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Transportation Nation

What Does Acquittal of Chinatown Bus Driver Mean for Safety?

Friday, December 07, 2012

The World Wide Travel Bus that crashed March 2011, killing 15. (NTSB Photo)

The driver of a casino bus that crashed, killing 15, is not guilty of manslaughter. Prosecutors had argued Ophadell Williams was so sleep-deprived and drowsy behind the wheel that it was as reckless as if he were drunk.

But a Bronx jury was not convinced. Williams faced 15 counts of manslaughter and was acquitted on all of them. He was found guilty of one count of aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle and sentenced to 30 days in jail, which he has already served. He has to pay a fine of $500. When he heard the verdict, Williams covered his face with his hands and wept.

Though the consequences are relatively light for Williams,  the inter-city bus industry has suffered a considerable shakeup.

The Crash

It was a gruesome crash that instantly raised the profile of dangerous driving conditions at many so-called Chinatown buses, the fastest growing mode of inter-city travel.

Here's how the crash went down. In March, 2011, Williams was on a dawn run to New York from a Connecticut Casino, driving for World Wide Travel, a company with a track record of pushing drivers to work long hours.

A report by the Federal Motorcoach Safety Administration found that in the moments before crashing, he’d been driving 78 mph. As we've previously reported:

"According to the report, the bus swerved to the right off the highway, crossed an eleven-foot wide shoulder and smashed into a three-foot-tall steel guardrail. The bus plowed through the guardrail for 480 feet as it toppled onto its side. The bus’ windshield hit the post of a massive highway sign, which sheared the bus in two along the base of the passenger windows almost all the way to the rear. The bus came to rest on top of the crushed guardrail, its wheels in the air, facing the highway."

The Bronx crash was one of three inter-city bus crashes in the Northeast in March, 2011, which killed a total of 17 people and injured dozens of others.

There were more to come. A bus from North Carolina bound for New York flipped on its roof in late May, killing four. Operator Sky Express was shut down by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration within hours. Bloomberg reported that Sky Express had accumulated so many violations that it could have been shut down prior to the crash.

In July, a pair of fatal crashes in New York — one inbound from Canada that left the driver dead and another from Washington that killed two — occurred within days of each other.

There were 24 motor coach crashes last year, resulting in 34 fatalities and 467 injuries, according to an unofficial tally kept by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

The industry was deemed unsafe by many. As confused travelers tried to figure out just who regulates Chinatown buses, the government took notice.

The Response

World Wide Travel was shuttered in June 2011, but the owner continued to operate bus service for other companies he owns, according to The New York Times. The practice of "reincarnation" had plagued regulatory efforts to punish the worst of the worst bus companies.

Not to be stopped by it's own regulations, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration the agency that oversees bus safety, along with the National Highway Transportation Safety Board ratcheted up investigations and actions against unsafe bus companies.

In May of 2011, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood issued rules requiring new bus lines to undergo safety audits before they can sell their first ticket. And bus drivers could lose their commercial licenses if they violate drug and alcohol laws even while operating their own private car.

In July 2011, Anne S. Ferro, Administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, told Congress she needs more enforcement powers, including the ability to inspect every long distance bus at least once a year and to conduct surprise safety stops while buses are en route. She proposed paying for the additional enforcement through raising the fee for a company to obtain an operating license from US DOT.

She pointed out, a bus license costs $300 — $50 less than it costs a street vendor to sell hot dogs in Washington, DC. Ferro said she’d also like to see the fine for a bus safety violation raised from $2,000 to $25,000.

Inspections alone are unlikely to solve the problem, she argued. There just aren't enough of them. There are 878 federal and state inspectors able to conduct safety reviews of 765,000 bus and truck companies, or an average of slightly more than one inspector for 1,000 companies, the report said.

For a while it seemed like the tempers had cooled, and the regulators were backing off. Then the crackdown came.

