Authorities said the companies have evaded federal efforts by playing another common curbside trick: the shell game. Whenever they were shut down, the companies resumed business under another name.
“They’ve slapped another name on the side of the bus and started driving again,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “These buses are not on the road today, and we’re going to focus like a laser beam in making sure they don’t get back on the road.”
Not among the well-known carriers such as BoltBus or Vamoose, they have been called “ghost” companies because their buses often are stark white, unadorned by brand names.
The growth of the low-cost companies has been evident on the streets of the District, where people congregate to await their arrival at established locations in Chinatown and elsewhere. Nationwide, bus companies rival the airlines in carrying about 700 million passengers a year, and their fares often are far less than the cost of gas and tolls for trips between major cities.
The most common destinations from the Washington area have been Philadelphia and New York, but a dispatcher for one company is scheduled for trial this year in connection with a
Virginia crash that killed four people and injured 54. A bus overturned north of Richmond last year after the dispatcher allegedly ordered a driver who complained that he was tired to head back on the road.
The company that operated that bus, SkyExpress, reportedly had been cited for driver fatigue 46 times in the two previous years. It was ordered shut down after the fatal accident, but authorities said it resumed operation under two other names within days.
The federal action was described as the culmination of a year-long investigation of the companies. The announcement came seven months after a National Transportation Safety Board report that said curbside companies were five times more likely to be involved in fatal accidents than conventional intercity bus service companies.
In 2009, 221 people died and 10,000 were injured in bus crashes of all sorts.
The NTSB said the surge in intercity bus services since 2005 had overwhelmed state and federal inspectors: 2,327 safety inspectors were responsible for 53,097 buses.
“With these actions today, the DOT and its state partners are telling bus operators to put safety first or get put out of business,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. “We’ve seen the tragic results of rogue operators too many times in our investigations.”
Hersman said NTSB investigators have “regularly identified bus operators that should not have been operating and who deliberately restructured their operations to skirt federal safety regulations.”