Volunteers struggle to help Greyhound customers

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Greyhound bus customers wait for their ride at the Marathon gas station on Cherry Street. The Marathon parking lot has been the Greyhound bus stop since the decades-old downtown terminal was closed on April 18. Photos by Hard Knox Wire.

Almost every night for more than a month, two women have gone to the new Greyhound bus stop in East Knoxville to provide succor to confused and angry travelers.

At their own expense, Jackie Neal and Ann Jefferson spend hours each night checking on the scores of men, women and children who have just learned that their home for the next few hours is a convenience store parking lot on Cherry Street rather than the bus station that served Knoxville for generations.

The travelers usually need information, especially those who rely on wi-fi to check the Greyhound schedules. Buses are frequently early, late or canceled altogether and there are no company employees to answer questions or resolve problems.

But many of them also need basic items like chairs or benches to sit on, protection from the elements, and some type of security. It would also be nice to have toilet facilities, although there is a sense of desultory gratitude toward the anonymous benefactor who dropped a pair of porta potties onto the lot’s northeast corner last week. 

Neal and Jefferson try to supply all these things to the passengers who find themselves at the new Greyhound stop, curled up near the front doors of the Marathon gas station or huddled under the aluminum canopy that shields the fuel pumps. The riders long to be pretty much anywhere that isn’t the sun-blasted expanse of asphalt, at least until the sun goes down and it becomes tolerable to emerge from the shade.

As Sunday evening wore on, Adrian Davis-Bell of Detroit sat in a folding chair (provided by Neal and Jefferson) in the parking lot as she tried to figure out how to salvage her travel plans to Tallahassee, Fla.

“I first got my ticket in March, and last week I was sent a message saying the time had changed,”she explained. “Last night they sent me another email saying the bus was not going to be here at 6:45 p.m., it’s going to get here at 10:45 p.m. And now I get here early at 6:45, but it’s canceled. It’s confusing.”

Davis-Bell said she’s been a regular Greyhound rider for many years and had never imagined the company would do this to customers.

“If it was raining, where would we go?” she asked. ”I got here and someone had out these chairs, and I’m grateful. I didn’t have to sit down on hard concrete. But this is not good. I do not feel safe.”

When asked if she had a message for the bus company, she replied: “Come on, man — spend some money and make sure your customers are safe.”

Jackie Neal (left) and Adrian Davis-Bell discuss a canceled bus Sunday night at the Greyhound stop on Cherry Street.

“A lawful business model”

For generations, Greyhound has been the nation’s go-to long distance travel option for those on a budget or averse to flying. Even as airlines have gained larger and larger shares of the market, Greyhound has remained the only affordable choice for millions of Americans. 

The Knoxville station had seen countless arrivals and departures since it was built in 1960. In fact, it was such a fixture that it came as something of shock to many when the 16,000-square-foot building went on sale in 2020. Then, last year, the Greyhound corporation itself was sold to Flixmobility, a German company valued at about $3 billion, and the Knoxville property was sold for $1.45 million to local developers a few months later. 

While Greyhound never promised to replace the old station with a new one, many observers expected a company with such a long-standing presence in Knoxville to work with local officials to come up with a better solution than an inner city parking lot.

City officials have been talking to Greyhound for some time now but — publicly at least — little or no progress seems to have been made.

According to Stephanie Welch, the City of Knoxville’s Chief of Economic and Community Development, it doesn’t appear that Greyhound is breaking any laws and there’s nothing that can be done to force the company “to change a lawful business model.”

Welch has said that City officials have recommended that Greyhound establish a service location at a partner business with 24-hour operations. KAT (Knoxville Area Transit) has evaluated the possibility of Greyhound leasing space at the downtown transit center, which was built for the specific purpose of supporting KAT operations, but the center doesn’t have enough capacity to accommodate both KAT and Greyhound during KAT’s operating hours. 

Even if a solution is reached, it could still take months or even years to implement. 

“Enacting an arrangement for private use of a public facility will require adequate time and due diligence to ensure compliance with procurement processes, and will have to be approved by City Council,” Welch wrote in a recent note to City Council members. “Additionally, a lease agreement at the transit center will not address Greyhound’s needs during KAT’s operating hours. For these reasons, we continue to encourage Greyhound to find an alternative location for their service in partnership with a private entity.”

“This is how they operate”

Jackie Neal worked for Greyhound as a ticket agent for many years before retiring in 2019. 

She never thought she’d be back on the job one day, only this time minus a paycheck. 

It’s hard and frustrating work, but she’s very nearly an angel insofar as stranded bus passengers are concerned. 

Neal still has contacts in the Greyhound company to fall back on, particularly dispatchers, which means she can often get bus riders moving toward their destination, albeit with altered itineraries. 

