Tom Clyde: As sexy as a bus
February 28, 2015
No child ever went to bed on Christmas Eve hoping that Santa would bring him a toy bus. The toy train hobby thrives, not only among children but adults, too. There are model railroad magazines and conventions. There are coffee table books filled with high-quality photography of trains. There were 183,199 railroad-related items on eBay this week. There were 3,399 bus-related items. Mention trains, and it evokes romantic and elegant images from "Murder on the Orient Express." The first bus movie that comes to mind is "Midnight Cowboy," with Dustin Hoffman coughing up a lung in the back seat while John Voigt comforts him — just another day on the Greyhound. There was also that terrible Sandra Bullock movie, "Speed," where they had to keep the bus moving above some set speed or it would blow up. Most people I know were hoping for the explosion.
There are whole shelves in libraries devoted to railroad history, and the biographies of the men who built them. Stanford, Hopkins, Huntinton, Vanderbilt, Dodge, Gould, Harriman, Moffat, James J. Hill — I came up with that list off the top of my head. I had to resort to Google to find a bus pioneer. Eric Wickman, a Swedish immigrant from Minnesota, whose birth name was Martis Jerk (really), put multiple seats in his Hupmobile and shuttled miners between their homes and the mines. It became Greyhound in 1929. So now you know a pioneer of the bus industry. It was founded by a guy named Jerk, which kind of says it all. There was one copy of his biography available on Amazon. In Swedish.
In an effort to coax Americans — especially Western Americans — out of our cars and into some kind of mass-transit option, it’s easy to see why there is a real attraction for trains. Most of us never ride trains, but we still like them. Some may use commuter rail, but the only time I ever rode a "real" train in the US was 50 years ago. We were going to Pocatello to have Thanksgiving dinner with my mother’s side of the family. My father would rather have plucked his own eyes out than make that trip, even though he and his brother-in-law were close. To make it exciting, we took the Union Pacific from Salt Lake to Pocatello. Not because driving was a problem, but because Dad wanted us to experience the marvel of train travel before it was gone forever. I thought it was wonderful, except that we were in Pocatello.
There was no similar urgency to haul the family to Thanksgiving on the Continental Trailways bus before it folded. That wasn’t an experience anybody thought we needed to have. Come to think of it, I’m not sure we ever went to Pocatello for Thanksgiving again.
Anyway, trains still hold a place of reverence in American culture that buses never even aspired to. So I understand the fixation with rail as the transportation solution in the Mountain Accord. The Sandy, Alta, and Park City railway seems improbable for a lot of reasons, starting with cost and quickly moving on to engineering problems and then the route itself. But the idea still has sex appeal. Like our Thanksgiving trip to Pocatello, I would probably ride that train at least once just for the experience. If it stayed above ground, the scenery would be spectacular. The Durango & Silverton is a bucket-list experience. The Heber train is fun, too. But I would never ride a bus over the same route.
I would always choose to drive my own car, where I control the temperature, what’s on the radio, and who’s in the next seat. And that is the problem with any of the conversations about getting us out of our cars and on to some kind of mass transit that reduces traffic. Whether it is a bus between Park City and Salt Lake, or a bus between Quinn’s Junction and PCMR, it isn’t as convenient or comfortable as your own car. Throw 20-minute service intervals and a couple of transfers in there, and riding the bus becomes the alternative of choice for people who have no choice. It’s even free, and that isn’t enough inducement to get people to use it.
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The conversation turns to "disincentives" to driving a car because it’s frankly impossible to make the bus attractive. Free doesn’t do it. They haven’t tried serving coffee and pastries, or pole dancers, but that still wouldn’t overcome the essential bus-ishness of the experience. The disincentives sort of boil down to making parking scarce and expensive. If only we make driving a worse experience than riding the bus, people will ride the bus.
There’s a plan for a bright future.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.