the stations and disruptive passengers from the coaches.
The night of my May trip, I watched a Union Station security guard stop at each occupied seat in the waiting room and request proof of travel. When a woman surrounded by a pyramid of tumbling luggage failed to produce a reservation, she was asked to leave. Soon after, three station workers escorted her off the premises. She protested only in body language, her torso sagging over scuffling feet.
Stevens, a former Detroit homicide cop and a 27-year driver, called on his powers as head protector during a stop in Youngstown, Ohio. He noticed a woman with matted hair and an empty baby stroller attempting to board his bus. Unsettled by her behavior, he left her on the platform.
“She was a danger to my passengers,” he said. “They come first.”
At the Chicago terminal, a uniformed team of three walked along the line of passengers waiting for the Minneapolis bus. Two agents were pushing a table on wheels and instructing travelers to place their luggage on top of it. They peered into roller bags, battered suitcases, duffels and my plastic shopping bag filled with food. A young woman with a tattoo of a winged creature on her throat handed over an open-weave purse that held no secrets. The guard turned it over and around as if he were surveying a strange artifact.
“This is why I didn’t fly,” the Montana-bound traveler said of the prying eyes.
An agent wearing a flak jacket and heavy black boots followed with a metal-detecting wand. When his equipment remained mute during a full-body wave, he broke into a smile and exclaimed, “Awesome.”
Greyhound gets around.
The bus line started small and humble, on a two-mile patch of road in northern Minnesota, not far from my disembarkation point at the Country Kitchen in Hibbing. Today, 1,229 vehicles serve more than 3,800 destinations in North America. The fleet covered more than 5.5 billion miles last year; for 2014, my journey contributed at least 1,100 miles to the final tally.
When I finally descended the bus steps for the last time, I found Ron Dicklich, the Greyhound Bus Museum’s acting director, waiting for me. He ushered me into his car, and we set off on a nostalgic trip down Greyhound Lane.
“It was basically for people to get into Alice to shop,” he said of the original route.
Carl Eric Wickman and Andrew “Bus Andy” Anderson created the company in 1914 as a shuttle service for iron miners and their families. The car salesmen initially used the unsold inventory from their Hupmobile dealership to transport workers between the pit, their homes and the commercial district of Alice, which was later absorbed into Hibbing. They charged 15 cents per ride and made a $7.40 profit on the second day of business.
Ron waived the fee for our tour, although I would have happily paid a quarter, including tip, for the retro experience. We drove through the blink-and-it’s-gone downtown of low red-brick buildings built in the mid-1920s. Outside town, we passed wide bands of green space set between large boulevards and punctuated by original lampposts and street signs. Ron stopped the car in front of a chain-link fence that borders a yawning mouth of earth, the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine, a National Historic Landmark. (Driving tips from Ron: To retrace the original route, start at Third Avenue and Central. Go right on Third, left on First Avenue and straight on 27th Street.)
The largest open mine pit in North America — 3.5 miles long, two miles wide, 535 feet deep — is still in operation, about 120 years after the first dig. Down below, Tonka-size trucks bounced across the cratered terrain like space landing craft. On the other side of the visitors center, guests crawled around mining equipment, including XXL tires and a mustard-yellow dirt-mover that could easily stand down a band of angry bears. On my way out, I grabbed a free bag of taconite pellets.
The Greyhound Bus Museum opened in 1987 and moved to its current location on Greyhound Boulevard 12 years later. The modest-yet-thorough attraction begins the journey with black-and-white photos and a model of the first “bus,” the Hupmobile, a seven-passenger automobile from the first half of the 20th century. Exhibit cases packed with toy buses and drivers’ uniforms (the dashing ’30s featured tall leather boots, tucked-in pants and a belted, double-breasted jacket) track the evolution of style, shape and design through the decades. The museum also owns 19 coaches, including several on display that guests can pretend-ride.
“It follows the progression of buses as they get better,” Dicklich said.