Crackdown

In June 2012, the U.S. DOT shuts down 26 bus companies that operate along the most popular routes for so-called Chinatown buses: the I-95 corridor from New York to Florida. The DOT called it the "largest single safety crackdown in the agency’s history.

Federal safety investigators found multiple violations, including a pattern of drivers without valid commercial licenses and companies that didn't administer alcohol and drug tests to drivers. Ten people – company owners, managers and employees – are ordered to stop all involvement in passenger transportation operations, including selling bus tickets.

The intersection in Chinatown in New York City previously most associated with this class of bus was transformed, no longer a bustling hub roaring with the sound of diesel engines and ticket sellers competing for business with dueling calls of prices and destinations. It became a quiet side street and has remained so since.

What's to Come

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has made safety one of his top issues, is advocating for legislation with stronger teeth.

The Bus Uniform Standards and Enhanced Safety (BUSES) Act of 2011 called for a tighter controls and enforcement of bus driver screening, including calling for federal oversight of state requirements for commercial licenses.

The Motorcoach Safety Act of 2009 was also revisited after the 2011 string of crashes. It requires new buses to add seat belts and reinforced windows that prevent passengers from being ejected during an accident. The bus industry opposed both bills on cost grounds and neither became law.

New York City, which cannot regulate interstate bus safety, took the step to regulate bus stop permitting, giving more control to neighborhood leadership, known as community boards. Since then, there have not been new clusters of curbside buses competing with each other.

And as Chinese-run Chinatown buses remain discreet in New York's Chinatown, mainstream bus companies like Greyhound are expanding their curbside businesses, actively meeting with community boards to add stops in Chinatown itself.

(This report includes excerpts and descriptions from previous reporting on TN, by Alex Goldmark, Jim O'Grady and Tracie Samuelson.)

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WNYC News

Prosecutors: Bus Driver in Fatal Bronx Crash Knew Risks

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The driver at the helm of a tour bus that crashed in a horrific accident last year, killing 15 passengers, knew the risks of fatigue and drove anyway despite a serious lack of sleep, prosecutors said Thursday as his manslaughter trial began.

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Transportation Nation

(UPDATED) Greyhound to Move into Chinatown Bus Market after Law Change

Friday, August 17, 2012

View through the window of a Chinatown bus. (photo by brotherM / Flickr)

(New York, NY - WNYC) UPDATE: A source in the NY State Senate says this bill is now a state law. Here's a few of the law's main points: 

Bus permit applications must include identification of the intercity bus company, buses to be used, and bus stop location(s) being requested; total number of buses and passengers expected to use each location; bus schedules; places where buses would park when not in use.

The city, prior to assigning an intercity bus stop, must consult with the local community board, including a 45 day notice and comment period.

Intercity bus permits would be for terms of up to three years; permits will cost up to $275 per vehicle annually; permits must be displayed on buses.

Intercity buses that load or unload passengers on city streets either without a permit or in violation of permit requirements or restrictions will face a fine of up to $1,000 for a first violation, up to $2,500 for repeat violations, and suspension or revocation of permit.

 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign a bill into law on Friday that would restrict where long distance bus companies can pick up and drop off passengers in New York City.

The bill becomes law if Governor Cuomo doesn't veto it by Friday at midnight, and would take effect after 90 days.

Greyhound and Peter Pan, two of the large carriers, are betting Cuomo will sign the bill: they're already vying for prime spots in Chinatown. Both have scheduled meetings next month with the transportation committee of Community Board 3 in Manhattan, which includes Chinatown.

The new law would require input from community boards before the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority could grant bus parking permits to a company. The permits would cost $275 per bus and be good for up to three years. Companies that operate curbside without a permit would risk a fine of $1,000 for a first violation and $2,500 for repeat violations.

As of now, bus companies can load and unload passengers at most legal parking spots in the city. Residents and officials in Chinatown, where many long distance bus companies do business, say that's causing crowding and pollution.

