Jamie White and his mother, Angie, at left, wait to board a bus bound for Logan Airport in Boston at the Concord Coach Lines station in Portland on Thursday. The Whites, from Lewiston, were leaving on a trip to Italy and the Middle East. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

For a quarter-century, Concord Coach Lines’ familiar red, white and blue buses have ferried passengers on Maine’s highways, offering a needed transportation link in a rural state dependent on private vehicles.

But what most passengers might not know is the notoriously tight-lipped company is one of the most successful American motor coach lines. Or that it is one of biggest mass-transit players in the state, carrying more passengers than the Amtrak Downeaster line or flights to Bangor International Airport, the state’s second largest.

 

“I like to think of us as a quasi-public utility,” said Concord Coach Vice President Benjamin Blunt, in a rare interview. “People really rely on us to get where they are going; they depend on our service and I think we take that charge seriously.”

Last year more than 640,000 passengers rode Concord Coach Lines in Maine, according to never-before disclosed company statistics. That’s up more than 50 percent from 10 years ago.

Concord’s ridership is almost 100,000 more than the Amtrak Downeaster passenger rail service. It stops in 17 Maine towns and cities, connecting students, travelers, tourists and business people from Bangor, central Maine and the midcoast to Portland, Boston and beyond.

Blunt attributes its success to customer service. A focus on reliability, affordable fares, polite drivers and clean, modern buses have attracted a loyal following.

“I’d like to think the service speaks for itself,” Blunt said. “We try to focus on providing a good service; if we do that, people will use it.”

On a recent rainy Thursday afternoon, about 100 passengers holed up in the Portland Transportation Center just off the highway exit. A steady line formed for Concord’s 2:30 p.m. trip to Boston’s South Station and Logan Airport.

A traveler headed home from vacation at Acadia National Park rubbed shoulders with a visitor on the last leg of a voyage from Angola to visit friends in Lewiston, and those destined to schools and businesses.

Lisa Chuah waits to board a bus to Boston at the Concord Coach Lines station in Portland on Thursday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Jamie White, 34, and his mother, Angie White, 65, of Lewiston, were loaded down with luggage for a monthlong vacation in Italy and the Middle East. The family’s been taking Concord for at least 10 years to Logan to avoid expensive parking fees and stress. Fares to the airport are $30 one way, $50 round trip.

“This way we don’t have to bribe any of our friends to drive us,” Jamie joked.

Lisa Chuah, 45, checked her cellphone while standing in line for South Station after a business day trip to Portland. She began taking the bus recently to avoid a long drive. Plus, she can get some work done in transit.

“It’s just easier,” Chuah said.

John Robert, 64, from Falmouth, had just returned from an overnight business trip to New York. He used to fly down, but with an hour cab ride from the city to the airport, two hours of waiting and the likelihood of delay, a six-hour trip from Portland to Manhattan made more sense.

“The buses are clean, on time, the drivers are courteous, it’s just a great service,” he said. Plus, the New York bus, which has extra-wide seating and a galley kitchen in the back where riders can get fresh coffee, juice, water, snacks, fruit and yogurt, is a cushy ride.

“It’s like riding business class in an airplane,” Robert said.

DECLINE FOLLOWED BY GROWTH

Six decades ago, passenger buses between American cities outnumbered airlines and trains. But cheaper airfare, deregulation, intercity highways and neighborhood blight around bus stations deeply cut service in the second half of the 20th century.

Intercity bus service decline started in the 1960s and accelerated after 1980. Operations fell to less than a third of pre-1960 levels by 2002, according to a 2007 study from Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DuPaul University.

“As the system withered, many travelers came to expect service to be unreliable and stations to be decrepit and unsafe,” the report’s authors said.

As the industry declined, Concord Coach expanded. The company, based in Concord, New Hampshire, started in 1967 and established Maine service in 1992 with a service to Portland, Bangor and Boston. Maine ridership more than quadrupled within five years, from fewer than 48,000 passengers to more than 218,600.

