James Wang: 4 things that are killing the bus industry

There are four things that are killing the motorcoach industry. Things that are literally still causing privately owned bus companies to close their doors, even though the demand for travel is high coming out of the pandemic as people are eager to travel. 

1. Driver shortage. It’s very hard these days to find people that want to work. And it’s not just the motorcoach industry. The world is facing a labor shortage, and the most affected workplaces are the service industries. Restaurants are closing, not because they aren’t getting business, but because they can’t find enough servers. And city transit authorities, along with yours truly in the private coach bus industry, are canceling routes and turning away travelers because we can’t find anyone to operate the buses. 

The only difference is, city transit authorities get bailed out when they turn away passengers wanting to ride their buses. Their doors will never close from turning down business. That’s because they operate on tax dollars instead of profit. For us private mom-and-pop bus owners, and all of the employees that are within these companies, we don’t have a safety net like the municipality-owned city transit agencies. 

Even after surviving COVID-19, many privately operated coach bus companies are still in danger of losing their businesses and closing their doors. That’s because they have to turn down or cancel previously made bookings from paying customers due to the fact that they don’t have enough drivers. Some have the resources to weather this drought, but the workforce deficit is definitely something that is severely affecting the motorcoach industry today. Many companies are combating this by significantly raising wages and salaries to try and draw in drivers and spending a lot of money on advertising for hiring campaigns. But, for some reason, it doesn’t seem to be working. 

2. Fuel prices. One of the highest expenses an owner of a bus company has to face is filling up the tank of their bus. Now, on average, most motorcoach makes and models here in North America have a diesel tank capacity of between 200 to 300 gallons. (That’s 750 to 1,140 liters to the rest of the world.) As far as miles per gallon, most coach buses here in North America get around 6 to 9 MPG. Google is reporting that current diesel prices in Illinois are between $5 to $5.50 per gallon. Let’s say that your customers book your buses to go on trips every day that are about 350 miles round trip. That’s about $300 worth of diesel for that bus each day. If you ran that bus every day on that trip for a month, that comes out to be about $9,000 each month. And let’s say you have 10 buses in your fleet. That adds up to about $90,000 a month. Now, keep in mind that we haven’t calculated the driver’s pay, the monthly insurance for your fleet, the repair bill you just got for changing the tires, etc. Prior to the pandemic, back in 2019, diesel was hovering around $3.20 a gallon. At that rate, your 10-bus fleet traveling 350 miles a day would cost about $56,000 a month. That’s a huge difference. 

So, how are motorcoach companies surviving these crazy fuel price increases? Like every other business out there, privately owned bus companies are raising prices … a lot. Motorcoach rates have more than doubled since before the pandemic. All of a sudden, Bobby has to sell 5,000 chocolate bars for his school fundraiser to go on his school field trip to Six Flags at the end of the year instead of just 25. I sold a lot of those chocolate bars when I was a kid. Aside from raising prices, some companies have started to look into the all-electric coach bus fleet. As EV technology becomes more advanced, many are starting to think about the benefits of never having to purchase fuel again. The only problem with that is the range. Most all-electric buses have a range of only about 250 to 300 miles before they have to do a two- to four-hour recharge. And if little Bobby’s school field trip is 350 miles away, that just doesn’t cut it. 

3. Parts cost and lack thereof. As I’m sure most of you have noticed, everything all of a sudden got super expensive. From the aforementioned fuel prices to grocery bills and eating out, it’s just ridiculous right now. Well, that’s also true for bus parts. Not only have prices for bus parts gone up, but the parts are also very scarce. Many companies are just not able to get any because there is a shortage of them. From alternators and pulleys to engines and transmissions, and everything in between, the lack of available parts from dealerships and repair facilities is causing havoc in the bus and motorcoach industry right now.

It’s bad enough to have to turn away paying passengers wanting to book a trip with your company because you don’t have the drivers. Now, all of a sudden, you have to turn away others because the parts supplier is telling you that the suspension piece you need to repair your bus is on a three-month backorder. So now, you have a bus that you are still making payments on and paying insurance for sitting there because you can’t get the part. Many companies have started cannibalizing other buses in their fleet just to scavenge for parts that they can’t order. And it all goes in a giant circle. All these parts manufacturers can’t find workers to come in and operate their factories, which is causing the parts shortage, which is causing prices to go up. It’s a vicious circle.

4. Entitlement / cancel culture. Now, I have heard a lot of people say this lately: Is it me or are people acting whinier and more entitled these days? At first, I dismissed this when I heard it in restaurants and grocery stores. But lately, I have definitely noticed this myself. For the most part, Peoria Charter has really good reviews online and we have a pretty good reputation with our clients and our student riders, but I have seen some pretty crazy stuff happen lately. 

For example, students that miss their bus try to blame it all on the bus company. What’s worse, even their parents get behind them and egg them on, threatening all kinds of stuff — from lawsuits to trying to cancel us on social media — just because Junior wasn’t there to board the bus at departure time. How is that our fault? Maybe these parents should teach their kids something about being accountable for their own actions instead of teaching them to be keyboard warriors on the internet, trying to cancel the livelihood and income of a bunch of hard-working people from a mom-and-pop establishment. Somehow, the other 54 passengers got on the bus at that bus stop, but Junior here missed it. It’s pretty obvious that it’s not the bus company’s fault. That’s the kind of stuff that I’ve been seeing all over the place. And no, it’s not just happening to bus companies. 

From retail stores to restaurant servers, we wonder why the service industry is facing a labor shortage. Who would want to come back to an environment where they have to serve people with no empathy and get abused every day by entitled folks that don’t know how to think critically before they act? If any of you out there either work in or operate a bus or motorcoach company, let us know you are coping with all the hardships that we are facing today. And let me know if you can think of anything else that’s hurting the bus and motorcoach world that I left out.

Viewers’ thoughts

Here’s what some of you had to say about my take on the four things killing bus companies: 

Andrew Hill: I’m a Megabus driver in England, and it’s exactly the same here: driver shortages are the main issue, people have left the bus and coach industry during COVID and haven’t returned. People no longer want to do the long and unsociable hours for low pay. A lot of companies here are increasing wages and offering a £2000+ sign-on bonus but still cannot get staff. 

The roads are busier than ever, passengers are more argumentative than ever, and they refuse to read luggage allowances, causing them to turn up with more luggage than the coach can carry. I also often have to deal with passengers who book the wrong date of travel and just assume they can travel on my coach any day. When I explain to them the coach is fully booked, they start shouting and telling me I have no heart and they have no other way home. I tell them I have a heart but I have no seats. 

Last night, I had a late-arriving passenger try to block me in with a car as I was driving out of the coach station to try and catch me. I had been there for 15 minutes loading passengers, but they turn up late and expect to force their way on. The behavior of some passengers is terrible today, and they refuse to accept any responsibility for their mistakes.

Broadway: I literally just got out of an English comp class, and I’m already inspired to write about how COVID inspired me to change my career, which led me to become a diesel mechanic working for a ground transportation division of a major tourism company, working on motorcoaches and privately owned transit buses. Thank you for this video.

Kyle Otto: I have noticed one silver lining, and that is that the remaining coach companies are more willing to help each other out. Just hope we all get to stay in “the remaining” club.

Bus & Motorcoach News columnist James Wang is co-owner of Peoria Charter Coach Company and a bus geek who shares his passion for the motorcoach industry on his two YouTube channels, J Wang and Motorcoach World

Read more James Wang’s columns here.

Share this post