Greyhound operates discount carrier Bolt Bus. However, Greyhound spokesman Jen Biddinger said that if the company gets the new permits, they'd go not to Bolt Bus but "a totally new service operated by Greyhound." She declined to say how many spots the company is angling for. Greyhound currently offers curbside service at 34th & 8th at Penn Station.

Two accidents last year involving low cost bus lines killed 17 people. In May, the U.S. Department of Transportation shut down 26 "Chinatown" bus lines for safety violations.

State Senator Daniel Squadron alluded to those events when endorsing the current bill, "This first-ever permit system will bring oversight to the growing and important low-cost bus industry, helping to end the wild west atmosphere while allowing us to identify problems before they become tragedies," he said.

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Transportation Nation

Driver In Fatal Bronx Tour Bus Crash Was Briefly A City Bus Driver

Friday, May 18, 2012

NTSB photo

(New York, NY - WNYC) Documents released by federal investigators show the driver involved in a deadly Bronx bus crash when returning from a Connecticut casino last year was hired in 2007 to drive a city bus. An MTA background check kept Williams off the road, but only until a private company hired him.

On his job application with the MTA, driver Ophadell Williams admitted his driver's license had been suspended from 1996 to 2003 because of "child support." He also wrote, "I made a couple of mistakes in my life."

That did not stop the MTA from hiring him. But then a background check revealed Williams had failed to disclose a pair of felony convictions. A superintendent, on finding that out, wrote in a memo that "It is imperative that Mr. Williams" termination be completed as soon as possible." Williams resigned a few days later, after two weeks on the job. The MTA says Williams never got behind the wheel of a bus with passengers.

Private tour bus operator World Wide Travel hired Williams as a driver in 2010. He was driving a bus for the company in March, 2011, when he crashed on I-95, killing 15 passengers.

NTSB photo

National Transportation Safety Board documents released today show that Williams' cellphone and rental car were in almost continuous use during the three days before he made a pre-dawn run from Connecticut to New York City--times when he said he'd been sleeping. A preliminary report last year said Williams was speeding at 78 miles per hour shortly before he lost control of the bus, which struck a highway signpost.

A toxocology test cleared Williams of drug use, and a breath test that he took at the scene of the accident showed that he hadn't been drinking.

The NTSB says it will release "an analysis of the collision, along with conclusions and its probable cause" on June 5. Williams has pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.

NTSB photo

 

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Transportation Nation

NYC DOT: Megabus Can Continue Curbside Pickup by Bus Terminal

Monday, May 07, 2012

(Photo CC by Flickr user Nick Busse)

The buses stay at the sidewalk... right in front of the bus station.

That's what New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan told reporters Monday: discount bus carrier Megabus can continue to pick up passengers at the curb right outside the city's main bus terminal. "For now, they're going to stay," she said, before adding a caveat: "This is not a permanent solution."

As curbside bus ridership--including so-called Chinatown bus companies--has risen faster than any other mode of transportation, the prevalence of idling motorcoaches on city streets around the country has caused frustration. Neighbors bemoan the crowded sidewalks. Fellow drivers say the buses clog traffic and take up parking spaces. And the proprietors of bus stations, along with the companies that pay to use them, cry foul when a curbside carrier picks up passengers just a block or two away from the terminal. That's  what Megabus has been doing near New York's Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown Manhattan.

The Port Authority of NY/NJ, the agency in charge of the terminal, is one of those complaining. Executive Director Pat Foye has called for Megabus to move to another location.

Sadik-Khan said she hadn't spoken to the Port Authority about the problem. But she explained that, "we moved [Megabus] there because of the safety and congestion concerns that we got in front of Penn Station," about 10 blocks away. "What we really need is a comprehensive solution." NYC DOT has long petitioned state legislators to allow it greater control over where curbside carriers can stop. Right now the state holds that power. It is not clear how the NYC DOT would comprehensively re-order curbside pickup locations if it had the authority, but the agency is in talks with local community boards about suggested locations.

