Dartmouth Coach rolls out socially distanced plan to resume service

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 8/8/2020 9:40:35 PM
Modified: 8/8/2020 9:40:32 PM

LEBANON — When Dartmouth Coach resumes bus service next week, passengers can look forward to plenty of elbow room.

The bus line that is a critical transportation link for thousands of Dartmouth College students between the rural Upper Valley, Boston’s Logan Airport and New York City will restore service on Aug. 16. But capacity will be a little lower, as the company will leave 17 seats empty per bus for social distancing — one-third of the vehicle’s 51-seat capacity.

“We understand people’s first concern is if things are going to be safe,” said Benjamin Blunt, vice president of Dartmouth Coach and its sister company, Concord Coach Lines. “The two things we have been focused on before restoring service is vigilance on safety protocols and making sure the schedule is tailored for people who’ve come to rely on the service we provide.”

Last week, Gov. Chris Sununu approved the release of $4 million in federal aid administered by the state to help Dartmouth Coach and Concord Coach Lines restore bus service, which was suspended in late March. The money is a lifeline for the carrier after it lost more than four months’ worth of ticket sales and business.

Yet Dartmouth Coach at the same time said it will need to cut back its schedule by 40% to adjust for what it expects will be a sharp falloff in passengers.

Whereas the bus line previously operated 10 round trips daily between the Upper Valley and Logan Airport, Dartmouth Coach will now run six round trips, with the first bus departing Hanover at 4:40 a.m. and the last bus departing Logan at 8:50 p.m.

Only one round-trip bus between the Upper Valley and New York City will run on Friday and Sundays, down from as many as three daily round tips that operated before the pandemic, the company announced on a new schedule posted on its website.

The number of passengers permitted on a bus will be reduced by 33% from 51 seats to 34 seats in order to comply with health safety protocols.

Dartmouth Coach, like all mass transportation firms, has been hemorrhaging money during the pandemic, and getting its buses back on the road, if not exactly business as usual, nonetheless is a hopeful sign that the worst is in the rearview mirror.

“We’re excited. This is the first time we have had some good news in over four months,” Blunt said.

Dartmouth Coach will return to running 11 of its 17 buses and 10 of its 25 drivers full-time, along with five drivers part-time. The Concord-based company employs about 55 people at its terminal off Route 120 and its maintenance facility on Etna Road in Lebanon.

Passengers can expect a different bus ride experience and visit to the terminal than they were accustomed to before the pandemic, according to a four-minute video posted on Dartmouth Coach website. Chief among the “physical reconfigurations” are plastic dividers placed on the back of the seat headrests and plastic partitions at the counters and gate to shield staff and passengers.

The bus line has also introduced “scanned contactless ticketing” and acquired electrostatic foggers to spray the buses, terminal seating areas and terminal restrooms daily.

Every bus will be wiped down and disinfected between service runs, which Blunt said adds one hour of cleaning time per vehicle.

Blunt declined to say how many passengers Dartmouth Coach carries annually, although he acknowledged that with Dartmouth College planning to allow only half of its 4,400 undergraduates back on campus in September, passenger levels will fall sharply.

“We’re experiencing severely reduced demand,” Blunt said. “I’ve seen transit systems running around 20% of where they would normally be — that’s 80% less. We think in the Upper Valley, with all of the protocols we have put in place, it will take a little time to build momentum.”

Blunt said the aim in restoring buses is to offer a “representative service” that would meet riders’ expectations, even though the schedule has been cut back 40%.

“We’re not going to run a full schedule; that’s crazy,” he said. “But if all we could run is one bus a day between Lebanon and Boston, we’d rather not even do it.”

Although the bulk of Dartmouth Coach’s passengers come from the college community — students, visitors, people with business on campus — Blunt said the bus line also transports Upper Valley residents to Boston and New York and is an important service for elderly residents with hospital appointments in Boston.

Sununu last week authorized the $4 million in emergency relief funds to be shared equally between Dartmouth Coach and its sister company, Concord Coach Lines, in order to help them resume service. The federal money is part of an overall relief package of $7.5 million for the two bus lines, along with C&J Bus Lines in Portsmouth, funneled to the state from the federal government.

The money is administered by the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery. GOFERR, in turn, received $39 million through the Federal Transit Administration and from the CARES Act. Last month, the eight-member Legislative Advisory Board unanimously recommended the governor approve release of the funds to the bus lines, which had been urged by New Hampshire Department of Transportation Commissioner Victoria Shaheen.

The three privately owned bus lines carry a total of 1.5 million passengers annually and, Shaheen told the advisory board in a meeting last month, lost a total of $16 million in ticket sales between March and July as a result of suspending service.

“Once these (companies) resume service ... passenger fare revenues are initially estimated to be 20% of pre-pandemic levels through the end of the calendar year,” Shaheen said in her letter to Sununu seeking him to approve the aid package.

Concord Coach Lines also operates Boston Express, a commuter line serving southern New Hampshire, under contract with the state, which owns the buses and terminals.

Shaheen said last month her agency has set aside $10 million of the federal CARES Act money to help fund operations at Boston Express.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

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