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.
A Fung Wah replacement bus was sent to pick up uninjured passengers from the recent wreckage outside Boston. But state troopers instead called a Peter Pan bus, according to the Boston Globe, because Fung Wah's replacement driver didn't speak English and his logbook was falsified.
Fung Wah has a "satisfactory" rating from FMCSA. Grossman said that despite problems, Fung Wah's "overall operations are in compliance with federal regulations." Last week, Fung Wah signed a consent order agreeing to allow its buses to be inspected every 90 days, and promising not to use drivers who don't read and speak English.
FMCSA used to post the safety evaluation scores that make up an overall rating at its Web site, but the data have been removed while officials work to improve their timeliness and accuracy. But Schumer's office collected those data last year on Fung Wah and two other curbside companies -- data that raise serious questions.
The data on driver safety show that Greyhound, in business since 1914, had a driver safety score of 22 out of 100 (the lower the number, the better). Fung Wah: 73. Dragon Coach: 74. New Century: 97. They did better on vehicle safety inspections (Greyhound: 16. Dragon Coach: 27. Fung Wah: 9. New Century: 43). But all three curbside operators got bad marks for "safety management." Greyhound: 0. Fung Wah: 71. Dragon Coach: 99. New Century: 92.
Fung Wah declined comment. "We aren't going to speak to any reporters," said a woman who answered the telephone at the company and would not give her name.
At New Century Travel, a man who would identify himself only as Jimmy said, "We're the best bus company." Asked why New Century got a "conditional" rating from federal regulators, he said, "I can't say anything about that. Some people complain about nothing." He agreed to give the owner a message, but the owner did not return that call or two others.
Dragon Coach did not return three telephone messages seeking comment.Safety and Maintenance
The curbside companies seem to operate with virtual impunity, complained Bob Schwarz, a vice president at competitor Peter Pan Bus Lines, in business since 1933. His firm has sued FMCSA for failing to enforce the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements governing transportation of the disabled, such as having a wheelchair lift available if requested 48 hours in advance.
Asked if a bus with a wheelchair lift could be arranged four days hence, two of four curbside lines called by a reporter said they'd try to switch buses around. Two said they could not provide the lifts. "We don't have those," said an agent at New Century. (Greyhound has special toll-free lines for travelers with disabilities. Greyhound and Peter Pan agents told a reporter that they could arrange lifts.)
Fung Wah President Pei Lin Liang, in testimony before a congressional subcommittee this year, addressed the ADA issue by saying that "wheelchair accessible buses are expensive."
"If a company says point-blank that they don't want to comply with ADA laws because they're too expensive, what does that say about their possible handling of the expense of hiring competent drivers and maintaining buses?" Schwarz asked.
David Wang, co-owner of Eastern Travel and Tour, said he too worries about some of the other curbside operators. Their problems, he said, reflect badly on his company.
The Washington Deluxe line "follows all the same rules the big guys follow," said Betty, a Washington Deluxe owner who for "safety reasons" asked that only her first name be used. "I work six days a week making sure we comply with every rule," she said. The questions being raised about curbside operators, she said, are prompted "by big guys wanting to put little guys out of business."
At Todays Bus, manager Ming Yu said, "I'm not in a position to state an opinion regarding the operation." She referred a reporter to the owner, who did not respond to two messages.Company Snapshots
The emergence of dozens of curbside operators hasn't changed the fact that overall, bus travel is safer than taking to the highways by car. (Buses have about half the fatality rate of cars.) But in an East Coast inspection sweep last year of 400 buses owned by all types of bus companies, officials found more than 500 safety violations, some so serious that 56 buses and 13 drivers were ordered off the road.
What can a traveler do to find even bare details about a bus line to which they intend to entrust their lives?
You can get a "company snapshot" at the FMCSA Web site, but you need to know the legal name of the bus line, which often bears no resemblance to the name under which it operates.
Say, for instance, you were thinking of taking Dragon Coach from Washington to New York. At http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/ you'll find the business with a Baltimore address and phone number.
But the person who answers at that number says it's an accounting office, and he doesn't know Dragon Coach.
Back at FMCSA's Web site, check at the bottom of the snapshot, click on "Licensing and Insurance," and you'll find Dragon Coach has no operating authority and no insurance on file. More checks show that Dragon Coach, operated by Tomorrow Travel and Tour, was ordered out of service last year.
You'd have to turn to independent sources to discover that after being ordered out of service, Dragon Coach, also called Dragon Deluxe, changed its corporate name to Dragon Expressway & Travel Inc. and kept operating. That company's operating authority is "inactive."
To dig further, you'd have to know -- as FMCSA spokesman Grossman told The Post -- that Dragon Coach is now operating under the legal name Sago Bus Group Inc.
Sago does have authority to operate, and according to FMCSA's "company snapshot" has two buses, two drivers and no crashes. But the company was rated "conditional" in April, -- meaning that it must fix problems before winning a "satisfactory" rating.
Sago shows a Pittsburgh address and phone. A man who would not give his name answered that phone number and said he didn't know of Sago.
Told that Sago lists his office as its own on federal registration records, the man then said that he is Sago's manager. But any questions about Sago must be addressed to the owner, he told a reporter, and he gave a New York phone number. Asked for the owner's name, he said, "I cannot tell you that."
The person who answered the New York number also refused to give the owner's name, but promised to leave him a message. That and two other phone messages were not answered.Outsourcing Buses
FMCSA plans to again post safety statistics on registered bus lines at its Web site, Grossman said, but is awaiting the outcome of audits by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Government Accountability Office.
By the way, how can Sago, with two buses and two drivers, operate multiple daily routes among seven cities? As congressional testimony revealed earlier this year, many curbside operators subcontract with other coach companies for at least some of their buses and drivers. If you show up at a stop and ask the driver for the name of the operating company that owns his bus and employs him, he might or might not be able to tell you. Or you can call the company and ask for its corporate name and the name of any subcontractors it uses.
States provide varying degrees of oversight on bus companies registered in their jurisdiction, but primary responsibility lies with FMCSA. Schumer's spokesman said about 700 FMCSA inspectors are trying to police about 3,800 bus companies nationwide. The agency's budget hasn't increased for years, despite the mushrooming of companies -- up over 65 percent in the last year and a half.
Schumer has urged that a better-funded FMCSA beef up enforcement, and that companies be required to post their last inspection ratings on each bus.
Until that happens, you can try looking up the safety stats on your own. If bus lines won't tell you their corporate name and no current information is available at FMCSA, maybe what you're seeing is a red flag.