Washington D.C. started charging a fee last year on curbside buses for using parking spaces, which  are city real estate. Shortly thereafter, D.C. moved discount carriers off the curb into a special section inside the parking lot of Union Station train terminal, a few inconvenient blocks away from the city's lamented bus station. That plan has generally been well received.

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Transportation Nation

U.S. DOT Bus Safety App Is As Clear As A Blind Curve In A Fogbank

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Screen shot of US DOT's SaferBus app.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has released a new app called SaferBus that lets riders review a bus company's safety record. It is packed with useful information, little of it decipherable.

To begin with, a search for popular long distance carrier Bolt Bus calls up nothing. A spokeswoman for DOT says the app does have safety data on Bolt Bus and that you can find it if you happen to know that the company is owned by Greyhound or you have Bolt Bus's 7-digit DOT number.  Otherwise you're out of luck.

On the bright side, a listing for Megabus pops up right away when you type it into the app's search screen. Five safety categories appear, as they do for each carrier monitored by the agency. Click on the first one, Unsafe Driving, and you'll find that the DOT's "intervention threshold" is 50% and that the Megabus "on-road performance" number is 4.5%.

Is that good or bad?

Turns out that's good, which you can discover by reading the first of three footnotes--yes, footnotes--delineating the "percentiles range" of the agency's Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories (BASIC).

Got it?

Tyson Evans, deputy editor for interactive news at The New York Times, gave SaferBus a test drive and then talked about how good apps work. "You have to come up with some kind of headline that says, 'Compared to everyone else, they're doing really well or really poorly,'" he said. "You have to have the context without cluttering it with endlessly footnoted explanations."

Like, say, the five stars found in every Yelp restaurant review--or the other user-friendly ratings on countless consumer websites.

The information on SaferBus is pulled from records kept by The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The spokeswoman said the agency is restrained by regulation from presenting its safety data in a way that clearly compares carriers. “Unfortunately at this point, we can’t rate," she said. "If the rider wants to know good or bad, that’s not where the agency is yet.”

The design of the SaferBus app come from staff at the DOT in collaboration with The Volpe Center, another federal transportation agency. In other words, SaferBus is an in-house government production.

By contrast, the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority does not design its own apps using data such as train and bus schedules. Instead, the authority opens the code to third-party developers, who have created dozens of apps that tend to be user-friendly because, in the world of mobile data, user-friendly makes more money. There are 51 apps and counting in the authority's App Center.

U.S. DOT communications director Candice Tolliver said the agency plans to eventually follow the lead of the NY MTA. "Later this year, the agency will participate in a federal government Challenge program that gives app developers access to the raw data used to make SaferBus an effective safety tool," she said.

 

 

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Transportation Nation

Feds Shut Down Chinatown Bus Company Double Happyness

Thursday, December 29, 2011

(With AP) Federal authorities are shutting down a Pennsylvania-based bus company that operates in New York City citing safety concerns.

Authorities have ordered Double Happyness Travel to immediately cease operations declaring it an imminent hazard. U.S. Transportation officials say they found numerous violations related to vehicle maintenance. They also say the company failed to follow driver safety rules, including regular drug and alcohol testing and regulations governing the length of shifts.

Doubly Happyness takes passengers from Albany, Baltimore, and Wilmington, to stops in midtown Manhattan and Chinatown in New York City.

Calls by the AP to the company's headquarters in Huntingdon Valley, near Philadelphia were not returned. According to the government shutdown order, Double Happyness filed at least 49 false reports no driver activities, meaning that more than 20 percent of driver hour logs were falsified, double the number deemed "critical" to ensure drivers are getting enough breaks and rest to adhere to safety regulations.