The company expanded slowly. It added an Augusta station in 2008, another in Auburn two years ago and stops at the University of Maine and Bates, Bowdoin and Colby colleges. Four years ago it started a direct Portland-to-New York City service. Concord employs almost 100 workers in Maine, with 55 full-time employees.

Today, it connects 17 communities and runs daily trips between Maine’s three largest cities and Boston and Logan Airport. Its core Boston-to-Portland service has 28 daily trips, one of the most frequent intercity bus connections in the U.S., Blunt said.

“It’s steady, organic growth,” Blunt said. “We’re not looking at expansion for expansion’s sake.”

SETTING A BAR

The densely urbanized Northeast is prime territory for intercity bus, even as it fell out of favor with American travelers. But even in a fertile market with little competition, Concord stands out, said Joe Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute.

“Concord has managed its product very tightly and effectively. That prevented it from falling into the severe pattern of decline that faced other bus lines,” Schwieterman said. Customer service, frequency and reliability are keys to the company’s longevity, he added.

“Outside the Northeast we don’t have great examples of bus lines attracting customers from across the income spectrum,” Schwieterman said. Concord’s “short-haul orientation gives them a market that is not only commuters but also leisure travelers and business people who need to head to Boston for the day.”

From its nadir in the early oughts, bus travel has revived. Carriers like Greyhound have refurbished fleets and new players such as Megabus offer inexpensive tickets. Young people don’t associate bus travel with sketchy stations and unreliable schedules, and are attracted to cheap options that compete with rail and passenger car.

The model for bus travel has changed, too, said Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association. Carriers have adopted direct routes connecting passengers to transit hubs, instead of long-haul journeys with multiple stops and standalone stations.

Concord was at the forefront of that shift and other industry innovations, Pantuso said. Other companies thought Concord was crazy to offer free extras like in-seat radio, movies, headphones, bottled water and snacks or when it heavily invested in vehicle and equipment upgrades. But those tactics worked, and other companies have followed suit.

“In a competitive industry, everyone’s tickets are not that far apart from one another. If you can differentiate yourself, it is a winning strategy,” Pantuso said.

“They are truly, and I would say this to anyone, they are a model for the industry in the way scheduled service should operate.”

PRIVATE COMPANY, PUBLIC IMPACT

Controversy last year over federal immigration checks on its buses threatened Concord’s quiet public image. Despite requests by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and others, the company refused to deny U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents access to its buses to search passengers.

Blunt, in an email, said under current legal advice it is unwilling not to allow agents aboard its buses, because it would put staff in the position of determining if agents have met the burden of proof. It’s also the policy endorsed and advised by the American Bus Association.

The company has tried to inform customers of their rights with postings on its website, at ticket counters and hand cards printed in English and Spanish, Blunt said. Immigration agent presence is “infrequent and has occurred for many years,” he added.

Concord’s large ridership makes it an important part of Maine’s mass transit network, but the fact it’s a private company can complicate fitting it into state and regional transit plans.

The company receives no subsidies and its only partnership with Maine Department of Transportation is a publicly funded station off the Maine Turnpike in Auburn operated by the bus company.

State officials wanted the station there to improve transit access, but outside that there is no public input on Concord’s routes or frequency. The state doesn’t know how many passengers it carries.

“It is one of those things that is a little off the radar for us, but we are aware of it and glad it’s here,” said Nate Moulton, director of the department’s rail program.

Motor coaches have the smallest per-passenger carbon and emissions footprint of any motorized transportation. Expanding mass transit, including buses, is likely an important part of the state’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 45 percent by 2030.

“In general, we know people moving by bus saves much more carbon emissions than people in individual vehicles,” said Kristina Egan, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments, a regional planning group.

Given its passenger numbers – the bus company accounts for more than one in 10 regional transit trips – Concord Coach is a critical aspect in a Portland-area mass transportation plan under development, Egan said.

The council has reached out to Concord to talk about the plan, but since it is a private company, how it fits in is still uncertain.

“It is privately done and financially self-sufficient,” she said. “They are not in the public realm when we program public dollars.”


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