05 March 2013

Travel - 10 hours, 3 buses, 1 train

As a rule I don't go out of my way to ride a bus.  Nothing against them, but they just don't move me in quite the same way that trains do.

With that said, I was intrigued when I read not long ago that Megabus had come back to California.  They dipped their toe in the water here in 2007-2008 and then withdrew, but reentered the market in late 2012.  The British company has been successful on the East Coast and elsewhere in the U.S. so I wanted to see how it worked from a passenger's perspective as well as compare it with Amtrak's Capitol Corridor service which I've used many times.

The closest route to where I live in Chico is the one between Sacramento and San Francisco.  Flipping back and forth between Megabus schedules and Amtrak schedules I put together an itinerary that, if everything worked as planned, would get me from Chico to San Francisco and back, in about 10 hours.  (And qualify me for being institutionalized, some people may think.)

Guess what?  The tight schedule I planned worked well.  I'll summarize the journey below, and if you want more details please continue reading past the summary.

Bus - Amtrak 3714 - Chico to Sacramento
leave 7:50 am - arrive 9:55 am

Bus - Megabus - Sacramento to San Francisco
leave 10:50 am - arrive 12:45 pm

(BART from San Francisco to Richmond)

Rail - Amtrak 532 - Richmond to Sacramento
leave 1:47 pm - arrive 3:28 pm

Bus - Amtrak 3713 - Sacramento to Chico
leave 3:40 pm - arrive 5:35 pm

Now for the details.  Read on if you dare.

Chico to Sacramento: (Amtrak bus 3714)
price: $25
schedule: lv 7:50 am / ar 9:55 am
actual operation: on-time departure / early arrival at 9:36 am

I've taken Amtrak buses so often between Chico and Sacramento that there isn't a lot for me to learn, but one novelty for me was that this was the first time I had ridden since Amtrak introduced its form of e-ticketing which is used now on all of the Amtrak bus routes in California.  It isn't paperless, however.
Interior of an Amtrak bus

You do need to have an itinerary with barcode, either printed on your own printer or printed at a staffed Amtrak station or an unstaffed one with a Quik-Trak machine.  
Chico is neither staffed nor does it have a Quik-Trak machine, but since I bought my ticket at Amtrak.com I printed the itinerary with barcode at home.  The barcode can also be displayed on a smartphone or tablet using the Amtrak app.  The bus driver scanned the barcode quickly and I hopped on the bus for a pleasant and uneventful ride.  (The bus stops in Oroville and Marysville to pick up passengers.)

Sacramento to San Francisco: (Megabus)
price: $6.65
schedule: lv 10:50 am / ar 12:45 pm
actual operation: left at 10:55 am / early arrival at 12:31 pm

Megabus stop on Front Street in Old Sacramento
That is not a misprint.  I paid $6 to get from Sacramento to San Francisco.  If I'd bought it two days in advance it was only $5, and Megabus promises to sell at least a couple of tickets on each bus for a buck!  Megabus competes with Amtrak and other bus operators in California and especially on the east coast, but they also compete with the car.  There is no way one person or even a couple of people can get from Sacramento to San Francisco for $6 per person including gas and bridge tolls.    The reason for the extra 65 cents is that there is a 50 cent booking fee for every transaction, and I opted to pay an additional 15 cents for a text-message notification in case of delays.

All bookings are made online; passengers provide their booking numbers to the bus driver who checks them against a manifest of reservations.  It worked smoothly for me.  The bus driver also stows the one piece of allowed luggage per person after verifying the reservation.

Megabus saves money by not having any terminal that it calls its own.  In some cities it uses bus bays at a transit terminal while in others (including Sacramento and San Francisco) they stop at a curbside location.  In Sacramento Megabus picks up and drops off on Front Street in Old Sacramento (about two blocks south of the railroad museum) and in San Francisco in front of the Caltrain Station at Fourth and Townsend.

Megabus - upper level
The trip from Sacramento to the city went well.  The ride quality of the double-decker bus was smooth, and the driver was excellent.  She drove at a remarkably consistent speed, seldom changing lanes while remaining mostly in one of the middle lanes.  Since this was a midday ride, there was little in the way of traffic slowdowns.  But being on the highway, it would be subject to the same delays that a driver would be with the exception that Megabus can use the carpool lanes between Pinole and the 80/580/880 "Maze", and skip the Bay Bridge toll plaza with the bus-only lanes.

For the better view and airy open feeling, I sat on the upper level, which is reached by a rather steep stairway.  The lower level has less seating than the upper level but is also the location of the restroom.  The toilet is the standard bus toilet (think porta-potty) without a flush system or running water for hand washing.  However it was clean, and offered hand sanitizer.

Megabus - lower level
Megabus advertises free wifi and power plugs.  My laptop detected the strong signal and connected, though I never was actually able to get to the internet.  I seldom have trouble connecting to wifi, so I wonder if it was just a one-time problem on that bus.  It was not a big deal, as I was more interested in enjoying the ride.

In San Francisco the bus drops and picks up passengers in front of the Caltrain station on Fourth Street.  Depending on your ultimate destination, this would either be ideal or so-so.

Megabus stop at Caltrain station in San Francisco
It would be ideal if you were headed down the Peninsula to places such as San Mateo, Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View, San Jose, etc.  You can walk about 100 feet and get on one of the frequent trains that Caltrain operates.

On the other hand if you need to get to downtown San Francisco you need to either get a taxi, or take Muni.  The N or T light-rai lines from the Caltrain station will get you to Market Street stops starting with Embarcadero, and several bus lines can get you quickly to Market at Third Street, and beyond.

All in all, I'd say my Megabus experience was quite positive and a flat-out bargain.  I think they have a product that could catch on especially for short and medium length distances.  In a little bit I'll compare it with Amtrak Capitol Corridor service.

