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Bolt Bus, the extremely popular intercity bus service that started up on the East Coast (NYC) in 2008 began operating in the Pacific Northwest a little over a year ago.  The Seattle to Portland route kicked off May 17, 2012 and the Seattle to Vancouver route May 21.  Bolt Bus GM David Hall was kind enough to answer a few questions about their first year of operation out here.  A pleasure to talk to, below is the edited (for length) interview, here is the full transcript.

How did the PNW opening compare to other expansions?  Any unique challenges or surprises?

No real surprises or challenges. We are well ahead of our projections (30%!) for passengers and the growth now that we are year over year continues to be very good.

Speaking of the PNW, any progress in getting bike racks on the buses?

Not really making much progress on this front. To do this we’d need all three of the governing jurisdictions in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia to agree to various waivers.  I’ve also not heard of any issues or complaints on lack of bike space.   We plan to continue to work on getting the waivers but it is not a high priority item.

How has ridership been the last year?  Any plans to add trips? 

Ridership has been great well ahead of our projections, especially on the Portland to Seattle city pair.   We are looking at adding schedules especially to the busier days of the week.

What about adding new routes?

We are looking at expansion but have not finalized any expansion plans at this point.  We do plan to make some announcements in the fall.   We are also looking at expanding into new regions in the near future.

Where do you think your customers are coming from? 

The car is the dominant mode in intercity trips of these distances.  We hope our service converts a small percentage out of the personal car to our service.  I also think the service with it’s convenience, ease of use and relatively low prices creates trips.  Someone will  take that day trip to Seattle to see friends that might have been cost prohibitive before BoltBus.

I look forward to learning more about their expansion later this year.  Bolt Bus has been a vast improvement over existing intercity bus travel in this region.  I’ve been able to convince people who would normally refuse to get on a bus to try it out and every single one of them has come away a huge fan.

57 Replies to “Bolt Bus PNW – Happy Belated Birthday”

  1. They need this on the Spokane-Seattle route. Greyhound generally sucks (never on time), there is no rail option, and our local regional airline has no competition on the route and has totally jacked the airfare.

    Ya, Boltbus is run by Greyhound, but it still is a better service, even if all it does is cherry pick the main markets and ignore more rural transportation needs……

    1. They absolutely need a Seattle-Spokane route! It could be done so much quicker than Greyhound (to say nothing of better service) without having to stop twice on the way.

      1. Yes, a nonstop Seattle-Spokane Bolt could do the run in 5 hours, compared to the current 5h 30 for Greyhound, 6h 50m for Trailways, and 8h for Amtrak.

      2. Amtrak Bus is 7 hrs. It’s 6 hrs if you’re doing Everett to Spokane. Not as fast as a direct route but they don’t really pull off for very long (once in Wenatchee to grab food and once in Moses lake for potty break. I’m not sure I’d want to be on a bus with no food and restrooms for 5 hrs.

      3. I did it once on a special Amtrak bus that replaced a canceled trip on the Empire Builder. Total travel time, station to station, as about 4 hours, 30 minutes, in spite of leaving King St. Station in the middle of afternoon rush hour. We took one 10-minute bathroom break at a rest stop along I-90 near the Columbia River, and that was it.

        This is what BoltBus should be doing multiple times a day, every day.

    2. Yeah, that’d be slick. Seattle to Spokane via Amtrak isn’t really an option; arriving in Spokane between midnight and 2am pretty much sucks.

      1. Amtrak timing does suck, but it’s strongly preferable to current bus service, which either involves Trailways taking just as long as Amtrak (albeit at better times of day) or braving Greyhound’s frequently unpleasant experience. (My only experience with Greyhound in Spokane involved a hour-long lecture by my seatmate about the genetic inferiority of certain racial groups, “It’s science, man.”) I’ve never felt so claustrophobic in my life.

        I usually arrive in Spokane by train, traipse over to the Satellite Diner for a midnight dinner, then crash at a cheap downtown hotel. It’s not so bad. :)

    3. The drivers still need a break every three hours or less. A stop in Ellensburg without sitting at the station for a half hour would be merited. I like non-stop, but I don’t like the idea of my driver holding it in for five hours or being exhausted.

      1. Amtrak gets you to Spokane at 2 a.m. (if it’s anywhere close to on time, which it struggles to do) and there is no transportation available in Spokane at that time. One’s options are to spend the rest of the night in the bus station or carry a suitcase several blocks to a sketchy motel. Neither of those are options for people who are older or have any mobility issues. And spending the night in a bus station is not a good use of anybody’s time.

