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Concord Coach Lines rolls into Augusta

By Maria Fuentes
 
Almost from the beginning, Harry Blunt knew he was going to run a different kind of bus company. After purchasing Edmunds Bus Line of New London, New Hampshire, in 1967 and Capital Transit of Concord two years later, Blunt started Concord Coach Lines – and with it, a strategy to capture a new market for intercity motor coach transportation.
 
Named for the historic stagecoaches manufactured in New Hampshire’s capital, Concord Coach was at first a charter company similar to several others in northern New England. The 1970s were a time of great change for bus companies, Blunt said in a recent interview. Airline deregulation and lower fares made air travel an everyday experience for middle income Americans, and cut heavily into intercity bus travel.
 
Bus stations in most cities became increasingly run down, and bus passengers were largely low-income families and individuals. Blunt remembers seeing a Greyhound Bus annual report in the 1990s that said only those in the lowest 20 percent of the socio-economic strata of America still rode buses regularly. “We thought there was a much bigger market for public transportation than that,” he said – and he decided to test his theory.
 
“The traditional bus networks [Greyhound and Trailways] were organized as hub and spoke systems, much like the airlines,” he said. Buses passing through northern New England cities such as Portland and Bangor were “feeder” routes for hubs like Boston and New York, with many stops and long travel times. What Concord Coach saw was the need for high-frequency point-to-point service between city pairs, such as Portland to Bangor and Portland to Boston.
 
In 1980, Concord Coach acquired the routes of the former Trailways of New England and began offering express service to Boston and Logan Airport. The route times were comparable to private automobiles. The company took the name Concord Trailways, which it retained until the end of 2007 when it returned to the original Concord Coach Lines.
 
But there was more to the formula than that. Buses and terminals had to be “clean, convenient and safe,” Blunt said. “It had to pass the mother-daughter test. Would you want to use the rest rooms there? Would you feel safe dropping your grandmother off at the bus station?”
 
Blunt’s strategy, indeed, brought back passengers, and Concord Trailways expanded to Maine in 1992, with terminal service in Portland and Boston.
 
The company opened its own station in Portland next to I-295 in 1996, and it was substantially expanded, with direct interstate access, when the Downeaster trains began to run in late 2002. Now, the big Concord Coach buses are a familiar sight on the region’s interstates, from Littleton, Berlin and North Conway through southern New Hampshire to Boston and I-95 from Bangor through southern Maine, also arriving at Boston South Station.
 
The company’s most recent Maine addition is a new terminal in Augusta, just north of the Civic Center. The addition of service to the capital had been planned since 2005 but delayed by land use disputes with neighbors. The terminal finally opened in September 2008, with six motor coach operators and four station employees.
 
“As it turned out, it wasn’t the best time to open a new transportation facility,” Blunt said. But passenger numbers have been growing each month, and by next year the terminal should be well on its way to a projected 40,000 passengers annually, comparable to Bangor.
 
Blunt credits Peter Thompson, former Augusta mayor and long-time president of the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce, with his insight into the changing nature of the capital city. “It’s now much more of a hub than it was, and that’s why we decided to build there.”
 
City in transition
Dana Knapp is manager of Concord Coach’s Maine operations, and has been with the company since 1992. Before that, he had worked at Cyr Bus Lines, where he’d run charter and school buses for many years. Knapp started at Concord Coach managing the Bangor terminal. He was promoted to his present position in 1994, and he sits on the MBTA board of directors.
 
Knapp echoes Blunt’s comments about Augusta as a third Maine terminal to go with Portland and Bangor. “Augusta was in transition from a government center to more of a retail center,” he said. “We saw Augusta as a hub for the entire area,” extending from Newport and Farmington to the north to Belfast and the Midcoast area.
 
The company sees diversity in its customer base. Knapp said the peak travel months in Maine are April and August, followed by July. In the summer, many tourists arrive in Maine via bus, while Mainers pack the seats in April on their way to spring vacations. Business travelers include airline employees flying out of Logan, and nurses who commute to work in Boston hospitals.
 
Knapp said Concord Coach’s stability has encouraged longevity in the workforce. Some of the drivers have been with the company for 30 years.
 
Packed parking lots
Perhaps Concord’s most visible success in Maine is the Portland Transportation Center, where huge parking lots are packed day and night by cars whose owners are traveling to Boston by both bus and train. With access to I-295 literally seconds away, the terminal meets all the criteria for convenience, and the terminal itself is always well lit and immaculate.
 
Blunt took what many would see as a risk in aligning his existing bus terminal with the Amtrak trains. In many parts of the country, trains and bus lines are fierce competitors, and they keep their distance.
 