“I just don’t want to see people stranded,” Neal explained Sunday. “When they don’t have the information they need about the schedules, I can call the dispatcher to find out.”

One common strategy to deal with the many canceled buses is to work with drivers to allow passengers to ride to Atlanta or Nashville, where the staff at those larger facilities may at least give them a chance to resolve their problems. 

Ann Jefferson (in mask) stands with bus riders as they prepare to board Sunday night.

She explained that Greyhound’s new owner is simply implementing the same model it uses in Europe in the United States. It’s a model that minimizes customer service in favor of high profit margins and relies on local governments to provide as much in the way of infrastructure as possible. 

“This is how they operate,” she said. “They’re just doing what they do in Germany here. That’s the predicament we’re in.”

Hard Knox Wire has sent several requests to Greyhound seeking the company’s side of the story since the new bus stop opened. All but the first request have gone unanswered.

In that reply, dated April 20, a Greyhound spokesperson said the following:

“Thank you for reaching out.

Greyhound can confirm the relocation of its Knoxville location from 100 E Magnolia Avenue to 1324 N Cherry St. Service officially began on April 18th.

Greyhound stops at a range of locations across its extensive network. Similar to the rest of the intercity bus industry, some of these stops include convenience stores, gas stations and restaurants. While Greyhound was not the owner of its previous location, we did a thorough review of our business in Knoxville and decided to transition to the aforementioned industry-wide model so that we could continue to provide this essential service to this community. 

The new stop is a self-service location with ticket purchases available on Greyhound.com, through Greyhound’s mobile app, or by dialing 1-800-231-2222.

“Greyhound customers interested in paying with cash can purchase tickets online and pay with cash at over 32,000 retailers nationwide. For more information on that process, please visit here.  

“We have no further information at this time.”

“The face of corporate abuse”

Even the generosity of the kindest examples of humankind can be pushed too far. 

While Jefferson has been willing to donate her time and energy to the cause, more than a trace of bitterness has crept into her voice over the past few days. 

“This is Greyhound’s responsibility,” Jefferson said. “I don’t want to do Greyhound’s job for free. I’m a volunteer.”

She regularly posts updates of the most recent drama on Facebook, often relating heartbreaking tales of the elderly and handicapped who find themselves completely unable to care for themselves in an unfamiliar parking lot at night. And those tales barely scratch the surface. 

Late last week, she fired off an open letter to City Council in which she blasted both Greyhound and City officials with equal venom.

 “I went on the first night, April 18, 2022, simply because I expected this to go badly and I wanted to see how Greyhound would handle the situation,” she wrote. “‘Badly’ doesn’t describe it. It was outrageous. No Greyhound employee was there to see how the first night would go. There were people who had shuttled back and forth between the old Magnolia Street station and the new Cherry Street location several times, getting the story at both locations that they needed to be at the other one. There was a woman in a wheelchair who had been brought on a bus that was late and missed her connection through no fault of her own. 

“She and other passengers were inadequately dressed for the temperatures in the low 40s that we had that night (I invite you to look it up), and they were facing a four-hour wait for the next bus. There was a couple who had arrived about 4 p.m. for a bus due later that night; their ride had dropped them off early because he had to go to work, but they never imagined being outdoors while they waited; they were huddled on the pavement — there is no place to sit at the gas station — in a blanket until I put them in my car to wait. A friend showed up and put the wheelchair lady and her companion in his van to wait. And that was only the first night.”

She then directed her criticism at how City officials have handled the situation.

 “That our representatives should abandon us to our fate at the hands of a company that is totally irresponsible, that lies to its customers (as happened last night, leaving at least 10 passengers stranded in Knoxville thanks to the whim of one driver), that provides NO access to accurate information, no security, no protection from the elements, no ‘service’, and cannot even bring the buses in on time…. I find that shocking. To say that I am disappointed in our city’s leadership is very great understatement,” she wrote.

“Ms. Welch defends the city’s lack of advocacy by saying the City of Knoxville cannot ‘control’ what a private company does. No one is expecting that. What we do expect is that the city leadership will a) check out what’s happening to its citizens who need intercity and interstate ground transportation, and b) defend our human rights… to the service we’ve paid for, to accurate information, and to a reasonable amount of safety and security. Is it too much to ask that Greyhound put up a sign that identifies their bus stop? Or to provide a chair for a customer who can neither stand for hours nor get down to and up from the pavement?

“Need I remind you that there is no alternative to Greyhound when it comes to interstate ground travel? And the city’s position is that their role is to supply a list of possible sites to Greyhound? I expect better treatment from the people we’ve elected to represent us and defend us in the face of corporate abuse.”

These portable toilets are the only facilities available to the Greyhound bus passengers who flow through the new Knoxville bus stop on Cherry Street. No one has admitted to installing them, but most everyone agrees they are an improvement over nothing at all.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on May 23, 2022.