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Published: Friday, 9/15/2006

The bus stops here

AS GAS prices fall toward the $2-a-gallon level, memories of paying more than three bucks not long ago appear to be fading. While there's renewed interest in fuel-efficient cars, and our national fascination with SUVS may be waning, one obvious way to beat sticker shock at the pump has remained an afterthought.

Train or intercity bus travel.

Don't place the blame entirely on drivers reluctant to leave the friendly confines of their auto. While it will take more than a blip in gas prices to get many folks out of their cars and onto buses or trains, the fact is that there really haven't been too many alternatives available for those who would rather ride than drive.

Within the metropolitan Toledo area, transit options are better than in many cities, thanks to the network of TARTA routes. Intercity travel choices, however, remain limited.

But there was a small, potentially significant change in that picture this week when the Internet-based bus operation Megabus.com added twice-a-day service in Toledo on its run between Cleveland and Chicago.

Offering competition to Amtrak and to Greyhound, the bus service's fares start as low as $1 - plus a 50-cent reservation fee - although a limited number of seats are available at that price, and go up to $30 for one-waytickets purchased closer to departure time. Tickets are available only through the Web.

The company began operations in April, serving destinations including Detroit, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and St. Louis, and says it already has taken in $1.8 million in ticket sales and transported 127,000 passengers.

Giving the service credibility as a legitimate competitor to existing road and rail options is the fact that it is an offshoot of the U.K.-based Stagecoach Group, one of that country's biggest bus and coach operators. In fact the company Web site's home page has an option for visitors to select travel in either the U.K. or U.S.

Coach travel still is widely used in the U.K., where there is stiff competition both from an extensive rail network and highway system, so Megabus.com is part of a corporate culture that understands the bus travel business and how to make money from it. Obviously the company would not have begun this service here if it did not see both an opportunity and a profit to be made.

It's too early to know how successful the service through Toledo will be, both in getting Toledoans to their chosen destination and attracting visitors here. But the roll-out of Megabus.com is a welcome sign of new investment and faith in mass transit.

For too long we have watched, for example, as train travel has been marginalized, restricted in the minds of many to fast service for East Coast commuters and scenic trips for vacationers out West. Inconvenient schedules and chronic delays add to the rail system's woes.

Many Americans who have traveled overseas talk in glowing terms about the bus and train networks in European countries, about their efficiency and multiple destinations, as if such transit was literally and figuratively a foreign concept.

It doesn't have to be.

And perhaps the arrival of Megabus.com is one sign of that.

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