According to a DOT press release, the Federal Motor Safety Administration has doubled inspections and safety reviews of the nation's 4,000 bus lines in recent years and "Roadside motorcoach inspections have jumped nearly 100 percent, from 12,991 in 2005 to 25,705 in 2010, while compliance reviews are up 128 percent, from 457 in 2005 to 1,042 in 2010."

Ridership has also spiked. Despite a series of high-profile crashes this year, a DePaul University study found the curbside bus industry, including "Chinatown buses," grew by almost 30 percent in 2011.

The Federal Department of Transportation teamed up with local law enforcement agencies to execute a crack down on bus carriers with about a week of ramped up surprise inspections around the nation in September.

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Transportation Nation

Fed Study Says Small Curbside Bus Companies Have More Accidents

Monday, October 31, 2011

(New York, NY - WNYC) So-called "Chinatown buses" that pick up and drop off passengers at the curb have more fatal accidents and fail more inspections than traditional larger carriers who operate out of bus terminals, according to a report by the the National Transportation Safety Board. Curbside carriers with fleets of ten or fewer buses that have been in business less than ten years tend to have the worst safety records of all.

The report, which begins by saying long distance bus travel remains generally safe, was prompted by an accident in the Bronx in March that killed 15 passengers.

A bus operated by World Wide Travel was returning to New York City from the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut when it rolled on its side and hit the support pole for a highway sign. Investigators say driver Ophadell Williams was fatigued when the accident occurred at 5:37 a.m.

Williams, awaiting trial, has been charged with fifteen counts of manslaughter.

The report says driver fatigue is a major issue for "Chinatown" buses. It adds that buses leaving from a curb at various street locations are harder to track down and inspect than buses that use terminals. The report also says the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which performs the inspections, has been overwhelmed by the rapid growth of the long distance bus industry, and that there are 1.15 inspectors for every 1,000 bus companies.

And there's a problem, the report says, with bus companies that inspectors put out of service for violations but which then "reincarnate" under a different name while selling tickets through the same online broker they used before.

"The NTSB report is a wake-up call that we need a more rigorous regulatory regime and it provides a blueprint for how to fill the gaps," said U.S. Senator Charles Schumer at a press briefing (video) held in New York this morning to about the report.

The Chinatown bus industry has grown rapidly over the last several years, even as it has been plagued by safety issues. "The fatal accident rate for curbside carriers from January 2005 to March 2011 was seven times that of conventional carriers," the report says.

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WNYC News

State Inspectors Crack Down on Tour Buses

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

WNYC

Governor Andrew Cuomo's office said 116 bus drivers and 95 buses had been pulled out of service after a two week roadside inspection blitz by New York state police.  

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Transportation Nation

More $ For Bus Drivers Will Mean Fewer Deadly Crashes: Report

Friday, June 17, 2011

(New York, NY WNYC) The Amalgamated Transit Union says it has an antidote to the recent plague of deadly long distance bus crashes: pay drivers overtime. The report contends that would limit drivers' hours behind the wheel, reducing the time buses are operated in a state of fatigue, which is the leading cause of accidents.

The report looks at statistics produced by National Traffic Safety Board investigations of 16 fatal bus crashes between June 1998 and January 2008:

Driver related problems were responsible for 60 percent of the fatalities occurring in the crashes investigated, while the condition of the vehicle accounted for only 20 percent of the fatalities. Driver fatigue was responsible for a staggering 36% of the fatalities occurring in the crashes investigated. It was the number one cause of fatal accidents, far above road conditions (2%) and inattention (6%). Other than vehicle condition, the next highest root cause was driver medical condition (18%).

The Virginia State Police believe driver fatigue caused a long distance bus to overturn on I-95 in Virginia on May 31. That accident killed four passengers and injured more than 50 others. It was the sixth major bus crash since the beginning of the year.

Those accidents, and the 25 fatalities they've produced, have prompted federal regulators to call for greater inspection powers of operators in the fast-growing industry. It has also brought renewed attention to the Motorcoach Safety Enhancement Act of 2011, which would require long distance buses to be fitted with seat belts, crush-proof roofs, reinforced windows and anti-roll technology.

