It will be difficult to get around Philadelphia when the Holy Father visits the City of Brotherly Love for the World Meeting of the Families. Many streets will be closed, and no one knows for sure which ones yet. SEPTA and PATCO will run limited express service routes. An estimated 5,000 charter buses are expected to ferry pilgrims into town. Philadelphia International Airport and 30th Street Station both expect crowds akin to a busy Thanksgiving weekend.
Somewhat ironically, as the city prepares for a flock of one-to-two million faithful to swarm the city with expectations of seeing self-effacing Francis, the first Jesuit Pontiff, a humble means of transport, the intercity bus, hasn’t received much attention from the Papal planning team.
With two months to go before the Papal visit, intercity bus operators like Greyhound and Megabus – and about a dozen others that regularly run services to and from Philly – still don’t know where they’ll be able to drop off and pick up passengers.
Greyhound knows that its bus terminal at 10th and Filbert, which it also rents out to other bus lines like Peter Pan, has been designated part of a “highly-secured area” and will be closed “for several days,” said Greyhound’s Senior Communication Specialist Lanesha Gipson.
The terminal closure plan was news to representatives from some of the other bus lines that operate out of the station. When PlanPhilly asked Peter Pan’s Marketing Director, Kimberly Hailes, where that company would operate during the visit, she replied by email: “We depart and arrive into the Philadelphia Greyhound Bus Terminal,” as though the terminal was remaining open.
A follow up call with PlanPhilly was the first time Hailes heard the terminal would be closed; she added that there was a chance that Peter Pan’s vice president for security might have been told, “because it’s a safety issue.” Peter Pan regular services include hourly buses from New York City, daily services to Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Providence and Boston.
The terminal’s closure also came as a shock to Susquehanna Trailways, which operates two daily buses from Lock Haven out of the station. “Quite honestly, we don’t know how we’re going to be impacted at this point,” said Amy Brooks, director of sales at Susquehanna. When PlanPhilly asked Brooks about bus station closures, she assumed we meant SEPTA.
Brooks said she understood that security concerns meant information would be slow coming, adding: “I’m certain it will all come together, I think it’s going to be a very last minute proposition.”
The Greyhound terminal is also used by Martz Throughways and Bieber of Kutztown, which link to other Pennsylvania cities. Those companies did not respond PlanPhilly’s request for comment. NJ Transit also uses the terminal.
In addition to those companies, the so-called “Chinatown” buses operate nearby. Those companies did not respond to PlanPhilly’s requests for comment, but likely would face similar closure issues as the Greyhound terminal.
Greyhound’s Gipson said the company was “in the preliminary planning stages with the City with regard to our involvement,” and that it plans to operate at a to-be-determined “alternate location.”
By PlanPhilly’s rough estimate, based off the companies that responded and schedules available online, somewhere between 400 and 500 private intercity buses operated by over a dozen different companies regularly make stops in Philadelphia on a given day.
All of the carriers PlanPhilly spoke with for this article said they expected to increase bus services before, during and after the Papal visit to match the expected uptick in demand. Greyhound itself operates 114 daily buses from its Philadelphia terminal. But no one was able to say what that would look like at this point.
“Although we can confirm that we will be adding schedules for the pope’s visit,” wrote Gipson in an email, “we cannot determine the exact number of additional schedules until we complete our work with [Philadelphia Director of Emergency Management Samantha Phillips] and other city officials.”
Unlike air travel, where passengers have a tendency to book early to lock in cheaper rates, most bus customers tend to wait until the last second to book, noted most the of the bus company representatives interviewed for this article. “Our customers are accustomed to purchasing tickets last minute, showing up at the terminal, and getting on a bus,” wrote Gipson in an email.
Sean Hughes, director of corporate affairs for Megabus North America, said that most of that company’s tickets are booked in the 72-hour period before departure. Along with BoltBus, Megabus uses a small stretch of JFK Boulevard just west of 30th Street Station for its de-facto terminal.
Like the Chinatown-based bus lines, Megabus has faced a lack of communication.
“We’re waiting to hear,” what the plans are, says Hughes. Megabus also expects to run extra buses into and out of Philadelphia leading up to the Papal visit and afterwards. But as for the weekend of the Papal visit, “we don’t know,” said Hughes.
“We’re still working to find out the logistics, as far as how the city will be set up for security for the actual day [of the visit.…] We’re operating under the assumption that weekend we will have to move the stop based on the security plan. We’re waiting for information like everyone else.”
The World Meet of the Families has contracted with GO GROUND, a transportation management company, to organize the estimated 5,000 charter buses coming for the Papal weekend, but company CEO Bill Maulsby said that does not include any logistics related to intercity bus companies.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the online ticketing websites of Peter Pan, Greyhound and GotoBus.com, which books Chinatown buses, all listed tickets available for September 26th and the 27th, despite the fact that none of them know where in Philadelphia they will be able to drop-off and pick-up passengers. None of those online ticketing websites featured notices or warnings about the to-be-determined location.