Rural Greyhound passengers get last boarding call

For the first time in as long as most people can remember, the old "silver dog" failed to stop last week in Hollywood, Fla.; Hurricane Mills, Tenn.; and Ludlow, Vt. - just a few of close to 1,000 out-of-the-way hamlets where residents can no longer leave the driving to Greyhound.

So far, 750 rural towns - and hundreds of more in-between "flag stops" in even smaller places - have lost their Greyhound connection this year. Service stopped at 81 locales last week alone, and hundreds more are expected to be dropped as the Dallas-based carrier and its subsidiaries roll out new routes across the country into 2006.

It's part of a broad restructuring of the 91-year-old long-distance carrier, which is trying to regain traction after losing $22 million in the first quarter of this year. Left in a puff of exhaust are the small towns that helped define the image of the Greyhound as a low-rent hitch that appealed to Americans' sense of adventure and earned it broad cultural recognition in everything from country songs to movies like "Midnight Cowboy."

Greyhound's new strategy: adopt faster and more direct urban routes.

But in bypassed towns like Windsor, N.C., one of 31 stops in this state that lost bus service last week, the decision compounds a sense of dislocation and increasing distance from the country's booming urban centers - not to mention the loss of a cheap ticket to the big city for many rural poor, especially in the South, for whom the Greyhound remains an important connector to country roots.

"Most people come from the country, not the city, and they have to have a way to come back for weddings and funerals, and the bus is still that way for a lot of people," says Maria Wesson of Windsor, as she packs pork barbecue sandwiches at the Duck-Thru convenience store that served as the bus stop for the past two years.

But nostalgia won't pay the bills. A recent bus that came through tiny - and now off-the-grid - Pinetops, N.C., carried a single passenger northward to New York City. To stem the slide and become more relevant, Greyhound surveyed its passengers and found a new kind of bus traveler emerging: more urban, less interested in traveling distances over 450 miles, and more concerned with speed. Lengthy, meandering routes were passengers' biggest complaint - and they also failed to attract business. In all of 2004, for example, only 121 outbound passengers used the small terminal in Humboldt, Tenn., which closed last week.

"It's never an easy decision to discontinue service to a community that you've been serving, but when customer demand is low or nonexistent, to stay in business you have to make tough decisions," says Anna Folmnsbee, a Greyhound spokeswoman.

The biggest culprit behind declining ticket sales is the car; even the poorest rural family likely has one. But, from a business point of view, Greyhound's leaving is an affirmation of many towns' decline as destinations and points of departure.

"The real reason that service has gone down is that people are leaving those communities," says Elvis Latiolais, general manager for Carolina Trailways, a Greyhound subsidiary.

Some communities could replace the lost service through rural transportation grants from the Federal Transit Administration. Yet in April, before departing for a new post, FTA chief Jennifer Dorn warned state transportation officials: "Rural service is no longer a certainty."

The silver coach became a key plot twist in major life events, from elopements to enlistments to the journeys of budding small-town starlets trying their luck in Hollywood. For artists, the Greyhound has long been a symbolic way to depict a unique American wanderlust: Sometimes as a way out, often as a way home.

"Greyhound really brought America as a whole together, and it's always been more of an adventure than riding the train," says Gene Nicolelli, the director of the Greyhound Bus Origin Center, a museum in Hibbing, Minn.

The company, which first started making runs in 1914, did what the railroad couldn't by connecting flourishing small towns off the main railline. In the process, every American could take part in Manifest Destiny, riding on the cheap through the Rockies or dozing through Mississippi's cotton fields.

But since 1970, the Greyhound has gradually lost its importance and appeal. Ridership is down to 40 million from a 1970 high of 130 million. Where once the Greyhound stopped in 17,000 communities, it today pulls into only 6,000.

It's still a great way to ride, says Samuel Avent, waiting to catch a bus in Rocky Mount, N.C., a small Greyhound hub that remains active. "There's no wear on your car, you leave the driving to some one else, you have something to eat - and mostly you sleep," he says, leaning his head back and closing his eyes by way of example.

Back inPinetops, antiques shop owner Patricia Webb can no longer enjoy watching for the new stranger to step off the bus - always a good topic of conversation for across-the-counter gossip.

But more deeply, the end of the route means that little Pinetops, a struggling eastern North Carolina town of mostly African-Americans and older whites, where the bus stopped in front of the police station, is increasingly irrelevant to the world at large. "It's another sign that small towns like ours are being left behind," says Ms. Webb.

The route of Trailways driver Leonard Cofield wound past live oak swamps, tobacco shacks and Princeville, N.C., where he used to get a barbecue sandwich and chat up the locals.

The route has been discontinued. Instead, Carolina Trailways is adding new service to Wilmington and Charlotte, N.C., and Richmond, Va., most of them express buses and direct routes. Mr. Cofield, for one, bemoans the end of his own rural, two-lane line.

"It was a great route," he says. "I'm sad to see it go."

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