All well and good, says the ATU report, but none of those measures directly address the issue of driver fatigue:

Hours of service regulations that have been in existence for decades are routinely ignored, especially by fly-by-night, non-union bus companies. The state police in general do not perform random checks of passenger buses the way they do on cargo-hauling trucks because of the dissatisfaction expressed by passengers when their bus gets pulled out of commission and no replacement vehicle arrives for hours. Moreover, even if police actively
seek out so-called discount bus carriers, there are not nearly enough law enforcement officers to even begin the process of ridding the highways of unsafe buses.

America Bus Association spokesman Dan Ronan disagreed with union's conclusion that bus company owners should give up their federal exemption from having to pay drivers overtime.

"This exemption has been around since the 1930s and we’ve had this series of accidents in the last month or so but we’ve gone 80 years without a rash of accidents," he said. "So if overtime pay were an issue, you would’ve thought we’d have had this level of accidents all the time, not just in the last couple of weeks here."

He said operators who pay substandard wages are not going to obey a law requiring overtime pay.

"The real question is how we get those guys off the road and reward the bus companies that are doing a good job, that are out there paying the drivers a decent wage, making sure their logbooks are up to date, that they’re driving safe equipment, all the things that make up a good bus company," he said.

 

 

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Transportation Nation

Behind The Deadly Bus Crash Crackdown

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro

(New York, NY - WNYC) Long distance buses have been crashing and killing passengers with an unwholesome regularity since the beginning of the year: 25 dead and many more injured in six major accidents. And now the U.S. Department of Transportation is showing signs of moving into active crackdown mode.

The news arrived over the weekend with U.S. DOT press releases announcing the immediate shutdown of two bus companies for safety violations. Combined with an identical action against another carrier a few days before, that made for a four-day score of Government Regulators 3, Rogue Operators 0.

Before then, it had been rare for the U.S. DOT to go beyond punishing individual drivers and impounding single buses to banishing an entire bus company from operation.

The Department has stepped up field inspections. During the first two weeks of May, its inspectors carried out 3,000 surprise safety checks that ended up taking 127 drivers and 315 buses off the road.

The department has also been arguing for greater powers, such as the ability to levy a $25,000 fine for a safety violation, up from $2,000, and to conduct inspections at rest stops, not just at the beginning or end of a route.

Anne Ferro, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which is part of U.S. DOT, made those very requests at a Congressional hearing on bus safety on Monday. The problem is most of Ferro's proposals require the passage of federal laws, a process that moves as swiftly as holiday traffic in Midtown Manhattan.

Ferro's agency has also just shown what could be done by aggressively enforcing existing rules.

In shutting down those three bus companies, FMCSA inspectors invoked their power to declare an operator an "imminent hazard," defined as a commercial carrier whose practices "substantially increase the likelihood of serious injury or death if not discontinued immediately." An example would be Haines Tours, the Michigan carrier that packed customers into cargo bins at the bottom of its buses.

Inspectors declared the company an imminent hazard and immediately pulled it off the road. The same fate befell United Tours of North Carolina for using unqualified drivers, as it did to CT Motor Coach, a previously suspended bus company that apparently "reincarnated" as JT’s Travel & Charter after being put out of service for repeated violations.

On May 31, the FMCSA was in the process of taking action against Sky Express when a bus in Virginia swerved and flipped, killing four passengers and injuring more than 50 others.

State police in Virginia believe the driver of the bus fell asleep at the wheel. According to FMCSA records, Sky Express scored in the bottom 15% nationally for "fatigued driving"--and was virtually worst for "driver fitness."

That dismal safety record, compiled over the previous two years, had caught the attention of the FMCSA. In April, inspectors showed up at the carrier's offices and conducted a thorough "safety compliance review."

