Saturday, July 08, 2006

Megabus: Don't!

I got back home for good this morning at 3am. I left The Professor late on the Fourth of July -- but just barely, as it seemed the entire Dutch train system had collapsed. My train to the airport was cancelled and I had to take a detour on a train through Utrecht that was delayed 40 minutes. After a last-minute platform change at Utrecht caused a panicked race down one flight of stairs and up another, dragging my awkward and heavy wheelie bag behind me, I managed to get to the airport and get on my flight. I retrieved my luggage and caught the shuttle bus to the train station where I then caught the last train to Crocodileville with time to spare. This time was not a time to relax, however, because even though it was the Fourth of July, it was cold. Cold on the Fourth of July. This is not my climate. In addition, it seems the Last Train to Crocodilleville is a favorite with many drunken and chatty young men.

I arrived in Crocodileville at about 1am, with just enough time to take a short nap, water the plant, pack my backpack, and turn around to catch the 9:00 Megabus to attend a conference in the hometown of the Bee Gees (HBG). For those of you who don't know, Megabus is the Ryan Air of the road, with fares one way beginning at £1.00 if you book early enough. Except travel on Megabus makes memories of travel by Ryan Air reflect a feeling of First Class luxury.

The Megabus was a packed double decker, so I sat on the upper deck, where there were 88 other bodies, no circulation, no ventilation, no air condition, and the temperature outside was reported to be around 30C or more. Our bus made only three stops between Crocodilleville and the Home of the Bee Gees, but we didn't arrive until 17:45.

The conference was over yesterday and I reluctantly queued up to take the return Megabus journey back to Crocodilleville. The bus route began in Major Metropolitan World City (MMWC), in the southern region of the country. It was supposed to stop in HBG at 17:00 and arrive in Crocodilleville at 00:45. Remember that Megabus has NO rented space in the bus station: They have no gate, they have no ticket office, they have no employees posted there. Further, they often do not have any signs indicating where passengers are picked up and dropped off. Shortly before 17:00, the 17:15 Megabus, travelling to MMWC arrived early. But by 17:45, there was still no sign of my Megabus. What do you do when your Megabus doesn't show up? First, I and the other 20 or so people in the sprawling queue, most of whom had been there since 16:30 or so, stood around like mules. It is amazing how little action people take in times like these.

No phone number was included in the hard copy of my reservation confirmation and terms of service, although there was evidence of a link to a phone number to "contact us". So I called the Professor and had him look up the number on the website. Miracle of all miracles, a human being named Emma answered the phone. She wasn't aware of any bus problems or delays, but would investigate and call me back. Which she actually did. When she did, she had no news or help other than to say that the driver must be stuck in traffic because he hadn't reported any problems and he wasn't answering the phone. And she was right. The bus showed up almost exactly one hour late.

I entered the packed bus and again had to sit on the upper deck. Remember, this bus had been on the road for three hours already, travelling northbound. Upon entering the bus I was hit by a wall of stink. The piss smell coming from the toilet was the first assault. The second began immediately after, at the stairs leading to the upper deck: bodies and feet and old food. No air circulation, ventilation, or air condition. We get on the road, travel for no more than two hours, then stop to the side of the road. Out tumbles a young man who has thrown up all over his purple shirt, shorts and laptop case, followed by two young women, one of whom is apparently his partner or sister, who strips his shirt off him (fortunately he is wearing a t-shirt underneath), tries to clean up the vomit, and otherwise care for him. The view behind him is a strange combination of the pastoral (sheared sheep grazing near the highway) and the industrial (in the distance a gigantic factory vomited its own waste into the air from three of its four smokestacks). We sat there, I think, for about an hour. One of my upstairs mates, a woman travelling with husband, adolescent son and pre-adolescent daughter, goes downstairs and offers assistance (she is apparently a nurse or some other health professional. Surely she is not a doctor. Surely doctors do NOT travel on Megabus). Eventually an ambulance and traffic safety officials arrive, the young man is attended and taken away, statements are taken from those who were directly involved, and the bus departs (but not without stalling three times before we finally get on the road). I do not know why this young man became ill. The nurse did not offer her fellow passengers any information upon her return. I don't think he had appendicitis or anything like that. I am sure the Megabus made him sick. What surprises me is that more people don't get sick on the Megabus.

We advanced a few more miles and then pulled into a rest stop. I don't know if this was for the driver's benefit, but I doubt anything Megabus does is for passengers' benefit. Everyone but me exited the Megabus and returned with stinky fast food. I had brought snacks for the ride so I didn't need or want anything except clean air. But my desire for clean air was overridden by my absolute dread of piercing the wall of stink only to return and have to reacclimate to the smell all over again. So I stayed put. This time.

We finally resumed our travel and, after what in retrospect seems like only 30 or 45 minutes (at this point I have no idea as my coping strategy was to attempt to disconnect myself from any awareness of the passage of time), we pulled into another rest stop. As usual, no announcement was made as to why we stopped. I remained up top until I could stand it no more went downstairs to cool off outside. It was raining and a little cold. It felt very good. I overheard other passengers talking. We were about 40 minutes from the first major stop north of the border. Apparently the driver could not drive anymore (because of legal restrictions on length of time? had he lost his mind? had a mental breakdown?) and so we must wait at this rest stop until another Megabus arrived with another driver who would drive us the rest of the way. I went back upstairs and sat in the hot and the stink. I gazed into the open restaurant and in my daze formulated a plan. I exited the bus again and entered the restaurant where I purchased a cup of ice for £2 ($4) and took it back onto the bus to employ as my personal temperature control device.

Interestingly, when the new bus driver arrived (at midnight), he turned on the bus and the air conditioner worked. There was circulation, ventilation, and temperature reduction. Immediately. I got so cool -- cold -- I had to eventually put on my sweater. And my jean jacket. This is even though both previous bus drivers (the outbound bus driver and the first inbound bus driver) said they were "doing all they could do" to cool down the bus. I swear I think Megabus encourages drivers to leave the air conditioning off on the upper deck in order to economize. I have decided that Megabus has installed some kind of surveillance measure that tracks the energy consumption on its buses. Drivers who use too much energy by running the air conditioner are punished. Or, drivers who can withstand assaults from passengers are rewarded with bonuses for keeping down energy costs. Is this crazy thinking? I don't think so.

We pulled into the station at Crocodileville around 2:45, without any further incidents. Fortunately, I immediately got a taxi and was finally home a few minutes before 3:00.

Will I never take the Megabus again? I don't know. I won't say NEVER because I'm afraid to have to eat those putrid words some day in the future. But my inclination is to say that my days of long distance bus travel are over.

Anyone who has similar Megabus experiences, please comment and tell me about them.


Quiconque said...

I will send you money so that you'll never have to take that bus again.

Anonymous said...

I made a reservation and then changed it. A month later I decided to change it for a second time. There is nothing to say you cannot do this yet without the new authorisation code your stuck. There is nothing in the small print to indicate this restriction. Next time I am taking the train.