Japan’s First Class Bus: The Willer Express

Post by Steven Dale

Now this makes sense . . . Japan’s Willer Express is offering plush first class seats that look more like business class pods on an airline.

Equipped with wireless internet, reclining seats, LCD screens and blankets this could actually make long-distance bus travel palatable.

Japan's Willer Express First Class Bus Service. Image via Oh Gizmo!

Of course these are the premium coaches; Willer Express also has a wide variety of different seat configurations and you’ll notice that some of them aren’t even equipped with a washroom. But let’s leave that point aside for the moment.

Let’s look at the first class vehicles and ask ourselves a few questions:

ONE – Could such an idea be applied to public transit?

TWO – If so, how?

THREE – What price could you charge users of such a system? Twice the standard fare? Three times the standard fare? How would that compare to the price of driving to work every day?

FOUR – What would the implications on ridership be if a transit agency were to implement such a Premium (Freemium?) arrangement?

I think there’s something here.


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  1. ONE: No. Boarding takes to much time and the capacity is to low. Means bus station cannot take all those low capacity busses or need to be very large and thus confusing to use. See all those cities which use Mini Busses or Jeepneys for transport. Some of them are starting to ban those mini busses and introduce larger busses to get some relieve of traffic jams. Today everybody has a smartphone which he can use in any transit for entertainment. Nobody will pay for gadgets built into the vehicle especially for short rides. TWO: Either you end up with a normal bus which allows more passenger and faster boarding or a cab. Only chance for that luxury bus is a point to point shuttle. For example Hotel-Airport. Or two location of a company. The bus will be stuck in traffic. Or has to take the bus lane of transit busses. THREE: The capacity is maybe five times lower than a standard bus. So each passenger need to pay fives times more. Subsidies for luxury transportation is also not viable. FOUR: Some transit agencies also operate cabs. Those busses could be used for feeder service. Those buses are good for low demand medium distance travel. Where there are not enough passengers for a train connection but still a high quality transportation is required.
  2. @ Matthias, I don't disagree with anything you've said. But what if you offered such vehicles from outlying suburban hubs to downtown transit hubs - transfer and stop free? What happens then? Good point about the gadget issue - I hadn't considered that but should have.
  3. The market for first class travel is not that big. Many train operators cancelled first class in commuter trains already. Because there where not enough passengers. So only a small fraction would be willing to pay an extra fee. For short commuter trips comfort is also not that important. Everday i see passenger cramping into an already crowded train and have to stand just to arrive a few minutes earlier. A train with free seats will follow a few minutes later. The price is the same but everybody takes the earlier train which is two minutes faster. The later sligthly slower train even has newer rolling stock. Nobody wants to wait on their commuting run, so that premium bus it will need to have the same frequency of service like a regular bus. A transit agency will just increase the frequency of their standard vehicles instead of introducing a high class service. If somebody wants a high class transit they just take their car. So to make high class transit happen you would need to outlaw the private cars. For long distance travelling comfort is more important and such buses will be a good thing. Also i would like to see this kind of seats in long distance trains. Especially for overnight trains this will really improve comfort for single passengers.
  4. Matt the Engineer
    This exists. But it's even better than the Willer. For long-distance travel on public transportation in the US (Amtrak) even the cheap seats are nearly this nice. Plus you can go hang out in the lounge car surrounded by glass and scenery or have an elegant meal in the dining car. But as an upgrade there's the "roomette" which is a tiny but comfortable private room that sleeps two, the "bedroom" which is a full sleeper car room with a private bathroom, or even the "bedroom suite" that's the size of two bedrooms and sleeps up to six. On my last trip in a roomette on the Empire Builder we had an attendant assigned to just 8 rooms, were offered wine, and had elegant dining for dinner and breakfast (included in price) - all for the price of a nice hotel room. Unless you're in a hurry that beats plane travel hands down. Oh, and I think mentioning commuters is a bit off-point. Google tells me it takes 7 hours to drive from Osaka to Tokyo, which is the Willer's route. That's no commuter bus. (note: Google says that's only a 3.5 hour train ride! man I'm jealous of Japan's rail infrastructure)
  5. It could be appealing for super-commuters that spend an hour on the bus going into the city already. This could be very popular for commuters in large cities in Japan or South Korea where the work culture contributes to sleep deprivation. It seems like it could also be used for charter bus tours, which are very popular in Japan. As a complete aside, I always thought one of the greatest things about Japanese highway buses (other than traveling on uncongested toll highways and being clean and modern) was that you can drink on them. Passengers can buy beer at the rest stations, and calmly sip a nice, cold Sapporo while watching the countryside go by.
  6. I think you are touching on something important. Public transit needs to have a "business" section and an "economy" section with some kind of divider separating them. At least in America, middle class people don't want to sit next to poor people on the bus. That forced socio-economic mixing, in my opinion, is one of the biggest barriers preventing middle class Americans from embracing public transit.
  7. Kelly, It's something I'm wrestling with as well. We charge premium rates in virtually all other forms of transit, but we ignore the possibilities in public transit. The trouble I see is that public transit is seen as a public good - how does that "message" mesh with having, essentially, VIP areas? I don't know.
  8. This is a social problem particularly in the USA. There are many countries, which are not so well off. But you can use their public transit without being harassed by beggars or worse. For long distance you can make a two class system including VIP Buses and waiting rooms. But you cannot put a special secured VIP lounge at every bus stop. IMHO paying a surcharge just to get the minimum acceptable standard (clean vehicles, no harassment, punctual service, safety and security) is not an option. This is like you get spoiled food in a restaurant if you don't pay the premium food.

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