      2. a 2 am departure (if you are lucky) for a 7 hour trip on journey that only takes 4.5 hours by car is hardly what I would call a viable option.

      3. How about adding 2 additional Amtrak runs, Seattle – Spokane and Spokane – Seattle, Both departing at 8:00am, arriving sometime in the 4:00pm timeframe, stops in Everett, Levenworth, Wenatchee, ???

      4. I’ve done the Empire builder quite a few times. I don’t think the schedule is ideal but it’s not the worst it could be either. If it arrived by 11 pm (2 hrs earlier) and left by midnight (2 hrs earlier) it would be pretty decent. The ride and view is much better than any bus. Although it would be nice to have phone service or wifi through there.

      5. All it takes is money and political will.

        Wisconsin has 2 Talgo trainsets it might be willing to sell cheap.

      6. A more interesting, route then the simple Seattle – Spokane, and Spokane to Seattle departing at 8:00am, might be
        Seattle – (stamped pass) – Ellensberg – Yakima – Try-Cities – Spokane – Wenatche – Levenworth – Everett – Seattle, operating two trains in opposite directions
        This would service a larger portion of the population, and might have a greater appeal to the politicians who would have to bring it into existence.
        Not sure what the schedules would be, and if they are to long, we might need to run two sets in each direction.

      7. That’s where the money part comes in. The counter-clockwise route you describe could work with the current configuation of the Stamped Pass route. It is what is known as ‘dark territory’, essentially it operates without signalling, just train orders.

        To run one direction, eastbound, over stampede pass would be easier, since that is the route BNSF is using to send the empty trains.

        Running the reverse… now you’re probably talking the big bucks.

      8. I doubt the single-trackness of the Stevens Pass route would permit multiple trips per day unless they were back-to-back, right on top of each other. At least not for any price that would be remotely affordable. If we want better transit service to Spokane in the foreseeable future, it’s going to have to be buses.

      9. Yes.

        And we need intra-state moderate speed rail (MSR, 150 mph) all across Inland Washington.

  2. Always great to see bus/coach options attract a broad cross-section of people. Most anti-bus prejudice arises from the fact that many of companies and agencies who run urban and intercity buses treat them as poor-people shuttles, and don’t give a crap about quality. Bravo to BoltBus for attracting riders with a useful service.

    1. My biggest complaint about buses is they’re uncomfortable, have poor ride quality and you’re stuck in your seat for long periods of time. I don’t see that ever changing.

      1. Comfort (ride quality, noise, seats) on urban buses have noticeably improved in the time I’ve been riding them, so as far as I’m concerned things can change and are changing in that respect. For highway coaches, comfort is purely about how much the operator is willing to trade seats for cost. Google runs double-decker Van Hools in the bay area that are amazingly comfortable.

        Buses may never achieve the ride quality and comfort of rail, but that’s not a particularly interesting point. The question is whether, given that money does not grow on trees, and given our current fixed infrastructure, is the differential ride quality enough to justify the differential cost of rail, on corridors where the (plausibly-foreseeable) level of demand does not exceed that achievable with buses?

      2. As long as I get taxed at least $400 year to keep the current highway system functioning… maybe… (re: Skagit River Bridge Collapse), and will be asked … maybe… for more to insure free flowing traffic…

        Yeah, I suppose a highway based system has the advantage, doesn’t it?

  3. I’m confused as to why intercity bus operators would require a waiver for front bike racks when transit agencies traveling on the same highways don’t need one. Why can Whatcom Transit have bike racks for the 90x but Bolt from Seattle to Bellingham can’t? If cross-jurisdictional problems are the issue, as GM Hall implies, did C-Tran have to get similar waivers for Vancouver-Portland bus service? I’d really like to dig into this, because it clearly seems to be needless regulation.

    We have a mishmash of bad bike policies for intercity travel, ranging from the expensive and cumbersome (Greyhound/Trailways/Empire Builder/Starlight), to the free but risky (Bolt’s free but damage-prone underside storage). Amtrak Cascades is the only intercity service that gets bike access right.

    1. How many bicycles fit under the bus, or is there a limit? In other words, if you show up with your bicycle, along with 5 other people with their bicycles, and that day everyone else decided to bring their suitcases…are you just out of luck?

    2. State and federal law general limits the length of a single vehicle to 45 feet. With bike racks on a standard transit bus (40 feet) they are still complying with the law. Put a bike rack on a highway coach (45 feet) they’ll need a waiver. ST/PT probably got a waiver for their MCIs as a gov’t entity (or they are violating and no one is enforcing it). The FMCSA wouldn’t give a pass to a private carrier the way the FTA will to a public carrier.

