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Rural Greyhound passengers get last boarding call

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But nostalgia won't pay the bills. A recent bus that came through tiny - and now off-the-grid - Pinetops, N.C., carried a single passenger northward to New York City. To stem the slide and become more relevant, Greyhound surveyed its passengers and found a new kind of bus traveler emerging: more urban, less interested in traveling distances over 450 miles, and more concerned with speed. Lengthy, meandering routes were passengers' biggest complaint - and they also failed to attract business. In all of 2004, for example, only 121 outbound passengers used the small terminal in Humboldt, Tenn., which closed last week.

"It's never an easy decision to discontinue service to a community that you've been serving, but when customer demand is low or nonexistent, to stay in business you have to make tough decisions," says Anna Folmnsbee, a Greyhound spokeswoman.

The biggest culprit behind declining ticket sales is the car; even the poorest rural family likely has one. But, from a business point of view, Greyhound's leaving is an affirmation of many towns' decline as destinations and points of departure.

"The real reason that service has gone down is that people are leaving those communities," says Elvis Latiolais, general manager for Carolina Trailways, a Greyhound subsidiary.

Some communities could replace the lost service through rural transportation grants from the Federal Transit Administration. Yet in April, before departing for a new post, FTA chief Jennifer Dorn warned state transportation officials: "Rural service is no longer a certainty."

The silver coach became a key plot twist in major life events, from elopements to enlistments to the journeys of budding small-town starlets trying their luck in Hollywood. For artists, the Greyhound has long been a symbolic way to depict a unique American wanderlust: Sometimes as a way out, often as a way home.

"Greyhound really brought America as a whole together, and it's always been more of an adventure than riding the train," says Gene Nicolelli, the director of the Greyhound Bus Origin Center, a museum in Hibbing, Minn.

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