Page last updated at 10:34 GMT, Friday, 21 August 2009 11:34 UK

Riding the Greyhound

The iconic bus in days gone by (photo courtesy of Greyhound Bus Museum)

By Laura Schocker
BBC News

Greyhound buses will hit UK motorways next month - starting with a two-hour service from London to Portsmouth and Southampton. But can an American transport icon find success across the Atlantic?

"'Kathy,' I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
Michigan seems like a dream to me now
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I've gone to look for America."

Small-town bus stop
Route to a new life far from here?

Simon and Garfunkel's song America is, for many, the first reference point for Greyhound buses. And British people who have never been to the US probably haven't seen the big metal bus on the road - just on screen.

In the 1930s, Greyhound made its first stop in Hollywood as the main setting for a romance between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in the film It Happened One Night.

Since then, the bus has featured in more films, including Breakfast at Tiffany's in 1961 and Midnight Cowboy in 1969. Performers from John Mellencamp to Garth Brooks and Guy Lombardo have recorded songs mentioning the bus, cementing the Greyhound as a cultural symbol representing great journeys of (self) discovery.

Resting at the station
En route from Chicago to Mississippi

"It's a great cinematic shorthand for adventure," says film critic Jason Solomons, chairman of the Film Critic Circle. "You always see people on these very epic, poetic journeys. Nobodies step off the Greyhound bus in Los Angeles, having travelled from God knows where in the US, to become a star."

But to many Americans, the bus is more than just a symbol. It's a way of connecting to small towns all over the country.

"The romance of the Greyhound bus is the romance of the open road. And that's an American romance," says Irma Kurtz, author of The Great American Bus Ride, which chronicles her five-month journey to 47 states on a Greyhound. "It's miles and miles through wonderful territory."

Wheels on the bus

Greyhound's beginnings read like an American Dream story.

Passengers stroll about during a break in the journey
During a rest stop

The company was founded in 1914 by two immigrant miners to carry people to a town two miles away, says Gene Nicolelli, director and founder of the Greyhound Bus Museum in Hibbing, Minnesota, where the business began.

Those first miles kept on multiplying as Greyhound opened up travel to people from small towns without transport hubs, says Mr Nicolelli. "They used to stop at every rinky-dinky town. They'd even stop at the side of the road."

Today, the bus may have a firm footing in the US - transporting about 22 million passengers each year, but the question is - can the American Greyhound make it abroad?

Alex Warner, managing director of Greyhound UK, says yes. "It's like when McDonald's was brought over to Moscow," he says. "There is a level of loyalty to iconic brands."

UK version of a Greyhound bus, with a greyhound dog
The UK take on the bus

But can a cultural icon translate to a British reality? Take the epic bus trip from Simon and Garfunkel's song America. Can it work for UK cities?

For Pittsburgh, a fairly large industrial town, let's substitute Sheffield. For the arguably out of the way Saginaw? Let's try Accrington, Lancashire. The hitchhiking journey in the song took four days. At 60 miles, you'd be lucky to stretch out this British version to a few hours.

Instead, the distance is a bit more like the journey between London and Edinburgh - although an hour spent in London traffic may not be quite the same as watching the moon over an open field on the way to New Jersey.

Romance of the road

"It's a fantastic notion if you've got big open spaces," says Keith Lovegrove, a writer and designer who has published several books about the relationship between transportation, identity and culture.

Greyhound bus on road
Bad boys sit at the back - head for the rear if you want to meet one
An unsavoury character boards. There's an empty seat next to you. Start coughing - loudly
Pack lightly - the best adventures are had when you get off the bus unexpectedly

"I'm a bit sceptical about it working in this country when you've only got to go from Reading to central London."

Ms Kurtz agrees. "Greyhound has the mystique of the open road behind it - that endless American highway."

And these long journeys are the root of the Greyhound experience - visiting little known places and meeting new people.

"It was like going back in time to the Conestoga wagon days. You'd get off and there would be one lunch counter in town," Ms Kurtz says of her own journey. "You meet the other America."

But that may not translate to the shorter journeys in the UK.

"In America, a distance is so long that some of those people on that bus are in flight. They're getting away from something. Here [in the UK] that won't be true," she says. "This is an island, the romance here is the ocean. And the romance of the Greyhound stays in America."

Woman sleeps on the bus
Grabbing some rest

Instead of the vehicle driving the great American adventure, Ms Kurtz says the British incarnation will be about the practicality of travelling from point A to point B. The new Greyhounds are based on the US BoltBus brand, and will offer wi-fi, power sockets, extra leg room and fast journey times, says Mr Warner.

And even if the experience is different, some are hopeful that this may just be enough to put the British road film on the road map.

Mr Solomons says maybe the Greyhound will give UK motorways a makeover, of sorts, by making them seem more glamorous.