  4. We have friends in Spokane. It would be nice to have a boltbus line there. If I recall correctly, I think that the #1 destination from SeaTac airport is Spokane, so that would be a good target to advertise to. If you have to choose between a $200-$1,000 flight and a $8-$30 bus ride, with outlets and Wi-Fi on the bus, it’s not very hard to decide.

    1. For anyone living north of downtown, having to go through SeaTac to reach Spokane would be an enormous time sink. Travel time from downtown that way would be only barely better than truncating the route at North Bend and telling people to take the 554 and 209 to connect.

      1. I’m not sure what you mean. Doesn’t BoltBus always run from downtown? Seattle to Spokane would be no different. For all of the different areas (SeaTac, Federal Way, Shoreline, Tacoma, Issaquah, Bonney Lake, DuPont…), downtown Seattle is the most accessible single location bar none. This is why it makes sense for it to run from downtown Seattle (but a stop in Tacoma would be nice).

        As far as a huge time sink, Spokane is 4.5 hours away, so even a 1 hour delay by public transit would only make the trip 22% longer. Almost anyone in the entire Seattle metro area can get there by taking peak commute transit service toward Seattle on a weekday morning the day they go to Spokane, then on the way back, arrive at Seattle in on a weekday afternoon and take commuter transit home.

  5. If we can’t get decent public transit from Seattle to Olympia during session, how about adding a stop in Olympia on selected Seattle-Portland BoltBus runs?

    I realize there is very limited interest in Portlanders going to Olympia, so maybe those selected runs could have a flyover stop in Vancouver (WA).

    1. Tacoma is the only city between Seattle and Portland with enough demand to make a stop worthwhile and not turn the service into Greyhound.

      1. +1. I’m fine with one round trip a day going Seattle->Olympia->Portland, in addition to the current Seattle->Portland schedule. But it is very important to resist the temptation for “Greyhound creep” if we are to maintain time-competitive service between the important markets.

        People that need to get to Centrallia or Kelso needing to choose between Amtrak or private car is not the end of the world.

    2. Nobody rides the bus from Seattle to the Capitol because the line doesn’t exist (and all other options involve painful or sketchy transfers that make it look like anti-transit legislators set the schedule to make the option look as uninviting as possible). Ergo, there is no demand for the line. Um, no, that’s a catch-22.

      There is no reason for BoltBus to have a stop in Tacoma between Seattle and Portland, since there is awesome frequent service between Seattle and Tacoma on the 590 and 594.

      Having a direct BoltBus line between Tacoma and Portland might have possibilities, though.

      1. There is nothing painful or sketchy about transferring at the Tacoma Dome to the 7:12, 7:42, 8:12, or 9:12AM bus on route 603. If you miss your bus, you can always hang around the Tacoma Dome food court which, I believe, has wifi. Route 603 takes you directly to the state Capitol and, in the afternoon, the bus leaves at 4:10, 4:40, 5:10, 5:40, and 6:35PM. The last bus leaves at 7:35PM.

        Getting to the Tacoma Dome from Seattle is as easy as taking a 590 series bus.

  6. Greyhound has been gradually abandoning small-town routes for years. It would not surprise me if its future would be to add BoltBus to Sacramento/SF/LA and Spokane, and drop its Greyhound routes. Smaller companies or the states will take them up, because smaller companies have lower ovehead and rural counties are keen for lifeline bus service. But it may require transferring at state or partial-state boundaries.

    1. Yes, that’s what I mean. The Seattle-Chicago route has been truncated twice since 2000, first to Billings and now to Missoula. Will it then be truncated to Spokane and then deleted? The Seattle-Denver route existed, then didn’t (the reservation system routed you through California), and now it’s sort of back but split at the first town in Oregon. (Or you can go via Missoula and transfer to a non-Greyhound carrier). The Oregon coast route is gone. Greyhound goes to Astoria; there’s an alternate carrier to Cannon Beach; but if you’re going from Astoria to Brookings it routes you back through Portland and Medford.

    2. In the long run, lifeline service to rural areas would much better accomplished by a dynamic carpooling system than a Greyhound-style bus service. Imagine if to get from Leavenworth to Seattle, you could simply arrange a ride on your smartphone from someone driving the route anyway, either from Leavenworth directly or, perhaps, passing through from Wenatchee.

      I’m not sure what the right price point would be to induce someone who is already driving from Leavenworth to Seattle to make a quick stop in Leavenworth to pick up a stranger, but I’m sure, whatever it is, would be less than the $35 or so that Trailways currently charges for a one-way trip. Plus, you’d get a faster and more reliable ride, and be able to make the trip at almost any hour of the day. Even if the driver isn’t headed anywhere near your neighborhood of Seattle, he/she can still drop you off at a transit stop (or Car2Go vehicle) that is on his way, allowing you to easily finish your trip without him.

