Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Rochester City Lines, a family-run Minnesota commuter and charter bus company, was booming.
“We were set for our best year ever in 2020,” said Christian Holter, the company’s chief operating officer. “And then the wheels fell off.”
Half of the company’s business came from commuters on its dozen or so fixed routes. Many worked at the giant Mayo Clinic medical complex in Rochester and commuted from parts of southeastern Minnesota and the Twin Cities area.
The company lost a large chunk of its commuters when Mayo allowed many employees to work remotely, Holter said. The rest of Rochester City Lines’ business, which came mostly from charters booked by high school and college athletic teams and for corporate outings, also dried up.
In 2020, the company’s revenue fell 93%, Holter said.
Like Rochester City Lines, many private bus companies across the United States have faced serious difficulties during the pandemic. It didn’t matter whether they operated regular city-to-city routes, carried commuters, or provided charters and tours.
Throughout the country, many people who do not have a car or drive, especially students or people of limited means, rely on intercity buses. If these routes are cut or eliminated, they risk being abandoned.
Transport experts consider intercity services to be essential infrastructure. Often they operate in areas where there is no other means of transport.
And in many small towns, local charter bus operators serve school groups, seniors’ clubs and other community organizations. Without them, residents may have few options if they want to plan sporting events, church retreats or sightseeing.
The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the bus industry.
The riders have disappeared. White-collar employees were working from home. Schools were teaching students remotely, so there were no field trips or sporting events.
Bus companies have cut services, cut routes and laid off workers. The buses remained inactive. Despite $1 billion in federal aid, many businesses, especially those that operated charters, could not survive and closed.
As of December 2019, there were 3,878 motor coach carriers in the United States, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. At the end of February, there were 1,940.
Many businesses that still remain are struggling to cope with a huge drop in ridership and major revenue losses, industry officials say.
“It was devastating. Restaurants and hotels seem to be back. The airlines are all busy. Compared to other modes of transportation and the travel industry, we are still way behind,” said Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, an industry trade group.
It’s especially problematic for commuter bus lines, which relied on riders who lived in suburbs or small towns and rode the bus to work in larger cities, Pantuso said.
Commuter bus ridership is only 20-25% of what it was before the pandemic, according to Pantuso’s group.
“In many large urban areas, commuters aren’t coming back,” he said. “They telecommute or they drive because they don’t feel comfortable on a bus or a subway.”
Charter bus companies are doing better, but are still operating at around 60% capacity, Pantuso said.
In Washington, D.C., for example, where about 1,000 buses a day full of students from across the country would normally arrive for school outings in the spring, his group estimates there will only be about 500 a day this year.
And intercity bus companies, which transport passengers from city to city, are also suffering.
At the end of February, ridership on intercity bus routes nationwide was estimated at 60% compared to pre-pandemic figures, according to a recent report by the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, an urban transportation think tank.
“Commercial intercity bus lines have been through hell in a handcart because of the pandemic,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a professor at DePaul University’s School of Public Service in Chicago and director of the Chaddick Institute. “Morale plummeted. The equipment remained inactive. Employees turned to other jobs. It was a very difficult period.
“Now it’s a catch-up game, if they’re still there,” he added. “Many are significantly reduced and struggling to ramp up.”
Bus companies are also facing a major shortage of bus drivers, as many unemployed drivers have been transferred to other jobs, such as trucking, during the pandemic.
“In our industry, the driver shortage situation is almost as bad as the pandemic,” Pantuso said.
The number of coach drivers nationwide dropped about 62% between February 2020 and December 2021, according to the Pantuso association.
Unlike private intercity and charter bus companies, most state-funded rural bus services have fared somewhat better during the pandemic, Schwieterman said. These routes in rural communities have largely been preserved because the companies that run them receive funding from state governments and the US Department of Transportation, he added.
Many intercity and charter bus companies have managed to stay afloat with the help they have received from Congress. Some were counting on money from the federal Paycheck Protection Program to help keep employees employed, at least for a while. And in late 2020, as part of its pandemic relief bill, Congress approved a $2 billion grant program for coach, school bus and passenger ship operators. The bus industry got $1 billion.
“We were grateful to get anything at that time,” Pantuso said. “For some companies, it was a slim lifeline.”
But that was not enough, he added. His association hopes Congress will authorize an additional $2 billion for the three industries through an amendment added to a larger COVID-19 relief bill by U.S. senses Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, and Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi. The bill is under consideration in the Senate.
Meanwhile, Pantuso said the recovery has been quite slow. He doesn’t see his industry returning until late 2023 or early 2024.
“With gasoline at $4 a gallon, you would expect the industry to explode,” he said. “We don’t see that happening. People just don’t ride that much.
Schwieterman said he believes intercity bus ridership will continue to grow this summer and expects it to reach 80% of pre-pandemic levels in 2023, spurred by soaring gasoline prices motorists are at confronted.
As for suburban bus lines, particularly those involving long distance, that’s another story.
“The daily commuting market may never fully return. This market is constantly changing,” he said, noting that he hopes it will eventually reach three-quarters of pre-pandemic levels within the next few years.
For Rochester City Lines, charter business has gradually returned over the past eight months, Holter said. But commuter service, which was suspended in April 2020, is unlikely to return.
The small business, which was started by his grandparents in 1966, was able to stay in business during the pandemic, Holter said, because lenders were generous in deferring payments on business loans and thanks to federal aid programs.
“These programs are the reason the doors are always open,” he said. “It was a brutal thing to go through.”
And while the company expands its charter business, total revenue is still down about 50% from pre-pandemic numbers, according to Holter.
He said the company was still getting inquiries from former passengers asking if commuter service would return.
“I’m sorry to say that there are enough changes that it’s really difficult to get the service back on the road,” he said.