The End of Chinatown Buses?

Gov't cracking down on discount bus operators after they found an "imminent hazard" to public safety.

Cheap bus rides between Philadelphia and places like New York and Washington, D.C. took a hit Thursday after local “Chinatown Bus” companies were shut down suddenly the night before.

The website for Philly-based New Century Travel Bus had the following message posted after the government shut their operation and 25 others along the I-95 corridor down:

“The Website is Temporary Close Down”

NBC10 talked to travelers needing to find another way to go after showing up to find their bus trips were canceled from the pickup point at 11th and Arch Streets in Chinatown.

Other Philly-based companies included in the government crackdown included Wahoo Tour and Charter Inc. and Universe Bus Inc.

More than two dozen bus operators -- some dubbed as "Chinatown Buses" -- that transported more than 1,800 passengers a day along Interstate 95 between New York and Florida have been closed for safety violations in what federal officials say is the government's largest single safety crackdown of the motor coach industry, according to a release from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Teams of officials for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, armed with legal orders declaring the bus operations imminent hazards to public safety, swooped down Wednesday on companies based in six states: Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Officials withheld details about the operation until Thursday.

The shutdown orders were aimed at the companies' headquarters and at bus pickup locations. Most of the 233 bus routes serviced by the companies either departed from or terminated in New York City's Chinatown district.

Besides the shuttered bus operations, 10 people -- company owners, managers and employees -- were ordered to stop all involvement in passenger transportation operations, including selling bus tickets, the Transportation Department said.

The shutdowns are the culmination of a yearlong investigation by the safety administration that focused on three primary companies: Apex Bus Inc. and I-95 Coach Inc., both of New York, and New Century Travel Inc. of Philadelphia. Each of the three companies oversaw a broad network of other bus companies, officials said. The other bus operations targeted in the crackdown were companies that were affiliated with one of the three primary companies but have other names.

Phone calls and emails to the three companies seeking comment were unanswered.

The shuttered companies are "very, very bad actors," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters in a conference call. "By ignoring safety rules, these operators put both passengers and other motorists at serious safety risk, and shutting them down could save lives."

Safety officials have long complained that their attempts to put unsafe bus operators out of business are frequently thwarted by “reincarnated carriers: that simply reopen for business under a different name or in a different location, or that transfer their buses to an affiliated company that shares similar ownership. Buses belonging to such rogue companies are known in the industry as “ghost” buses because they are frequently painted white with relatively little decoration to make it easier to repaint them with a new company name.

LaHood called on Congress to pass legislation closing legal loopholes used by reincarnated carriers, as well as eliminating a jurisdictional gap that prevents the safety administration from regulating bus industry brokers, including ticket sellers, if they don't directly transport passengers.

The motor coach industry carries more than 700 million passengers a year in the U.S., roughly the same as the domestic airlines.

Bus industry officials said they have been urging the government to crack down on unsafe operators and were aware of the investigation before the shutdowns.

“These businesses have been doing all they can to operate far below the accepted level of safety,” said Dan Ronan, a spokesman for the American Bus Association.

Wednesday's shutdowns applied to nine active bus companies; 13 bus companies that had lost permission to operate but were continuing to operate anyway; three companies that were in the process of applying to the government for operating authority; and a bus ticket seller.

Federal safety investigators found all of the carriers had multiple safety violations, including a pattern of using drivers who didn't have valid commercial driver's licenses and failing to administer alcohol and drug tests to drivers, according to the safety administration. The companies also operated buses that had not been regularly inspected and repaired, and their drivers were violating work schedule and rest requirements and didn't have proper qualifications, officials said.

Elana Benamy, who lives in Philadelphia and works at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, said she had been taking buses operated by one of the shuttered companies regularly to visit her mother in New York. She liked the convenience of the Chinatown drop-off site and the $24 round-trip price couldn't be beat. Now, she said, she'll have to use another bus company and two subway trains to get to her mother's apartment.

But Benamy said she had long assumed the drivers suffer from fatigue. "They'd pull in from a grueling ride and then they load up and take off again" with no time for rest, she said.

The safety administration began investigating the network of carriers operating along I-95 following a series of deadly bus crashes last spring.

On March 12, 2011, a bus returning to Chinatown from an overnight trip to a casino in Connecticut hit a barrier in the Bronx, toppled on its side and slid into a sign pole with such force that it was sheared in half from front to back. Of the 32 people on the bus, 15 were killed, and the rest were injured, some severely. The driver, Ophadell Williams, has pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.

Documents released by federal accident investigators show the bus was speeding at the time of the accident and that Williams' driving privileges had been suspended 18 times over 20 years. World Wide Travel of Greater New York, the bus company, was ordered to shut down for safety violations after the accident. The National Transportation Safety Board is scheduled to hold a meeting Tuesday to determine the probable cause of the crash.

In May 2011, a bus traveling from Greensboro, N.C., to Chinatown veered off I-95 in Virginia, hit an embankment and overturned. Four passengers -- including Sie Giok Giang, 63, of Philly -- were killed and 50 were injured. The driver acknowledged falling asleep, according to court documents.

The bus operator, Sky Express Inc. of Charlotte, N.C., had been cited for 46 violations of driver fatigue rules in two years. The company was ordered to shut down after the accident, but within days it resumed business under two new names, according to the Transportation Department. That prompted a second shutdown order from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Several other bus companies were also ordered to shut down last summer after a comprehensive compliance review of their operations.

“The investigation of those operators uncovered additional problems and serious safety violations with other I-95 carriers, and… investigators have been working diligently ever since to establish the links between the bus networks,” the safety administration said in a statement.

But the safety administration, which works with states to enforce safety regulation of interstate bus companies, is overburdened, an NTSB report released last fall said. There are 878 federal and state inspectors able to conduct safety reviews of 765,000 bus and truck companies, or an average of slightly more than one inspector for 1,000 companies, the report said.

There were 24 motor coach crashes last year, resulting in 34 fatalities and 467 injuries, according to an unofficial tally kept by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

In response to the shutdowns, Greyhound offered $1 tickets good through June 16 for anyone who bought a ticket for a ride in the next two weeks on one of the affected carriers. To get the deal people would just need to bring their old ticket to a terminal, Greyhound said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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