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Published on Thursday, July 17, 2008

Fuel prices leading more travelers to board trains and buses

There’s much discussion about the future impact of soaring fuel prices and less airplane seats on the entire travel industry but an immediate effect is clear when it comes to trains and buses: Business is up.

Amtrak is filling seats and raising fares.

"We believe the largest single reason is that people want to avoid the higher cost of driving their own vehicle," said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. "People are looking for options."

Amtrak raised fares 5% recently on selective routes, citing the higher cost of the diesel fuel that powers locomotives and other operating costs.

In the fiscal year that began 1 October, Amtrak ridership nationally has climbed 11%, to more than 21 million passengers through June, and it expects to exceed the record 25.8 million set the previous year.

Crowded trains have caught the attention of the US Congress, where efforts are being made to increase funding for Amtrak.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved $1 billion in new capital funds and $500 million for operating expenses  --   moves likely to be opposed by President Bush.

Nationwide, bus travel between cities has risen 13% since 2006, the first increase

in more than 40 years, according to a study by DePaul University in Chicago.

Greyhound, which eliminated more than 1,000 routes in 2004, is vying for a piece of the same business.

The Dallas-based company launched Bolt Bus this year, offering promotional $1 fares and flashy new vehicles boasting Wi-Fi, plentiful plug-in outlets and flushable toilets.

Upgrades could be a blessing for the bus industry, which is plagued by stereotypes of down-on-their-luck passengers and crotchety drivers.

"The perception is changing," said Eron Shosteck, spokesman for the American Bus Association. "Today's modern motor coaches are nothing like the buses people remember taking in college."

He couldn't provide 2008 numbers but said the company is experiencing an upswing in ridership after two years of single-digit-percentage declines.

"Our buses are full," Clark said. "We are prepared and expecting a big summer."

The price might be right, but bus travel still has its downside, according to travel observers.

Longer trips might require extended layovers at unsavory stops, sometimes late at night. And it can take a while to arrive at destinations. For instance, a trip from Bangor, Maine to Lima, Ohio, takes 34 hours  --  one-way.

Report by David Wilkening

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