Blunt sees it differently. “We’re both in the public transportation business. At best, we’re getting 8 to 10 percent of all the intercity travel between Portland and Boston. That means 90 percent are still driving in their cars.” Still, in 2009 trains and buses are expected to move more than three quarters of a million passengers in and out of Maine, something many wouldn’t have thought possible even a decade ago.
 
Cooperation goes well beyond the joint station location. Patrons can buy a Flex Pass that enables them to ride one way on the train, and back on the bus, which better fits the schedules of many day travelers.
 
Promoting transit
The Portland terminal’s experience confirms Blunt’s belief about what it takes to encourage the use of public transportation today. The original Amtrak plan was to locate the train terminal near the old Union Station on St. John Street, with 75 to 100 parking places. “If you want people to ride, you have to provide parking,” he said.
 
How does ridership compare with the two options? The Northern New England Rail Authority reports that approximately 235,000 passengers were transported to and from Maine by the Downeaster during its last fiscal year, ending in June 2008. Concord Coach carried approximately 430,000 passengers to and from Maine during the same period.
 
Blunt is candid about the advantages of each mode of travel. The train “is more spacious and has a food car. That can be nice on the way back at the end of the day.” Concord’s buses, however, are faster and operate much more frequently – one an hour at peak periods – and offer direct service to the airport and to many points north and south of Portland. Concord serves 13 towns and cities in Maine, and nine in New Hampshire.
 
He does have some concern about the taxpayer subsidies that have been growing to support the Amtrak runs, which cover at least 40 percent of operating costs. “At some point, people need to decide how much is appropriate, and whether that’s the best use of public resources,” he said.
 
As an example, a $1 fare increase on the 235,000 Maine passengers could have given MaineDOT another quarter million dollars to be used elsewhere, and would have still provided a very reasonable train fare for Maine passengers.
 
Dana Knapp notes that Concord Coach receives no federal or state money to operate its buses and is one of the larger payers into the Maine Turnpike system, contributing $1 million since the company began serving passengers in Maine.
 
A young trend
The future of public transportation in northern New England is bright, Harry Blunt believes, and it’s about more than the price of gasoline.
 
After a year in which gas prices peaked at $4.13 a gallon in June, then plunged to less than $2 by November, it might seem hard to predict future demands.
 
But bus travel is dependent on many other factors, including ease of access, frequent service, “and the major cost and hassles” of traveling in a large city, including parking, congestion and time, Blunt said. A movement back to living in service center communities and much greater environmental awareness of the costs of automobile use are other factors suggesting that bus travelers will increase steadily in numbers, he said.
 
Plus, the shine really is off the automobile. “When I was growing up, this was not only travel, it was romance,” he said. “Every kid in town wanted a Pontiac GTO, or a Corvette. That’s what you dreamed about. It’s not like that for kids today.”
 
Cars still will be used in large numbers, but young people are far more likely to hop on a bus or train than their parents were, he said. “When you start looking at alternatives, you start using them, too.”
 
Having gotten this far, Blunt says it’s important to continue removing impediments to bus travel. The “E-ticket” is another change the company is pushing. “To be able to buy your ticket online, and use it whenever you want, is an advantage over having to wait in line at a ticket counter.”
 
Blunt isn’t sure if he’ll be around for the crest of the new wave in public transportation that he helped create through his innovations and long-range planning – or whether it will be the next generation who could be guiding the company by then.
 
Regardless of his own role, Concord Coach Lines, the company Harry Blunt built from the ground up, seems certain to remain an important player in getting Mainers to their destinations for a long time to come. N
 
Concord Coach Lines at a glance 
Concord Coach Lines is the largest independent bus company in northern New England. The company operates scheduled bus service to communities in Maine and New Hampshire to Boston and Logan International Airport. Here are a few facts about the company:
 
  • Founded in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1967.
  • Joined the National Trailways Bus System in 1980 and changed its name to Concord Trailways. Dropped “Trailways” in 2006, and Concord Coach Lines became the official name again.
  • Serves 13 cities and towns in Maine. Began service to Portland in January 1992; service to Bangor started in June 1992; and service along coastal Route 1 began in 1993.
  • Carried more than 4 million Maine passengers since 1992.
  • Carried an estimated 485,000 Maine passengers in 2008.
  • Employs 60 full-time and part-time employees in Maine.
  • Tolls paid to use the Maine Turnpike since 1992 – more than $1,000,000.
  • Amount paid in Maine fuel tax since 1999 – more than $600,000.

 

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