In the dead of a frigid winter night, the crowded confines of the art deco Greyhound station here have the feel of a triage unit. Dazed-looking passengers slump over their possessions trying to catch some winks under the glaring lights. The restless line up to vie for a seat on the next bus out. Others sit listlessly, waiting, complaining.
Optimism is a rare quality at 4 a.m. in the bus station in Cleveland. So perhaps it's understandable if the bleary-eyed fail to recognize the finer points of what Greyhound Lines is touting as a $60 million, three-year makeover. After 90-odd years on the road, the bus company identified by the iconic racing canine was getting a bit long in the jowls and deemed ready for a face lift.
The changes come at a time when intercity bus travel is on the rise, thanks in part to the entry of new, smaller bus lines. And so with a pack of those younger, regional carriers nipping at the heels of the only national intercity bus line, Greyhound has spruced up its fleet and many of its terminals.
Improvements onboard include reclining seats with lumbar support, footrests and carpeted ceilings for sound-proofing. At 125 stations, new signage has been installed along with better lighting, restroom renovations, and in some stations, flat-screen TVs. Employees have undergone a "rigorous" customer-service training program and drivers wear spiffy new uniforms.
Many of these changes are evident in the pre-dawn hours in Cleveland. An X-Files rerun glows from an elevated flat-screen TV, the bathroom smells of disinfectant and the floors are debris-free. A friendly cook throws burgers on the grill. And chilled passengers can warm themselves with fleece blankets for sale at the gift kiosk.
But at the moment, these niceties are lost on some customers. "When we got here, I went out and smoked a cigarette and I saw they got buses. They got drivers. They got gas. So why aren't we goin' anywhere?" ponders Lisa McLain.
Her departure from Sandusky, Ohio, this evening was three hours late, and now the 37-year-old, who describes her job as helping a friend repossess cars, has been sitting in Cleveland for 3½ hours. At this rate, she estimates she'll arrive in Chapel Hill, N.C., eight hours behind schedule. Still, she's more resigned than angry. "It cramps your style, but what are you gonna do? You get upset, it's not gonna make you get there faster."
Indeed, taking the bus requires the luxury of time. But then, many riders can't afford the luxury of speed. In a country where car culture reigns even as fuel prices soar, travelers with their own wheels haven't been prone to leaving the driving to Greyhound. Moreover, in the years following airline deregulation, which brought greater competition and lower fares, air travel became more widely available to the masses (and gave rise to the pejorative characterization of the airlines as "Greyhounds of the sky"). Consequently, in past decades, intercity bus ridership sharply declined. Between 1960 and 1980, scheduled service between U.S. cities dropped by almost a third, and from 1980 to 2005, service declined another 60%, according to a new DePaul University study. But the study notes a recent resurgence in the industry, with a 13% increase in departures between February 2006 and late last year.