By Noel T. Braymer
Flixbus is the largest bus service in Europe. But it is not a “bus company”: it doesn’t own buses. Flixbus is actually a Hi-Tech start up company. Their main product is marketing transportation services with most of their work using computers to analysis marketing data and running a travel reservation service. The buses for Flixbus services are owned by private bus operating companies which function as a franchise much like many fast food chains. The local bus companies own and operate the buses which must meet Flixbus standards and graphics. In return these bus companies usually get 70% of the revenue carrying passengers on their buses. Many companies have enjoyed major business growth carrying Flixbus passengers in Europe. What Flixbus does is serve travel markets that other transportation companies have ignored. Flixbus doesn’t just carry passengers by bus. Headquartered in Germany, they have agreements with a couple of private train operators to run Flixtrain service now between Berlin and Stuttgart as well as Hamburg and Cologne. By 2019 they plan to expand their existing rail service with new service from Munich to Berlin and or Berlin to Cologne. The existing Flixtrain services already have connections to the Flixbus network in Europe.
In time for the Memorial Day weekend, Flixbus started service in the United States between Southern California and Arizona as well as southern Nevada. This provides service from Los Angeles, San Diego and Anaheim/Disneyland to Palm Springs, Tucson, Phoenix and Las Vegas as well as several other cities in between. They plan latter this summer to extend their matrix of cities to San Jose, San Francisco and Sacramento. Flixbus not only offers low prices, but many comforts not available on many intercity bus services. These include free Wi-Fi service including videos and games for passenger’s media devices, USB ports and power outlets at each seat, roomy seats, overhead space for a carry-on bag and 1 checked bag per passenger for no extra charge.
A major market Flixbus is targeting are college students. In Los Angeles their buses will stop by both UCLA and USC. In San Diego there will be a bus stop near UCSD. What is ground breaking is with service to UCLA, we will finally see intercity bus service on the I-405 corridor in West Los Angeles. Flixbus is also stopping by Los Angeles Union Station and at LA Metro Expo Line stations at Palms and for USC. Flixbus stops at the transportation center at Riverside with local bus and Metrolink train service. Flixbus is also stopping at the Anaheim transportation center with connections to Disneyland as well as Amtrak and Metrolink. At the Burbank transportation center Flixbus will be able to have Amtrak, Metrolink and local bus connections.
A major difference between Flixbus and most intercity bus services in the United States is Flixbus plans to provide services to more places than most bus companies in the United States. Many of the routes of most intercity buses are centered on the downtown of major cities. What is missing are connections or service to much of the development built after World War 2. With Flixbus, passengers will be able get on or off the bus at the Palms Expo Station and ride light rail and or make connections to local buses in West LA. Generally bus companies stop mostly at larger cities, while bypassing many other smaller towns in between stations to provide faster service. But this also skips many places people want to travel. What the airlines have done for years is have connections to as many places as possible with transfers between planes. With the recent startup of Flixbus service, it now serves 20 cities in the US, but it has 28 stops with major cities having more than one to better serve those areas. With these stops it now has 180 different travel combinations to choose from with connections between all these places. Later this summer with added service to Northern California that will jump to 400 travel combinations.
A major problem with rail passenger service is it can’t go to all the places people want to travel where there are no tracks to get there. In many ways Amtrak’s Thruway bus service has a lot in common with Flixbus, Neither Amtrak or Flixbus own the buses that have their name on them. Both bus services are run by private bus companies under contract to either Amtrak or Flixbus. The difference with Thruway service is by California law passengers are suppose to be making a connection to or from a train. Flixbus will be competing in several markets served now by Amtrak and in some cases by Metrolink. Even so, there is plenty of potential travel for both Amtrak and Flixbus in just the travel market in the American southwest. The biggest problem people are having traveling is often caused by road congestion. The problem is too many people trying to drive at the same time to the same places. The only solution to this problem is getting more people out of their cars into comfortable and speedy buses and trains which can carry many more people using much less space on the roads than people in cars. You won’t be able to do that by forcing people, but you can if you have good, dependable and economical bus and train service. Many people would rather play on a computer game on a bus than stare at red brake lights of the cars in front of them on the freeway when they drive.
One thing Amtrak has been doing recently has been adding bus connections to many of its long distance trains to connect to places Amtrak doesn’t serve directly. Often these are not Amtrak Thurway buses, but connections to regularly scheduled intercity bus services which stop at Amtrak stations. There are plenty of opportunities to add more bus/ train connections just here in California, let alone the rest of the country. But there are troubles in the intercity bus business in this Country. Greyhound has been in trouble for years and has had several owners in recent history. Its owner now FirstGroup is an international company based in Scotland which is now in financial trouble. FirstGroup is looking at several options including selling off Greyhound. The question is who would buy Greyhound? Another major bus company is Megabus which is owned by Stagecoach, which is another international transportation company also based in Scotland. Megabus has been in this Country since 2006 and has had its share of problems and successes. Unlike Greyhound, Megabus doesn’t have cross-county bus service in the United States. Instead it serves 9 different regions with little or no connections to each other. Megabus has service in California between Southern and Northern California and to Las Vegas. Megabus does serve Phoenix, but it goes to Las Vegas, but no direct connections are shown between Phoenix and Los Angeles.
The competitive edge that Flexbus seems to have is a better marketing plan. Central to this is connecting as many markets to a service as possible. When express rail services have been tried in California, the results have been usually that ridership goes down, not up. That’s because by skipping stations, these trains bypass markets which had been using the train. This was not replaced with more passengers at the remaining stations who took the train now that is was a few minutes faster. In California what has been shown to increase ridership is to extend the route of trains which adds more stations and markets to the service.
It will be interesting how much Flixbus, or other bus services would be willing to feed more passengers to rail? Before World War 2, intercity buses were often used to feed riders to passenger trains. Railroads often invested in bus companies and bus stations were often next to train stations. In many cases there are markets that both rail and buses compete over. But the same is true of many airlines, which often have interline agreements allowing passengers to connect at airports to other airlines to travel to where passengers want to go. This wouldn’t just mean Amtrak, but bus connections to other rail services like Metrolink, Caltrain, ACE, and Coaster just in California. Already passengers are taking trains to catch buses at Los Angeles Union Station, Burbank, Anaheim and Riverside. Even where there are destinations both trains and buses serve, having the buses and trains arrive and depart at different times to each other gives passengers more flexibility of when to come and go. Increased frequency often means increased ridership and revenues. So a little cooperation could mean better service and more business than the way we do things now for both buses and trains. With most ticketing now being done online, it is easier now to create one ticket for all travel between different modes. Considering that many tickets today are bar codes on a smart phone, the costs of doing this is very low.