NEW YORK — "In those days," recalled public television's Jim Lehrer, "little boys would be asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. They were just as likely to say bus driver as policeman--and more likely to say bus driver than airline pilot."
The days that Lehrer spoke of Friday after hearing that Greyhound Lines would buy Trailways, its only nationwide bus line competitor, were 30 or 40 years ago when riding between cities by bus was still a principal mode of long-distance travel.
Not everybody had a car then, and the nation's highway system was relatively primitive. Airlines, much smaller and less convenient than today's, were tightly regulated by the federal government. And the trains were more expensive to ride and served fewer cities than the buses.
But now, intercity buses have only a small and still shrinking share of the nation's passengers. It was this decline that forced Greyhound and Trailways, the last two nationwide intercity bus lines, to join forces if they were to survive.
Lehrer, one of the two anchors of public television's "MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour," is a well-known bus buff and owns a large collection of bus memorabilia. He grew up in the business, his father having been a depot manager for Trailways, and was a ticket clerk during summer vacations from college.
"In the glory days, it was a magic trip to get on a bus and go," he recalled Friday. "People used to ride coast-to-coast on buses. I'm not suggesting it was a great trip. But it was a memorable trip. The thing about riding on a bus has always been that you know you've gone somewhere when you get there. Riding on an airplane, you don't always have that feeling."
Though he concedes that it is necessary, Lehrer had a difficult time with the idea that Greyhound (which he said was called "the doggies" in the business) and Trailways ("the puppies") are being combined. "It's like merging the New York Times and the Washington Post or Macy's and Gimbels. It's like mixing oil and water."
According to the Interstate Commerce Commission, intercity buses recorded 25.3 billion passenger-miles in 1970. By 1985 (the most recent year for which figures are available) the figure had dropped to 19.5 billion.
In 1960, there were 1,150 intercity bus companies, the ICC says, compared to more than 3,000 now, partly a result of the industry's deregulation five years ago. But most of the new companies are small charter lines with just one or two buses.
And fewer communities have bus service now than before deregulation. During the last five years, bus companies have dropped unprofitable routes, ending service to 776 communities in which about a million Americans live.
For those communities, the loss was painful--because the buses carried more than passengers. They also hauled important freight, ranging from the morning newspaper to blood and other medical supplies for rural hospitals and spare parts for farmers' tractors.
But bus companies have found it increasingly difficult to fight the competition. Air fares are lower since the airlines were deregulated in 1980 and more families now own one or more cars. Now, transportation analysts say, for trips over 200 miles, most travelers fly if they have convenient access to an airport. For trips under 200 miles, most people drive.
As a result, the days when buses went virtually everywhere--and when small boys would rather be bus drivers than airplane pilots--are not likely to return.
GREYHOUND AND TRAILWAYS AT A GLANCE
Greyhound Trailways Headquarters Dallas Dallas Number of buses 2,800 1,200 Number of employees 10,000 4,000 Service area 48 contiguous states 38 states