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Riding the Greyhound; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Greyhound bus system has been transporting young travellers, returning soldiers, lonesome poets and beatniks around the United States of America for the last 100 years. The bus service offers a multitude of routes that spans from East to West and covers the breadth of all 48 mainland states. It markets itself thus, ‘the future of bus travel has arrived. Well ahead of schedule.’ It is the most recommended mode of bus travel in the US and is a suggested company by STA Travel, the unashamed go-to, one-stop student travel ‘shop’.

So it must be all kosher then, you say? Well not so, travel enthusiasts. Whilst the Greyhound is a sound way of getting around the land of opportunity and one that I very much enjoyed, it also leaves a little to be desired in the safe travel stakes: numerous tales of dodgy characters and poor bus maintenance led me to fear the worst about our transport choices. But budget means interesting, right? But does interesting mean sitting next to an unescorted prisoner for the best part of a day, or being forced to escape from a smoking bus? Greyhound experiences have become synonymous with horror stories and yet the unassuming traveller continues to use the service.

As part of a scheme to reduce costs, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has been using commercial buses to transfer prisoners with both passenger and driver completely unaware. Although travel is all about the unexpected people you meet in the places you have pinpointed, when it comes to spending several hours in close proximity to a con, surely that is one step too far? The fear is that, with multiple stops, the opportunities to pass things on or collect along the route, puts all passengers at risk. The BOP said most of their 30,000 bus transfers are low-threat prisoners but indicated that there are around 100 escapes a year. There have also been reports of issues with weapons, aggressive behaviour and intimidation of other passengers.

A friend’s experience emphasised this reality as it transpired that the man sitting next to him was a prisoner transferring from a high security prison in Memphis, where he had been serving a 17 year long sentence, to a low security prison in West Virginia. He was able to make this trip completely unattended in order to complete the final year of his sentence. James recalled that, “he’d only been out a few hours, but on the walk (unaccompanied) from the prison to the station he stopped by a Subway restaurant.” James, ever the open-minded traveller, asked him if it was tempting to not turn up at the next prison. He responded frankly saying that there were at least “10 cars that he walked past in the car park that he knew he could hot-wire and drive away in.”

But, alas, the Greyhound experience doesn’t end there.

A story of a bus setting alight is symptomatic of the seeming lack of regular bus maintenance checks. “We were transferring in Montana and five minutes into the journey we heard a big bang and then a lot of smoke. The driver pulled over and got out but stupidly failed to turn off the engine, leading to thick, black flames climbing up the bus.” Eilish recalled the need to escape as the bus was now on fire and they were momentarily trapped as, “in true Greyhound style, the windows didn’t open.” They all managed to flee the bus in time and the fire service arrived shortly after, but this kind of tale could have had traumatic consequences, and highlights these questionable dealings in a supposedly reputable company.

Whilst this experience is the kind of memorable tale one wants to be able to tell when back in the comfort of home life; the facts remain a real concern. Placing the unsuspecting explorer next to a convict seems an ironic twist to travel in the land of the free. Despite the attempt to assuage fears with justifications, the reality is very different. A brief scour of Twitter shows widespread disdain; ‘@GreyhoundBus does it not show the quality of service you provide when all of your tweets are apologizing for poor customer service’. It might be on time, but your Greyhound bus is probably not suitably equipped for business.

Sophie Woods

Photo courtesy of Alden Jewell


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