We almost made it back intact. The boss had launched me east on a Colorado-to-North Carolina round trip in a Scenicruiser whose clutch was slipping in fourth gear.
“Only a great driver can make this trip, and we don’t have time to ‘clutch’ the bus,” Joe said.
The one accurate word in that sentence was “only,” as in I was the only driver available.
The ‘cruiser made it to Greensboro and back to Amarillo before the slipping clutch limited us to 25 mph. In ye olden days one could roll under a bus with a three-quarter-inch wrench and crank the clutch fingers tight. I locked that sucker up, then “rode steel.”
That’s a euphemism for roaring down the road with a clutch you couldn’t disengage, double clutching without a clutch, trying desperately to avoid stopping. If you came to an actual halt, you started the bus in gear and hoped for the best.
Back then, on the road, our primary method of communication was collect phone calls.
We limped in from Amarillo to the garage, when Joe marched up and said, “We need you for one more move. Only a great driver can make this trip, and we don’t have time to ‘clutch’ the bus.”
I was grumpily climbing into the driver’s seat when, totally unexpectedly, my pal Leon rolled into the lot with an empty coach.
Leon’s trip had been canceled, and he and his Eagle were available to save my bussy bacon. If we had known he was nearby, everyone would have been spared the spectacle of me muttering unkind words while staggering sadly back towards the bus. With no pay phone nearby to give us hope, Leon had just headed home.
Back then, on the road, our primary method of communication was collect phone calls. Joe was phenomenal at guessing our location, but he wasn’t perfect, and we often weren’t sure where buses and drivers were.
A major reason the nonprofit we worked for abandoned the bus program was deadhead mileage often necessitated by lack of communication.
Fast forward, and by the 1970s some companies had dispatch radio, which one operator said made his fleet effectively 10 percent larger because he could use coaches more efficiently.
Along came cellphones, GPS and other electronic innovation. Both charter and scheduled operators are able to use these resources to utilize their fleets more efficiently than in the past.
That’s a major step forward in an industry that’s required to invest heavily in equipment that is often used seasonally.
Getting the most “moves” out of a finite fleet was often accomplished by artful dispatch. If your operations folks were really good, you did more work with fewer buses.
The key to making money with a $600,000 coach, built to travel 150,000 miles a year, is using that hardware a lot.
There’s controversy around the new leasing rule precisely because our industry, particularly small and midsized carriers, need to be able to use coaches efficiently. We can’t have one carrier turning business away while another has buses sitting idle.
Regardless of how that shakes out, one key to our future is likely to be computers. Lots of things are looming on the horizon, and if history teaches anything, some will work, some will not.
The point is that we need to be paying attention and experimenting (but in ways that minimize risk). Many companies kept parallel paper dispatch records while trying out computers.
Brokers are a mixed blessing so far, but technology and social media are sorting them out. New websites are popping up that create bus movements in response to events. Not only are they assembling groups of people heading to concerts, athletic events and political rallies, they are creating new business. Software replaces group leaders in creating both the idea and reality of a coach trip.
Just as Uber and Lyft have revolutionized urban transit, we can be certain that websites are going to do the same for the coach business. They have the ability to make our current efforts far more efficient, but more significantly, they have the potential to create new business.
People will use coaches in new, and unforeseen, ways because websites make it easy (and hopefully during our slow season).
The trick for our industry is going to be sorting the wheat from the chaff, and (as you have come to expect) I’m long on questions and short on suggestions.
I have a few, though. Try lots of things, but don’t become dependent on any single one. Maintain existing customer relationships while trying new things. Make sure you get paid in money, not promises, and get feedback from other operators.
There is some risk in all this, but if we don’t explore down this path, our industry will likely shrink into irrelevance.
We can’t just mutter Luddite musings in hopes that Leon will show up to save us.
Dave Millhouser is a bus-industry marketing consultant and freelance writer. Contact him by email at Davemillhouser@gmail.com.