Peoria Charter credits passenger growth to rise in UI enrollment

Peoria Charter credits passenger growth to rise in UI enrollment

URBANA — With the Illinois attorney general suing Suburban Express for alleged harassment and discrimination, you might expect one of its biggest competitors to gloat.

But Peoria Charter Coach is taking the high road.

“I don’t wish ill upon anyone. This is a big market. There’s no need for any hostilities or dirty marketing,” said James Wang, director of operations for Peoria Charter. “We don’t really change the way we operate based on anything Suburban does. We just do our thing, keep our fleet safe and focus on ourselves.”

While Peoria’s ridership to and from Champaign is up, he said it’s been increasing for some time as the University of Illinois’s enrollment has increased.

“Our numbers have gone up, as they have year after year,” Wang said. “I’m sure some of it is Suburban Express passengers coming over to Peoria Charter, but a lot of it has to do with the student population of the University of Illinois” growing.

While ridership numbers aren’t available for private bus companies, a 2018 report by DePaul University on intercity buses found that the industry is growing.

“After witnessing cutbacks in 2016, the Midwest is again benefiting from new offerings,” it said.

And overall, it concluded: “After a period of relatively slow growth marked by targeted service cuts among express coach lines, scheduled carriers are again expanding, albeit at a less frenetic pace than during the 2008-2013 period.”

Meanwhile, Amtrak ridership to and from the Illinois Terminal in Champaign has been declining since 2013, from 186,100 passengers to 156,200 in 2017.

Peoria Charter has been growing in Champaign since it launched here in 2005, Wang said.

The company was founded in 1941 as a charter bus company, and it added scheduled routes between Chicago and different Illinois colleges in the past couple decades, Wang said.

“We saw the need of students needing transportation to get to Chicago, so we decided to start that as a side thing, and demand has just taken off and we’ve just grown with it,” he said.

It serves Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois Wesleyan and Illinois State universities in Bloomington-Normal, and Champaign-Urbana.

After building a facility on Kenyon Road in north Urbana in 2005, Peoria Charter expanded it around 2009 and bought another building last year.

It now runs 10 routes to Chicago every day, and has about 40 drivers in Champaign, along with five technicians and seven office staffers.

Despite the growth, Peoria Charter raised its price this year from $31 to $32, sparking some concern online that it needs more competition.

But Wang said Peoria Charter is far from a monopoly.

“There’s other transportation service providers, such as Amtrak, Greyhound, Trailways, so by no means has Peoria Charter become a monopoly,” he said. “There’s plenty of options for students to get home.”

And he said the price increase is mostly a result of higher fuel prices this year.

“The decision to raise prices was not influenced whatsoever by Suburban Express,” he said. “They’re still here. During the manager meetings, Suburban Express did not even come into the picture.”

And he said running a bus business is a low-margin business.

“When you consider that all of our buses have a $10 million insurance policy, and each of these motor coaches costs around $500,000 apiece, and the fact that we bought quite a few of them this year, brand-new ones to replace the older ones. That, with the drivers’ pay, and fuel is the biggest factor in whether or not we’re profitable, there’s definitely a very small margin running a bus company,” he said.