This Ain’t Greyhound: The Luxury Bus That’s a Texas Alternative to Rail

Does a growing demand for luxury motorcoaches hint at possible demand for rail?

By Brenda SalinasMarch 13, 2015 9:34 am

More than 200,000 super-commuters make the trek between Houston, Austin and Dallas every week. Doing that by air or behind the wheel can be a major hassle. Marjorie Kimmel knows first-hand. She travels around Texas once a month to teach real estate courses.

“I tried a little bit of everything, most of the time I was a road warrior, gripping the steering wheel on 1-35 the whole time,” Kimmel says. “I also tried flying once which was a real pain because I have a lot of books and equipment when I teach, and so trying to get that shipped ahead of me to then fly took a lot of logistical planning.”

Limos can be expensive. Executives like Marjorie Kimmel don’t always see the bus as a possibility. “That’s not probably something I would have done, just because I would have felt pretty cramped and you know, I don’t know, it’s never even occurred to me,” says Kimmel.

But Kimmel is exactly the type of business traveler that Alex Danza had in mind when he started his luxury bus service, Vonlane.

“The idea for this was give people an alternative to that hassle experience of flying and the alternative of driving themselves wasn’t much better,” Danza says, “so what we’re trying to do is to give people a real first-class travel experience where they can arrive 5 minutes before departure, they get on board, they can start to work right away, they can relax, they have an attendant taking care of them, they have great amenities from complimentary wi-fi to satellite TV, satellite radio, food and beverages.”

Danza isn’t trying to compete against Grayhound or Megabus – Because he says Vonlane isn’t a bus, it’s a motor coach for executives. “Our rate is 100 dollars one way and we’re priced very competitively with flying Southwest airlines or driving your own vehicle,” Danza says.

Danza says a lot of his customers are lawyers – because riding his bus provides them 3 uninterrupted billable hours. So far, business is pretty good. Danza says the only real competition he sees is far into the future.

“I do think there’s a demand for rail, people ask me if that concerns me, I think it’s a long ways away if it can happen, but we’re definitely seeing people looking for an alternative to self-drive or the airlines,” Danza says.

A company named Texas Central Railway plans to use private investment and Japanese technology to run a bullet train between Dallas and Houston. Travis Kelly says the demand for rail is much greater than just the number of passengers on executive motor coaches.

It’s a lot of people who are making the trip now, but it’s also people who choose not to make the trip at all because to travel by air or by car is too onerous, too difficult, too unpredictable,” Kelly says.

Commuter Marjorie Kimmel says she’s ready for rail. “If they had a high speed rail system like they do in Europe from Austin to Dallas, heck yeah, I’d be the first to sign up!”

But the reality of rail is still a couple of years way.

“We hope to proceed to construction as early at the first quarter of 2017 and that would allow trains to start running in 2021 or 2022,” Kelly says.

High speed rail would cut the road commute time in half – just 90 minutes to travel from Houston to Dallas. Even in the fanciest motorcoach, it’s going take you 3 and half hours to get there.

In the meantime Danza says, at least in a bus, you’re not behind the wheel.“We get comments that say ‘I’ll never drive myself to Dallas again’, ‘I’ll never fly to Austin again’, and we’re seeing that repeatedly so it’s been very interesting to see that there is a marketplace for this,” Danza says.

The more miserable you are at security checkpoints or stuck behind an 18 wheeler on 1-35, the better for Danza’s business model – at least until you can board a bullet train.