Oliver Kuttner saw a need. In the early part of this century, it wasn’t easy to get from Charlottesville to New York. Amtrak did not have daily service—and with connections, a plane ride could take almost as long as driving.
So real estate/light car developer Kuttner partnered with David New. They gutted a Trailways bus, added 22 leather BMW seats, a state-of-the-art sound system, upgraded toilet, and free snacks and beverages. The Starlight Express with luxury motorcoach service to Manhattan was born.
As he readied the Starlight for its first trip in October 2004, New described its drop-off point in New York City, the Meatpacking District, as a “hot, up-and-coming area.”
A generation of Charlottesvillians boarded the deluxe coach at 5:30pm on a Thursday or Friday, and stretched out for the ride that arrived around midnight. The service made weekending in the city both convenient and, at $149 roundtrip, affordable.
On October 10, Starlight’s current operator, Dan Goff, got a text that Megabus was coming to town. He immediately pulled the plug.
“We’ve been DISRUPTED!” says the notice on its website.
Goff, who owns a limousine and bus company and who bought Starlight in 2010, had already noticed signs the New York shuttle was in trouble. He’s always seen a bump in ridership when fuel prices went up. “The canary in the coal mine earlier this year was that fuel prices went up, but ridership didn’t,” he says.
He suspended service for three months during the summer, and had just resumed it October 4. The news of Megabus proved to be the death knell. “Charlottesville is barely big enough for us,” he says.
Megabus is owned by Coach USA, which is owned by a Scottish company called Stagecoach Group. Its website shows service beginning October 14 with $79.99 one-way fares for nearly nine-hour trips.
The international company is “capable of buying business for awhile with $5 fares,” says Goff.
“I’m not crying,” he says. “Starlight was never our primary business.” But he admits it is difficult to say goodbye.
Kuttner had predicted the Starlight’s demise back in 2009, when the state decided to subsidize Amtrak service through Charlottesville.
And with Hurricane Michael slamming into the Gulf Coast this week, Kuttner is reminded of Hurricane Katrina, when he and New loaded a bus with supplies and drove to Pearlington, Mississippi. “The storm surge there was 28 feet,” he says. “We saw dead people—six or seven—lying on the roof of a Walmart. It was total devastation.”
Most of his Starlight memories are happier. While he and New operated it, “It was almost a small family business,” he says. “I drove when there wasn’t a driver or when I wanted to go to New York. I liked driving.”
“It was pretty exciting to put it all together and pull it off when a lot of people said it wouldn’t work,” says New. They started by running the service for a three-month trial period to see if it would work. “People came out of the woodwork,” he says. “So many people in Charlottesville have a New York connection.”
Rosemary Miller remembers Bodo’s bagels and Orangina as snacks in the early days. “When we lived in New York, it was my favorite way to get back and forth,” she says. “Friendly drivers, a stop to get off and get food, and there was always some familiar face onboard.”
Says New, “It took a lot of the pain out of getting from Charlottesville to New York.”