Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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Downgraded to the Bus for an Upgrade
January 26, 2017 -- Question: When is a downgrade an upgrade with a refund and a surprise?

Answer: When an Amtrak train is three-and-a-half hours late and the station agent offers you a seat on a sleek Mercedes-Benz-built Amtrak bus with more comfort and a much earlier arrival time.

Sleek Amtrak bus?

Though it doesn't promote it, Amtrak has a national network of buses plying 100 routes that feed or connect with the railroad's passenger trains. Some of the routes are useful for business travelers, particularly in California where distances are long, major airports are jammed, freeways are clogged and gasoline is nearly $4 a gallon.

In the Golden State, Amtrak trains can be a sensible alternative to intrastate flights. But just like flights, train delays are a constant threat. That's because freight trains have priority over passenger service on West Coast tracks. A 100-car freight train can bring a 10-car passenger train to a standstill, derailing personal travel schedules. (In the busy Northeast Corridor, Amtrak owns a majority of the track it uses between Boston and Washington.)

I discovered Amtrak buses by accident over the Christmas holiday. Considering a short flight from San Francisco south to San Luis Obispo, United Express was quoting $254 to fly 254 miles on a cramped regional jet. The other alternative? Drive Highway 101 for five hours each way.

Instead, I booked Amtrak's iron horse at $78 roundtrip, which included a $20 senior discount from the original fare. On the train, you can spread out on a table, plug in a laptop and work in the observation car. And, of course, you don't battle highway traffic or brave the crowds at SFO.

When I booked my Amtrak ticket, however, I hadn't figured on the train being delayed. Even with the southbound train running nearly four hours behind schedule and the Amtrak ticket agent urging us to board a bus "because it will beat the train," I was leery. I knew Amtrak operated a feeder bus from San Francisco across the Bay Bridge to Oakland to catch the train, but I didn't realize Amtrak buses also did long-distance trips down the 101.

So while I felt like I was being downgraded to the bus from the train, it was actually an upgrade.

Seating on the two-year-old motorcoach was far more comfortable than any U.S. airline's coach or premium economy class. This Amtrak bus also had two large tables that could easily accommodate eight passengers. There were also AC power outlets, free WiFi, strong overhead lighting and sizeable drop-down tables at each seat. The bus cruised at about 70 miles per hour for most of the trip. For some reason, I also received a $15 refund for taking the bus.

Because the so-called Amtrak Thruway service is something of a secret--six out of six business travelers I quizzed weren't aware of it--ridership is low. On my roundtrip, there were perhaps 10 passengers on the bus each way. Most were leisure travelers, so I didn't have to worry that the two tables would be commandeered by others who also wanted to work en route. (Amtrak's fleet varies, however, and a spokesperson says not every bus has tables.)

A Sacramento bookkeeper and first-time Amtrak bus rider named Emily (she declined to give her last name) was pleased to discover she could spread out her papers and work. "I never expected to find a large flat surface on a bus or plugs for charging my laptop and phone," she told me.

On the five-hour trip down 101 from the Bay Area, the bus makes just five stops. That included a 20-minute layover in King City where passengers can pick up sustenance and refreshments at a Subway sandwich shop or a McDonald's.

But the convenience and speed of a long-haul Amtrak bus in California is not without speed bumps. For example, I assumed roundtrips where a standard offering. Turns out that simple option isn't available.

When I tried to book another San Francisco-San Luis Obispo roundtrip by bus earlier this month, Amtrak's telephone reservationist said no. Only one-way bus rides were allowed. I was required to use the train at least one-way.

"We're a train company, not a bus company," the agent explained. "You got a roundtrip bus trip in December because of 'extenuating circumstances.' The southbound train trip was delayed so we accommodated you rather than make you wait."

This isn't another quirk of the nation's passenger railroad, either. Amtrak is just following the law. And California law bans travelers from buying roundtrip tickets on an Amtrak bus. Two one-ways are also prohibited.

A statement from Amtrak explains it this way: "The SB806 Perata bill was sponsored by Senator Dan Perata at the request of Greyhound, specifically to prevent state-subsidized buses from competing with unsubsidized intercity bus companies (i.e. Greyhound). Effective January 2000, the law required that bus tickets for state-sponsored Amtrak routes could only be sold in conjunction with a qualifying rail ticket."

Subsequent amendments ordered that roundtrip rides on Amtrak buses could only be sold on routes where there was no competition, according to the statement.

Since the Perata law went into effect, Greyhound has gotten more aggressive and competitive. Its BoltBus subsidiary offers service between major cities in California and in the Northeast. BoltBus coaches feature free WiFi and at-seat power, good legroom and reclining leather seats. Fares from San Francisco to Los Angeles start at $22 each way when booked online. (There's a $3 upcharge for telephone reservations.) But BoltBus doesn't operate between San Francisco and San Luis Obispo, so it's hard to understand the restriction on roundtrip Amtrak bus purchases.

Nevertheless, Amtrak's Thruway buses aren't problem-free, either. Last week, my 6:35 a.m. southbound bus was a no-show. What could go wrong with a practically new $600,000 Mercedes-Benz motorcoach?

"It broke down on the 101," said an Amtrak ticket agent.

This column is Copyright 2017 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.