      The challenge, of course, would be to get that critical mass of drivers to participate so a ride could be obtained with less wait time than the headway of a Greyhound bus, but in the long run, when smartphones beome ubiquitous by rider and driver alike and people learn to get over the taboo of picking up a stranger, this is something that could eventually happen.

      I agree, it does seem a bit far off at present, with Lyft and Sidecar not even operating in small or medium-sized cities yet, but in the long run, it would really awesome if this could happen.

      1. ASDF,

        I think that in the scenario you posit (payment) the driver of the car’s insurance might be void. He or she has become a vehicle for hire which would almost certainly be against the rules.

      2. I occasionally drive for SideCar and have been concerned about this issue. I asked my insurance agent about it and was given a fuzzy answer. That said, she did assure me that “ride sharing” is acceptable, even when payment is accepted. The test is how many rides the driver gives. Coverage for a single ride to Spokane? Sure. Coverage for my ride sharing trips while I’m out doing errands? Probably. Coverage for ride sharing turned into a part time job? Probably not. The very grey test she gave me was to compare what I do to carpooling where your riders pay you for gas and hassle of going out of your way, but even then it was pretty grey.

        I’m assuming my Insurance Company will balk should I file a claim and am relying on SideCar’s policy ($1 Million), even though I don’t drive that much for them. (Less than a dozen rides per month) At some point the Insurance commissioner will likely get involved and hopefully set a specific limit.

      3. Just because something is against current rules doesn’t mean it will remain that way forever. Given enough time, rules can change. We also need to be thinking big and bold about these types of issues, not stuck with assumptions that because cultural norms, technology, and bureaucracy get in the way today, that this will always be the case.

        And the distinction between a ride for hire and carpooling is actually quite vague. The amount of money it would take to pay someone to make a special trip from Leavenworth to Seattle just to transport someone would be, by and large, prohibitively expensive.

        If the driver is already making the trip anyway, for personal reasons, the marginal costs of taking a passenger is much, much less than this – about 5-10 minutes of additional time, with virtually zero additional costs in gas or wear-and-tear. If done right, a donation as low as $20 or so should be sufficient to attract plenty of drivers for this type of trip, provided the platform made it drop-dead easy for the driver and provided some sort of evidence that the passenger is not a criminal or psychopath. Compare to the scenario of a for-hire driver making a special trip just for the passenger – for a distance of 150 miles one-way, the price would probably have to be at least $200-$300 to get drivers interested.

      4. Hmmm,…
        I don’t know if having “Drop dead easy”, and “psychopath” in same sentence would be effective in selling this option to the general public.

  7. I’ve taken the BoltBus between Seattle and Vancouver maybe 50 times already with my bicycle all but every time, and I’ve never had a problem fitting it under the bus. Boltbus riders tend to travel light, which helps. Contrast that with Amtrak, where about 20% of the time the bike racks (pre-expansion) have been booked out. If the train is cancelled, they replace the service with buses, and suddenly you need to find a bike box and be able to take off your pedals.

    An inconvenience of the bus relative to the train on this run is the need to schlep your stuff (but not your bike) into the immigration office at the border. Depending upon who else is on the bus and what their immigration/criminal conviction status is, that can turn into an hour-long wait. On the train, you stay in your seat southbound, and pass immigration at Pacific Station northbound. But you need to show up earlier, particularly southbound, which wastes time. Five minutes ahead of departure is plenty for the BoltBus.

    I notice the price creeping up lately. $25 used to be the top fare on this run- now, it can be as high as $33.

  8. A little off topic, but does anyone know anything about the Greyhound Station in Seattle and when that dump will be replaced (with last I heard a temp. Structure down by SoDo Station (probably its only benefit)). Its too bad you cant get a single through-ticket, and that Airline ticketing/Amtrak/Surface carriers are not more integrated with through ticketing, “code shares” and easy connectivity at Airports, Train stations and other transit hubs. The city of NY (and Boston) does restrict where curb loading intercity buses board, so Seattle could too if they had a real bus terminal.

    1. Full bus stations are a waste of money and accomplish little other than to drive up fares. Our local transportation system is not that bad, that you have to arrive hours early to catch your bus and need a comfortable place to sit for all that time.

  9. Why did BoltBus get rid of the 4:30 PM bus to Portland? I get that it’s a crapshoot for ontime-ability, but for someone working normal hours, 2:30 is too early to duck out and 6:30 is ok, but you end up getting into Portland around 10 PM.

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