South Park neighborhood - San Francisco
My schedule calculations for making this work (without getting back at a late hour in Chico) required that I get myself to the Montgomery Street BART station to make a train that would get me to Richmond in time to connect with a Capitol Corridor train at 1:47 pm.  (BART and Amtrak in essence operate out of the same station in Richmond.  Get off BART, go downstairs, pass through the fare-gates, then go up to the Amtrak platform.)

Because Megabus was early I thought I'd walk instead of taking Muni to Market Street.  I didn't know how close I was cutting it!

Montgomery Street BART
It's not that short a distance, and I took a little bit of the scenic route detouring via the picturesque South Park neighborhood and snapping a picture of a brewpub (21st Amendment) for friends who like that joint.  I got to Montgomery Street BART at 1:00 pm, got the slightly late (thank goodness) Richmond train at 1:05 pm (scheduled for 1:01 pm) and got to Richmond five minutes before Amtrak 532.  Train 532 was on-the-dot at 1:47 pm.  If I'd missed that train, my ultimate arrival in Chico would have been 3 hours later than it was.

Richmond to Sacramento: (Amtrak 532)
price: $26.00
schedule: lv 1:47 pm / ar 3:28 pm
actual operation: on-time departure / early arrival at 3:12 pm

Interior of an Amtrak Capitol train
I've been on these trains often and know the drill well, but as with the Amtrak bus out of Chico it was the first time I'd used Amtrak's e-ticketing system.  The friendly female conductor scanned the barcode and it was done.  Being as the system is still fairly new, I'm sure that problems arise, but from my limited and rather elementary experience it seemed to work well.  As a travel agent, I know it will be useful when Amtrak expands e-ticketing to travel agents.  Amtrak reservations made and ticketed by travel agents through their GDS (global distribution systems) continue to be paper tickets.  Some Amtrak issued tickets with special circumstances remain paper for the time being.

New platforms in Sacramento
The train made the usual stops in Martinez, Suisun-Fairfield, and Davis, before pulling into Sacramento about 15 minutes early.  It was a pleasant, unremarkable trip, which they usually are.  Anytime you can get between the Bay Area and Sacramento and not be in a car it's pleasant.

As part of the massive (and not yet completely planned out) railyards project in Sacramento, brand new platforms and below-ground walkways have been built for Amtrak.  They are so much better than the old ones, however there is a considerably longer walk to the station than before.  Still the new platforms are bright and clean, and the underground walkways spacious and user-friendly.

Sacramento to Chico: (Amtrak bus 3713)
price: $25.00
schedule: lv 3:40 pm / ar 5:35 pm
actual operation: left at 4:03 pm / late arrival at 5:50 pm

Back in Chico ten hours after I left
This was the only leg of the trip that ran slightly late.  In its defense, the bus in fact operates from Stockton to Sacramento (and then on to Chico), and it serves to connect passengers from the northbound San Joaquin train 713.  That train was 22 minutes late into Stockton so the bus was delayed in its departure for Sacramento.  As with the morning's southbound ride, the bus was clean, comfortable, and the driver very competent.

As a final note, it's clear from this ride and the many others that I've taken that Chico is by far the most important stop on the Sacramento-Redding bus.  Except for a few that got off in Oroville, and one staying on for Red Bluff or Redding, all other passengers disembarked in Chico.

Comparing Amtrak's Capitol Corridor with Megabus

Price: Hands down it's Megabus.  Amtrak's not even close.
Frequency: Right now Amtrak's the winner with 15 trains weekdays between Sacramento and Emeryville (bus connections to SF) and Oakland.  (7 of these trains continue to/from San Jose.)  Megabus operates 4 buses each way between Sacramento and San Francisco.
Comfort: Amtrak seats are considerably bigger and there is more legroom, though Megabus is good.
Ride quality: Amtrak has a slight edge in smoothness. 
Speed: Megabus schedules are 1:55 to 2 hours.  Amtrak (with the bus connection from Emeryville) is 2:05 to 2:20.
Amenities: Amtrak is the clear winner here, since you can walk around the train, there is a well-stocked snack bar, and the bathrooms are far superior.  (The accessible bathroom is huge, and the toilets are flush toilets and there is running water.)  In my one experience with wifi on Megabus, it didn't work (and Amtrak's worked surprisingly well) but I'd have to give Megabus another chance on that.  Amtrak will likely remain more attractive to the many business people who commute on the train because of the higher level of amenities.
Other factors: A nice feature of Megabus is that there are no stops between Sacramento and San Francisco.  If you use Amtrak to Richmond (and then BART to the city), you will make 3 intermediate stops.  If you take Amtrak to Emeryville you'll have 5 intermediate stops, plus the Amtrak bus over the Bay Bridge.  On the other hand, Megabus is subject to the same traffic jams that drivers are (except for being able to use carpool lanes), while trains obviously don't have to deal with that.
Conclusion: I'm a train guy and I'm inclined to use the train, but I really thought Megabus has a good product and I'd love to see them expand their system.  I would definitely ride them again.  Isolated Chico where I live, would be a great market to add, particularly with its large population of college students.  Megabus already serves Reno and Sparks from Sacramento.  How about adding some one-stop buses that operate Chico-Sacramento-San Francisco?  I think Amtrak will remain the non-automobile mode of choice for the many business people that commute by train between the Bay Area and Sacramento, but Megabus may become the preferred choice for students and others on a tight budget, and even more so if they add additional destinations.

Useful links and info:
- Megabus
- Amtrak's Capitol Corridor

As of the writing of this post (March 2013) Megabus operates in the following markets in California and Nevada:
- San Francisco-Sacramento-Reno-Sparks
- San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose-Los Angeles
- Los Angeles/Riverside-Las Vegas