"We can always dream when we're stuck in traffic."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Sounds very much like the National Express to me, also cemented as part of pop history in a Divine Comedy song:
"Take the National Express
When your life's in a mess
It'll make you smile
All human life is here."
Matt, Chelmsford, UK

Matt I think that song was about the NHS, especially if you watch the music video which accompanies it. I believe some legal problems meant the Divine Comedy had to use the term "national express" instead?
Ashley Hinton, Didcot, UK

My memories of Greyhound travels across the US are of 22-hour schleps broken up every four or so hours where all passengers had to disembark with their hand luggage while the bus was cleaned. The seats were large, with plenty of legroom, but rather hard and often lumpy and uncomfortable. We did this several times over five or six weeks. I fail to see how the Greyhound can be seen as glamorous, but if you're on a tight budget it's ideal.
PM, Harrogate

I lived in Broadstairs, England, for a year and loved to go up to London. All my English friends thought this too much of an ordeal even though I offered to drive (nice car) or go by train. It seemed to me that unlike Americans who "travel" daily, the English like to stay put. I would love to travel by Greyhound anywhere in the UK. It is a great country and you all should get out and see more of it.
Arthur Lewis, New Waverly, Texas, US

As children growing up in Canada, my brother and I were ferried every second weekend between our divorced parents on a Greyhound bus. It was almost like a right of passage, and I've got many fond memories of our journeys. I am so pleased to hear that Greyhound will be making its way to the motorways of the UK, as my most recent journey with a similar carrier from London to Manchester was a sweaty and slow exercise in futility. I just hope that Greyhound are able to maintain the standards here that so many people enjoy back home.
Kristy, London

I travelled from the east to west coast of America in 2005 using Greyhound buses. The buses only ever stopped in the middle of nowhere. Even if it was a main city, like Houston or LA, the actual bus station was in the roughest looking places or in a really remote area. Fellow passengers are people who can't afford a flight, or who don't want the security checks of air travel. One gentleman was asked to leave after threatening to shoot another passenger. The travelling itself was long and arduous and slightly cramped after 12 hours. But I'm glad I did it, as if it was not for this I would never have made it to New Orleans before Katrina hit, and would never have found a small amazing town called Flagstaff south of the Grand Canyon. I can also say that I have actually been to Amarillo and travelled America.
Allan Keeton, Lockerbie, Scotland

You can't name check Simon and Garfunkel without a nod to Chuck Berry and his song Bye Bye Johnny, of 1960, where his momma put him aboard a Greyhound bus. I'm sure that's the first time Greyhound buses really came into the consciousness, by name, of a lot of people in the UK.
Clive, London

I do not quite get, even as an American, how a bus can be an "icon" of "romanticism" of a country. It's a hunk of metal with an engine, some wheels, and bench seats, not exactly a Royal Cruise Liner. Still, people like to think of things strange ways, and if it makes them happy to think of a bus as a beautiful symbol of the American Dream, who am I to tell them they are wrong, it's just a bus?
Sam, US

We had Greyhound coaches or buses over here in England in the 60s and 70s - so there is nothing "new" about having them here now. I used to reside in Theale, near Reading in Berkshire, and the Greyhound bus used to go through the village from Reading to the West Country.
Paul West, Maidstone, UK

I took the Greyhound from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 1999 and it was probably one of the best experience of my time in California. I loved all the leg-stretching stops in the middle of nowhere and the banter with my fellow passengers. There was one particularly strange guy - I later found out he had just been released from prison - who kept asking for my address back in Scotland...
Catherine, Edinburgh

I once took the Greyhound from Orlando to Atlanta in 1995. Well, the collection of social misfits, sociopaths and oddballs was a little unsettling, but for me the experience remains one of the most interesting I've had in the US. You get to see a side of American life that is not well documented. That is, those people who can't drive or aren't allowed to. At one point I was convinced the man next to me (complete with lace gloves and leather jacket) was going to murder me so I just couldn't fall asleep. Ah, the romance...
Brendan Collison, Sheffield

In 1989 I spent three months travelling around the States by Greyhound. I remember a group of young men getting on in New York travelling all the way to Salt Lake City to attend the trial for their brother who had been killed there. Also, my bus crashed in Mississippi - I couldn't understand the police when they arrived, and they had no idea what I was saying. Bit of a shame as I was the only passenger who was awake at the time and had seen what caused it.
Robin, London

The markets between the UK and US are very different. In the US Greyhound is the main ground-based long distance "inter-city" public transport, as it has very poor rail services outside of large cities. In the UK the rail network largely does that job. Even a two-hour journey time won't compete with the journey time of trains on these routes (typically about 90 minutes) and with the stop/start nature of traffic in our cities, I doubt it will be as comfortable as travelling by train. There is also heavy competition on both routes.
Jon Combe, Woking

Few years back I took the Greyhound service from Bellingham to Seattle. I hoped it would be a slow journey on an old coach, so that I could get that film-like feeling, but it turned out to be a modern coach, and the service was fast and efficient.
Marc Belman, London, UK

It's less the mode of transport than the land travelled. I went from Dallas to Flagstaff years ago, met some interesting people and saw some fabulous sights. Britain is indeed a beautiful country but travelling its roads on a Greyhound bus probably won't make it more so.
Andy Hulme

I still have amazing memories of a month spent criss-crossing the US on a Greyhound, using the buses as mobile motels between exploring the cities. Getting dropped off at the side of the road outside Alpine, Texas, or sharing a quick beer with fellow passengers on one of the leg-stretching stops. Wondering when the mad man next to you would stop talking. At 6' 6" the 50+ hour journey back from San Francisco to Wisconsin might not have been the most comfortable, but as experiences go, it certainly beat flying.
Nathan Fulwood, Edinburgh, UK

My experience of Greyhound buses turned out to be a nightmare rather than a romantic dream as I was in a horrific crash in one from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg in 1951. Black ice and a driver who had been drinking at the rest stop caused it. It would be much better if the hype was about safety and environmental factors rather than romance.
Marion Monahan, Bristol

This presents a certain mystic to these buses, when in reality they are the main transport for former criminals leaving prisons. The stench of an overnighter is the most unpleasant smell ever created. Take the plane!
James, London

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