Buoyed by a wave of intercity bus deregulation about 30 years ago, new bus lines started up using older vehicles, offering no frills and too-often relying on overtired drivers. Many morphed into so-called “Chinatown” buses favored by college students and others on tight budgets that operated up and down the East Coast, from Greensboro, Raleigh, Norfolk, Richmond, Baltimore and Washington hauling passengers to Chinatown on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Charging roundtrip rates often $30 or less, these “Chinatown” buses cost about far below what Greyhound charges and are far less expensive than Amtrak or airline service.
It was pure capitalism at work, and it proved deadly. On May 31, 2011, a driver for Charlotte-based Sky Express was apparently so tired and allegedly so pressed by his dispatcher that he literally fell asleep at the wheel. His bus flipped on Interstate 95 south of Fredericksburg, killing four and injuring 50. Just two and a half months earlier, another fatigued driver carrying passengers from a Connecticut casino to New York’s Chinatown crashed in the Bronx, killing 15.
After a year-long probe, the U.S. Department of Transportation has shut down 26 business entities in five states associated with the “Chinatown” bus system. The carriers, federal regulators claim, racked up numerous safety violations, including using drivers without commercial licenses, requiring them to drive excessive hours and not maintaining equipment. Once challenged, the firms “evaded enforcement by “reincarnating” in other forms, according to DOT. In another macabre example of unfettered capitalism at work, operators of the bus lines simply shut one down when it got in trouble, acquired a new corporate name and painted it on the side of the bus. Off it went.
This story shows something else besides reprehensible safety and the lack of oversight. There is a strong demand in the Washington area and the mid-Atlantic region for reliable, inexpensive intercity bus service. Airline regulation from the 1970s ended up giving big city passengers savings and convenience at the expense of people from less populated areas. While showing signs of some growth, Amtrak is limited by budget problems. High -speed rail plans are going slowly or nowhere at all.
It seems certain that some low-cost bus operation will replace the closed Chinatown liveries. The question is: Will the feds keep watch on safety?