Sky Express flunked it. Yet the company was permitted by law to take 45 days to appeal the finding, which it did. Then Sky Express asked for, and was granted, a ten-day extension to appeal. It was during that ten-day period that its bus crashed in Virginia.

The next day, Transportation Nation asked a U.S. DOT official, "Why wasn't the company put out of service before [the] crash?" The official replied in an email: "Currently FMCSA does not have the authority to shut down a carrier without an in-depth on-site investigation."

Eight days later, the agency found that authority and declared JCT Motor Coach an imminent hazard and immediately shut it down.

 

 

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Transportation Nation

Bus Company In Deadly Crash May Still Be Operating

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Sign in Sky Express Bus Company Office in Manhattan's Chinatown. (Photo by: Kathleen Horan)

(New York -- WNYC) The U.S. Department of Transportation has ordered the Sky Express Bus Company to "cease and desist" from continuing to run its business under another name in defiance of a government-ordered shutdown last week. The department is also seeking the records of three websites that have sold tickets for Sky Express in the past, and may have continued to do so after the company "reincarnated" by painting its buses another color and adopting other names, including 108 Bus and I-95 Coach.

On Tuesday, a Sky Express Bus swerved and flipped off I-95 near Richmond, VA, killing four women and injuring 53 others. Federal regulators put the company out of service later the same day--a move the U.S. DOT could've made three days earlier if it hadn't granted the company an extra ten days to appeal a poor safety rating.

But Sky Express apparently kept going under different guises, even after the deadly crash and an order from the feds to stop operations. Regulators appear to believe that the company changed its name to 108 Bus and I-95 Coach--and possibly others--to sell tickets as usual through travel sites like GoToBus.com, TakeTours.com and 2001Bus.com. The U.S. DOT has subpoenaed records from each of those websites about their bus company clients.

UPDATE:Jimmy Chen founder and owner of Ivy Media, which runs both GoToBus.com and TakeTours, but not 2001Bus, said "TakeTours.com has never sold any Sky Express bus tickets." And that no company he owns has sold any tickets for Sky Express since May 31.

He also said that no new bus company has signed up with his sites that run on the same routes as Sky Express did. The only other company that does, is I95Coach, which has been around for "several months." As for the idea that I95Coach might be the same as Sky Express, Chen finds that far fetched because he's witnessed the two companies get in a price war that dropped some long distance fares to half what they are back up to now. "It's a no brainer, I don't have to check the ownership... That wouldn't happen if they were the same company," he says.

Circumstantially at least, Sky Express Bus and I-95 Coach seem quite similar. For example, the Ticket Policy page for Sky Express is essentially the same as that of the Ticket Policy page for I-95 Coach. The two companies have a roster of routes that is nearly identical and their pick up and drop-off spots in Manhattan's Chinatown are a short block away from each other.

I-95 Coach is presumably a new company because no record of it could be found in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration database.

Such apparent acts of business "reincarnation" are difficult to track, and have long been recognized as a problem in the discount bus industry, including a report from the GAO in 2009. The U.S. DOT said the information that led to Friday's subpoena came from its own investigation. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the legal move showed his seriousness about cracking down on the industry. “We are relentlessly targeting unsafe and illegal bus companies,” he said.

Calls to the Sky Express office in New York on Sunday were not answered. [UPDATE 6/6/2011: a lawyer retained by the company would not comment on the record]

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Transportation Nation

Regulators Put Off Shutting Down Bus Company Involved In Fatal Crash

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Sky Express Bus Company sign at its office in Manhattan's Chinatown. (Photo by: Kathleen Horan/WNYC)

(New York, NY - WNYC) The long distance bus company involved in a fatal crash in Virginia on Tuesday could've been put out of service three days earlier. The company, Sky Express, remained on the road after federal regulators gave it extra time to appeal a poor safety rating.

