Gale Ellsworth looks to the future

In a state-of-the-company sitdown with BUSRide, the Trailways president and CEO discusses the driving forces that have seen the transportation company through 75 hard-fought and successful years.

BR: What changes in public perception of Trailways have you observed in the time you have been at the helm?
Gale Ellsworth: Trailways remains a viable entity even though the resurgence of the brand has been slow. We are making progress in educating the traveling public on the kinds of transport services and products Team Trailways now provides. The company still operates interline bus schedules, just not as widely as before Continental Trailways sold its vast assets and routes to Greyhound.
BR: What was the state-of-the-company when you joined the team?
Ellsworth: The spirit of the independent bus operators who were still affiliated with Trailways was very strong when I arrived in July 1997. They were quite determined to keep the brand alive even though the number of Trailways operators had dwindled down to about 18 at that time.
The board of directors told me right up front my job would not be easy, that it would require a lot of hard work to keep the brand alive and rebuild the network by adding bus operators who were mostly charter and tour operators, and not necessarily scheduled route carriers.
I knew going in it would be a challenge. We would need patience in convincing non-Trailways bus operators to join the team and enjoy the advantages of affiliation with the brand.
BR: Prior to the Jet Age, Trailways was the premier line-haul and cross country motorcoach tour operation. Do you foresee a renaissance of sorts for regular scheduled coach service?
Ellsworth: We are just now seeing ourselves on the edge of a return to new bus service travel. Air travel has turned into hassle travel. In most cases it takes longer for someone to go 150 miles by air than by coach with direct service and pair-city travel with only limited stops. The traveling public is shifting its travel decisions and searching for alternative travel modes. Many individuals are avoiding air travel altogether. They first think of taking the train, particularly in the Northeast region of the U.S.
BR: Could the number of Trailways operators actively engaged under the 5311 Rural Transit grants be the springboard to promoting scheduled coach service to a broader demographic?
Ellsworth: I know a number of our Trailways carriers have begun supplying regional community transport service under the 5311 Grant. What we must now consider is how to manage after those funds have run out. The key for our operators will be to engage in careful planning, studying ways to maintain back-up reserve funds to aid their success before embracing any type of new venture like those promoted with 5311 funds.
A carrier should gather potential ridership data and perform a candid study about the demographics for the service they intend. They will need enough reserve funds set aside to carry forth the new service in case of losses or situations that 5311 funds will not cover.
If ridership shows potential and operators can offer affordable service the public needs and still make a profit, I think every Trailways carrier should review all opportunities that may be outside their normal or comfort transport service menu, whether the opportunities are 5311 Grant supported or not.
BR: How realistic is this vision?
Ellsworth: It is realistic, but a behemoth challenge, and one the industry will certainly not achieve over the short term.
BR: What are some of the bigger hurdles to making regular scheduled a more viable option in this day and age?
Ellsworth: It is a time-consuming, complex, expensive and risky process. It will certainly include reeducating the general public to the advantages and enjoyment of coach travel, particularly at the regional level where scheduled bus service is truly competitive with the airlines in terms of both money and time.
I do believe in the next two-four years, the traveling public will select bus travel over air travel for distances that are no greater than 200 to 300 miles away.
The challenges are different for coach companies depending on how they conduct business. What works in the Northeast may not take off in the southwest, simply because of the greater distances between the major metropolitan areas. But with the renewed interest in high-speed rail, perhaps we will see greater opportunities emerge for intermodal coach connections.
BR: Do stakeholders in the Trailways franchise enjoy more opportunities and avenues for diversification within their operations?
Ellsworth: I see the team getting more excited about this concept and just how lucrative brainstorming, sharing of successful ideas, promoting and referring customers and business among each other throughout the network can be.
Each member has 84 sister-companies located all across North America and in Europe in which they can refer business, access each other’s successful opportunities, best business ideas and venues and product diversity. Our job is to remind every member of this private tap. We are always looking to each of our members for new business, ideas, strategies that will carry the entire Team forward.
BR: The Department of Defense transportation certification is a service almost exclusive to Trailways and certainly sets the franchise apart from competitors. In light of our nation at war on two fronts, is Trailways troop transport and the tremendous effort and contribution by coach operators still somewhat unsung in the public eye?
Ellsworth: I think that is the nature of us humans as the general public. We really don’t appreciate something worthy, beneficial, or exceptional until we either lose it, almost lose it, or reminded harshly how important certain structures or methods are. That includes those dedicated to supporting the military, travel safety and security, and trying to provide something better than just the normal.
BR: What chief criteria must an operator meet to obtain a franchise and become a TEAM TRAILWAYS operator?
Ellsworth: I will just cite the 10 basic considerations:
The candidate’s DOT safety record for five consecutive years in business
A Dunn and Bradstreet/bank/credit rating
A profitable profit/loss, based on a review of the company’s year-end tax returns for two years
Vendor references
Department of Defense Rating not less than two — one is preferred
Bus and coach equipment not over eight aggregate years of age
The candidate’s proactive commitment to work as a team, demonstrating loyalty, trust and dedication to the Trailways brand
The candidate must own or lease a full service garage in or very near to the company location
All equipment and related business collateral and communications must bear the Trailways brand
Lastly, have the written endorsement from at least two current Trailways carriers.
BR: When you must decline an application, does the operator get another chance?
Ellsworth: Yes. We have turned down two companies in recent months because the age of equipment. However, if they address this concerns to our satisfaction, we will by all means review them again and consider their application to affiliate with Trailways.
BR: What would you like to see happen over the next 75 years — or at least the foreseeable future?
Ellsworth: The bus industry needs a standardized universal online ticketing system whereby online customers can select carriers’ various travel schedules, see the various fares and buy tickets online instantly from any viable carrier.
As well each viable carrier will accept the online ticket from every other viable interlining carrier that offers its fares and schedules and the sale of tickets online. The airline industry is far ahead of the bus industry when it comes to being able to see everyone’s fares, schedules, and the ability to buy a ticket from online, such as Expedia and Travelocity.
I think having an online universal bus fares, schedules and ticket sales system will do much in promoting the use of bus travel both for individuals and for group travel. BR