Amtrak thruway bus cabotage

I just got back from a long weekend in Galveston, Texas, which had a surprising effect on me. I don't enjoy reading, let alone writing, trip reports, but I had enough interesting impressions while there that I plan to write up a few key lessons I learned during the trip. So look forward to more Galveston-related content soon; in the meantime, here's a quick tip on Amtrak thruway bus cabotage.

Amtrak is prohibited from providing intercity bus transportation

Cabotage, strictly speaking, is the act of carrying goods or passengers by a carrier registered in one country between two points in another country, and is prohibited except at the discretion of the second country.

But a similar principle is at work in the delivery of passenger bus and rail transportation in the United States. In my primitive understanding, Amtrak, the American passenger rail service, is allowed to provide bus transportation from cities that are not served by passenger rail to its passenger rail stations, but only on the condition that passengers have an onward passenger rail connection.

This is basically a shameless sop to passenger bus companies, who don't want to compete against a loss-making quasi-governmental train company. Interestingly, most of these so-called "thruway" bus routes are in fact operated by private passenger bus companies, from whom Amtrak contracts to provide transportation to their passenger rail stations. 

Amtrak tickets are quite cheap (and they have a rewards program)

While considering our various options to travel back from Galveston to Houston (I'll cover travel to Galveston in a future post), I stumbled across the interesting fact that the only passenger bus service from Galveston to Houston is operated by Lone Star Coaches, as a thruway bus service connecting to Amtrak's Sunset Limited service between Louisiana and California.

Of course, Amtrak is prohibited from selling thruway bus tickets between Galveston and Houston.

But they aren't prohibited from selling tickets from Galveston to San Antonio (one stop West of Houston). And those tickets are not very expensive.

Here's a ticket from Galveston to San Antonio (available Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday):

That's the second-cheapest price I could find for transportation from Galveston to Houston (spoiler alert: the cheapest is Galveston Express, but they seem to operate only when the cruise ships are in port).


I began looking into this option as a way to save money on our return from Galveston, but the same principle operates in markets all across the country: even if you can't find passenger bus service between two points, Amtrak may run a thruway bus between them, which only requires a train ticket to the next station down the line.