The tragic bus crash in Caroline County that left four dead May 31 raises several troubling points for travelers in Virginia and elsewhere.
The first point, an obvious one, is that some of the cheap-fare buses that carry passengers from the downtowns of Southern cities to Chinatown in New York are badly regulated, fly-by-night operations that are dangerous.
The second point, as an editorial in the Roanoke Times notes, is that the quick rise of such bus operations shows just how badly areas south of Washington need better options for affordable and convenient inter-city transportation.
Therein lies the contradiction. People want cheap transportation. Entrepreneurial types, many of them immigrants, are more than willing to provide it. Yet as deadly accidents occur, and regulations are tightened, so are operating costs, which negates the cheap fares that make the buses so attractive.
So far this year, there have been at least 10 bus crashes resulting in 20 deaths and 130 injured people. After the Caroline County crash, Sens. Jim Webb and Mark Warner called for tougher regulation, as they should.
The Virginia accident apparently happened when the driver, who has been charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter, fell asleep at the wheel, according to police. As is typical for such bus operations, the driver left Greensboro, N.C., at 10:30 p.m. the night before bound for Chinatown and an early morning arrival.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration was already considering shutting down Charlotte-based Sky Express, owner of the bus in the Caroline incident, before the wreck. The firm has been involved with four crashes involving an injury or fatality and had been cited for letting fatigued drivers operate their buses on 46 occasions.
The market for cheap-fare buses are typically people with low or fixed incomes. They can be immigrants visited relatives in New York, shuttle traders who go to New York or Philadelphia to buy goods or college kids who want to get to the Big Apple without paying much.
There’s clearly a demand for the services that companies such as Sky Express provide. And there are few alternatives. Especially in the areas south and west of Washington, land-use patterns are car-centric, and not everyone can afford a car. Or if they can, parking is a big and expensive problem in New York. Flying is out of the question. Many airlines have shunned smaller cities like Greensboro or Richmond since deregulation in the 1970s.
Rail is a possibility. Amtrak was surprised at the robust ridership numbers it got after adding trains from Lynchburg to Charlottesville to Washington. But rail’s future is unsettled. The Obama administration backs higher-speed rail from D.C. to points south. North Carolina has already developed a decent in-state rail system to supplement Amtrak. Other than the Virginia Railway Express trains, Virginia’s passenger rail service is, in a word, lousy, with on-time rates of about 50 percent. The administration of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell didn’t even apply for the latest round of federal higher-speed rail funds, saying it couldn’t meet the criteria. Conservative dogma shunning federal funding was a part of that decision.
So, what we are going to get is more regulation, which is badly needed. But it will make bus service less affordable to people who need it most. And there few other options for low-budget travelers.