'Chinatown Buses': What You Need to Know

Passengers board a New York City-bound Dragon Coach at the corner of 14th and L streets in Washington.
Passengers board a New York City-bound Dragon Coach at the corner of 14th and L streets in Washington. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 17, 2006

How safe are the 30 or so cheap, so-called "Chinatown buses" that pick up passengers waiting on the curb for runs between Washington, New York and Boston?

That question took on new urgency this month as a speeding Fung Wah bus overturned on a freeway ramp outside Boston on Sept. 5, injuring 34.

Of course, any bus company can have a bad day. But Fung Wah has had more than its share. Moreover, information that emerged about Fung Wah after the crash echoed long-standing concerns about curbside bus lines in general.

Public officials in the past year have joined established bus companies in questioning whether drivers are competent and speak enough English to read signs or help in an emergency, whether buses are adequately maintained and whether there is enough oversight to ensure that they comply with even basic state and federal laws.

Ian Grossman, spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which oversees interstate bus companies, said that "the safety records of curbside buses are no better and no worse than for buses that operate out of terminals," and that there have been no fatal crashes of curbside operators along the East Coast corridor.

He said, however, that it's tough to enforce rules for curbside operators that lack a home base or fixed maintenance facility. His agency is planning to create inspection stations at rest stops, he said.

And what about those bus lines that pile up massive fines or are even ordered out of service, but skirt the law by simply registering under a new corporate name? "It has been a challenge," Grossman said. "That's why we're creating new programs to make it harder to play that shell game in order to avoid enforcement."

The buses, which began by transporting residents of Washington's and New York's Chinatowns between the two cities, have become popular by offering dirt-cheap fares and curbside pickups in convenient locations. Round-trip fares between Washington and New York are as low as $35; established companies like Greyhound and Peter Pan have responded by dropping many of their fares to $45.

Buses with curbside pickups operate more than 350 trips a week connecting Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston alone, according to Eric Schultz, press secretary for Sen. Charles E. Schumer. Schumer, a New York Democrat, has urged federal regulators to close what he calls a "safety gap on inter-city Chinatown buses." Among the curbside operators with service out of Washington: Dragon Coach, New Century Travel, Washington Deluxe, Eastern Travel and Todays Bus.

What do we know about these relatively new businesses? Until companies are forced to post safety ratings in buses, as Schumer has urged, is there anything a diligent consumer can do?

First, consider what is known about Fung Wah, which operates between Boston and New York.

Records at FMCSA show the following: The same bus that overturned this month had a minor accident in March. In April, FMCSA warned the company against scheduling buses in a way that required drivers to speed. In May, Fung Wah paid $12,950 to settle a case with regulators who charged the company with seven counts of operating a vehicle in violation of federal safety regulations. In 30 months, the company received at least 34 tickets for moving violations, mostly speeding. Last year, a Fung Wah bus erupted into flames on a Connecticut highway.

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