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Not your father's magic bus

LimoLiner sets its sights on executive set as it plies Boston-New York route

Would your company's CEO make his next trip from Boston to New York City by bus? Suppose he could get reclining leather seats, high-speed Internet access, digital TV, plenty of leg room, and a chance for a round of coffee at the built-in conference table?

Fergus McCann, a Scottish-American entrepreneur, is betting almost $2 million of his own fortune that his fledgling LimoLiner bus service, offering four round trips a day to New York, will lure travelers away from the pricey air shuttle and the sometimes erratic Amtrak rail service. One of his three $550,000 custom buses is scheduled to make its inaugural run from the Hilton Boston Back Bay Hotel at 6 a.m. Oct. 1, arriving at the Hilton New York in Manhattan at 10. Passengers -- only 28 for each bus, rather than the usual 55 -- will pay $69 each way for a round-trip ticket.

To make passengers comfortable, LimoLiner buses avoid the two-by-two seating of most motorcoaches. Instead, these custom buses have a two-one configuration of 28 leather, reclining seats with 41 inches of pitch, or leg room, between the rows. Greyhound buses, by comparison, have 27 inches of pitch.

Satellite receivers pipe in wireless Internet service, DirecTV, and XM Satellite Radio. The Internet can be accessed free by any passenger who has a WiFi-equipped laptop; those without WiFi can plug into an ethernet connection at every seat. Three flat-panel televisions suspended from the ceiling are tuned to either news or a movie playing on the onboard DVD player.

The rear of the bus is occupied by a 10-seat conference area, with two larger flat screens, fold-out tables and a door for privacy. A kitchenette can provide chilled sandwiches and hot coffee. The company's website and an 800 number for reservations should be running in two weeks, McCann said.

"I couldn't understand, with the interstate highway system in place, why was no one using it for luxury services," said McCann. "It's a cultural thing, that the bus is seen as a basic kind of cheap transportation."

That expectation may be an obstacle, as LimoLiner woos business executives who are used to flying or taking the train, analysts said.

"In the last 30 years, luxury bus service has been tried on and off, and it generally has not met with resounding success," said Bruce Sankey, editor of Bus & Motorcoach News, a Phoenix-based trade magazine.

In March, ExecConnect, a firm that offered similar service between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, folded after less than a year. Officials could not be reached for comment, but Doug Anderson, a partner, has been quoted in published reports as saying that the service never gained enough ridership to be viable.

Henry Harteveldt, an analyst at Forrester Research in San Francisco, predicted "tough going" for the new luxury venture. "The service may be great, but you're dealing with the reason that people don't want to drive in the first place, and that's traffic," he said.

Though he said he'll welcome any passenger who can pay, McCann said LimoLiner is not trying to steal passengers away from other bus companies such as Greyhound or the famously inexpensive Fung Wah, the "Chinese Wind," which charges $10 for a one-way ride between the Chinatowns of Boston and New York.

Instead, LimoLiner aims to skim passengers from airline shuttles like those of Delta Air Lines and US Airways, and from Amtrak's Acela Express trains, both of which offer more frequent service. LimoLiner is cheaper than either train or plane (a one-way ticket on Acela starts at $99, and the airline shuttles start at about $250 for a walk-up fare), and its amenities were designed to compete with the shuttles' first-class cabins and Acela Express's business class service, McCann said.

McCann said his company should turn a profit if it can survive for a year and a half and capture 3 percent of the travelers who now opt for his competition.

"I've worked for other companies in the past," he said. "This is not a hobby. There's certainly risk involved."

Day-to-day operations will be led by Sarah Weill, a former travel agency executive who will work from an office in downtown. John Spelling, who owns a Hendersonville, Tenn., custom bus company called Bus For Sale, is a consultant.

They've devised a marketing strategy to lure passengers, and even a plan to overcome hectic traffic on the way to New York. LimoLiner buses will bypass the oft-crowded Interstate 95, instead going west on the Massachusetts Turnpike, then south on Interstates 84 and 284 through Connecticut before finally traversing Brooklyn and finally into Manhattan.

To get the word out, McCann, along with a driver, a technician familiar with LimoLiner's gadgets, and a PR consultant have been showing off the bus in private meetings with local executives, including a meeting with some from TJX Co., and at public events.

"The key is to get people to see it and to take a look," McCann said.

Nathan Frank, a Boston systems consultant who travels to New York about four times a month, said he'll give the service a try. Because he runs his own firm, Frank said he's a price conscious traveler who has taken both Amtrak and the shuttles but would love to find a cheaper way to go.

"He's pushing it close to the price of the train," Frank said.

"It's going to be interesting to see how this goes. He's going to try to carve out a niche between the cheap bus and the train, and if he's got a good service, my feeling is that they'll have a pretty good business."

Representatives for Amtrak and both Delta and US Airways said they welcome the competition.

"The market they seem to be going after is similar to ours and it's huge," said Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black. "If they can manage to get some people out of their automobiles, that may be their market, but it's ours as well. I don't think it's going to have any impact on Acela Express."

Keith Reed can be reached at reed@globe.com.

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