August 6, 2012
With its cheap fares and frequent departures, Megabus has become a no-frills transportation phenomenon since it started service in the United States in 2006. It’s cheap because there are no ticket counters or bus stations. Megabus sells tickets over the internet for as little as $1 and picks up passengers on the street.
So when teenager Eliana Siegal needed to get to a concert in St. Louis, the 16-year-old booked a $55 round-trip ticket from Chicago on the upper deck of a bus some of her friends had been on before—all without incident.
“Amtrak was too expensive. I was trying to spend as little money as possible,” she said Friday. “I Googled, and it was one of the first things that popped up. I was looking at specific times I needed to get in and out, and it worked out. I don’t really have a reason beyond that why I chose them.”
Siegal fits a demographic that is lured to Megabus’ offers of flexible schedules and fares as a low as $1—a marketing schtick emblazoned on the back of the company’s buses.
Chicago-area college kids attending the University of Missouri have used the Chicago-to-Kansas City route as a reliable and, up to now, safe way to get between home and college. With gas prices approaching $4 a gallon outside Chicago and more than that in the city, families looking for quick and inexpensive getaways in the Midwest also flock to the company’s buses.
But in Siegal’s case, the bus she chose wound up careening out of control after an apparent tire blowout and struck a concrete bridge pillar on Interstate 55 on Thursday near Downstate Litchfield, IL, killing one passenger and injuring dozens of others.
Siegal was fortunate enough to walk away without any injuries despite riding on the level of the bus where University of Missouri graduate student Aditi R. Avhad was sitting when she became the tragedy’s only fatality. The experience didn’t sour Siegal from never again wanting to ride a commercial bus.
After managing somehow to get to her Thursday night concert, she was aboard a motor coach Friday afternoon, headed back to Chicago, and contemplating whether Megabus would make right with her and everyone else jarred or injured by Thursday’s crash. “I’m thinking about calling. I don’t know what they’ll do for me. Whatever I can get, I’ll take,” she said. “But I think, at the very least, I should get refunded.”
The company has the highest safety rating of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration despite having one of its buses involved in a headline-grabbing, fatal crash in 2010 in upstate New York. In that incident, four people died when the bus driver smashed the vehicle into a low bridge. Since then, the federal agency reported no other fatal accidents involving the company, though there were four crashes involving company buses in which injuries occurred.
The company describes itself as a “leader in bus industry safety,” having invested $150 million in its fleet. New buses all have three-point seat belts and sensors that relay information by satellite to a company support center about a bus’ speed, tire pressure and lane changes.
Peter Engler, 57, a Chicago food historian who has taken more than 30 round trips on Megabus since 2006, plans to ride the same Megabus route to St. Louis. He described the Megabus experience:
“A loose crowd forms before you get on the bus. The window seats for sure go first. Almost all the buses now are double-decker, and the front top is really good. It’s also actually kind of enjoyable with a great view. It used to be very heavily skewed towards students. Now, it’s very mixed.”
On Friday, crowds undeterred by the accident still lined up in the hot sun to board Megabuses outside Union Station. Amanda Weibel, 25, from Canton, MI, who was on her way to Ann Arbor, takes Megabus because it’s “super cheap”—usually $30 one-way. “It’s pretty cramped, but it does the trick; it gets you there,” she said. Weibel was aware of the crash earlier this week. “I saw that. I feel like that’s a fluke, but it’s kind of scary.”
Rodney Reid, 18, of Detroit had paid $15 for his ticket back home. “It’s comfortable, cool,” he said. “They don’t lose your luggage; it’s clean.” Was he worried about the crash? “I thought about it,” he replied, “but stuff happens.”
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