First up: the 1927 White Bus, which resembles a blue school bus with a snowcapped top. Next in line: the 1936 Super Coach, which introduced shocks, raised flooring and such cushiony comforts as padded seating; and the 1947 Brill, a silver bullet with the first overhead luggage racks.
I walked along the row of parked vehicles, trying out the different buses until I reached the last model, the 1982 MCI 9. This bus had a good-looking interior with a high roof and large picture windows. Despite its attractiveness, however, I knew that I’d made the right decision to celebrate Greyhound on its 100th anniversary (WiFi, leather seats, outlets) and not its 38th (none of the above).
During the graveyard run to Pittsburgh, Tony Stevens kept his eyes locked on the road but his mouth moving as we discussed Next Century Greyhound.
“It’s a shame that we don’t go there,” he said when I asked about company changes, including chopping service to Hibbing. “That’s our birthplace.”
Unfortunately, sentimentality doesn’t earn a profit.
In 2003, Greyhound redrew its map. Following the national population shift from small towns to suburbs and metropolises, it eliminated low-demand rural stops and started concentrating on dense, urbanized routes. The company cut nearly 37 percent of its network, including service to Hibbing.
“Towns were devastated that they lost Greyhound,” DePaul’s Schwieterman said. “The days are gone when every little town has a Greyhound stop.”
To reach my final destination, I had to transfer to Jefferson Lines, a 95-year-old regional coach company, in Minneapolis. Then I took a once-a-day bus from Duluth to Hibbing in a vehicle the size of a hotel shuttle.
“Everyone was looking for Greyhound,” Jordan Greene said of other passengers boarding in the Twin City. “They didn’t know it was Jefferson.”
But what the Hibbings of the U.S.A. lost, the Washingtons and New Yorks gained. In 2008, Greyhound’s new line, BoltBus, appeared on city curbs with nonstop service, fancy buses and dollar-store prices. Two years later, Greyhound Express pulled up, a near twin of Bolt with the exception of the pickup/drop-off points (terminal, not curb) and the breadth of its reach (Express travels to many towns between the cities). Unlike Greyhound Sr., Junior offers guaranteed seating.
Within the next 24 months, Leach said, “the entire national network should be Expressified.” (About 60 percent to go.) The company will Boltify its gray-haired system as well. At the moment, travelers must present a printed ticket; an online reservation displayed on your gadget won’t roll.
In Elyria, Ohio, a young guy in droopy cargo shorts presented the driver with an e-ticket on his smartphone. She refused to accept it and told him that he needed to buy a paper version. He showed her his empty wallet. She pointed him to the nearest ATM, where he could withdraw $20 for the fare to Sandusky. He walked off, and she drove away, muttering to a co-worker that he could catch the next bus.
Leach said that to streamline the ticketing process, Greyhound drivers will eventually use an app that contains a passenger manifest, plus personal details about individuals’ travel habits. (Bolt drivers are currently testing this technology.) The micro-information can lead to perks, he said. For instance, if a driver notices that a traveler often takes the bus to New York on Thursdays, she may receive an e-mail about a sale on that route. Or a passenger on a bus that was delayed may be surprised with a 30 percent off coupon for a subsequent trip. Or the driver might buy a frequent rider a Valued Customer burger at a rest stop.
“Like airlines, we want to build a more intimate relationship with our customers,” Leach said.
Cassandra Peterson, a 20-year-old college sophomore in New York who was spending the summer at a Christian camp in Ohio, wasn’t completely feeling the puppy love. The first-time Greyhounder was unfamiliar with the rhythms of the bus. She stood out, a bit nervous, as she fumbled with her sleeping bag, searching for a seat with an outlet.
“I’ve never been on a bus or to Ohio or to Pittsburgh,” she said. “There was a little apprehension, but it’s not as bad as I thought.”
As the bus approached Cleveland, her final destination, she called her mom.
“Hey,” she said, sounding relieved, “everything worked out.”
More than a day later, I called my own mother with a similar report.