Over the past two years, the Sky Express Bus Company racked up dozens of safety violations, some for drivers who worked too many hours or used drugs or alcohol on the job.

On April 12, the U.S. Department of Transportation rated the company "unsatisfactory." That was enough to shut it down.

Sky Express appealed its rating to the department. Soon after, DOT issued an "initial denial"--a strong indication that the appeal would be rejected. Sky Express should've been out of options, and out of business, last Saturday--three days before a company driver on his way from Raleigh to New York fell asleep at the wheel and flipped his bus on a highway, killing four people and injuring more than 50 others.

Instead DOT extended Sky Express's appeal by ten days, allowing it carry on with business as usual. On Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he would direct the department to end its practice of extending appeals for operators found to be unsafe.

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Transportation Nation

Operator In Latest Fatal Tour Bus Crash Had Poor Safety Record

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Storefront sign in Manhattan's Chinatown announces shut-down of the Sky Express Bus Company. (Photo by: Kathleen Horan / WNYC)

(New York, NY - WNYC) The federal government has indefinitely shut down Sky Express, the company involved in Tuesday's fatal crash of a bus on the Raleigh to New York run. The Charlotte-based operator had a poor safety record even before the accident, which has left legislators and others wondering why the U.S. Department of Transportation had given the company its highest safety rating.

Department records show the Sky Express Bus Company had four crashes in the past two years, with two injuries, and that drivers received forty-six violations related to driver fatigue and falsifying driving records. The company was also in the bottom one percent of carriers for sending out drivers unfit to operate a bus because of health concerns or a lack of training or experience.

But until Tuesday, the DOT gave the bus company a “satisfactory” safety record, its highest rating.

Police say the driver in the early morning bus crash, a Queens resident named Kin Yiu Cheng, may have fallen asleep at the wheel. The Sky Express bus swerved off northbound Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg, VA, hit an embankment and flipped.

The crash killed four passengers and left the driver slightly hurt. Fifty-four people were taken to area hospitals and treated for minor to severe injuries. It was the third deadly accident involving a Chinatown bus in as many months

Virginia police arrested Yiu Cheng for reckless driving.

New York State lawmakers are once again calling for more regulation of so-called Chinatown buses following the fatal crash. Legislation in Albany would allow New York City officials to keep better track of long distance bus operators through permits and more detailed record-keeping.

At a press conference outside a Sky Express office in Manhattan's Chinatown, NY State Senator Daniel Squadron said more oversight of the long distance bus industry was needed. "Enough is enough," he said. "We've had too many tragedies, we have too little regulation we have one solution, what we can do on the state and the city level."

The bill has passed the New York State Assembly but not the Senate.

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Transportation Nation

In Wake of Bronx Crash, New Fed Rules For Long Distance Buses

Thursday, May 05, 2011

(photo by Naomi A. / Flickr creative commons)

(New York, NY - Jim O'Grady, WNYC) Almost two months after fifteen people were killed in a bus crash in the Bronx, federal regulators have announced new safety rules for long distance buses. The rules increase oversight mainly on drivers and new bus companies.

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says new bus lines will have to undergo safety audits before they can sell their first ticket. And bus drivers could lose their commercial licenses if they violate drug and alcohol laws even while operating their own private car.

The rules were embraced by American Bus Association president Peter Pantuso, who joined LaHood at a press conference in Washington, DC. The association represents existing carriers, who wouldn't be subject to the safety audits. And the toughest of the new rules are aimed at drivers, like the creation of a national database tracking the results of drivers' alcohol and drug tests.

Whether the rule change about driving under the influence would have prevented the bus crash in the Bronx is doubtful. That driver had been stopped in his private car--but for speeding, not DUI. And he kept the summonses from affecting his commercial license by allegedly giving a false name to police.

Bus companies and state transportation agencies will have three years to prepare to comply with the new safety rules.

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WNYC News

In Wake of Deadly Bronx Crash, New Fed Rules For Long-Distance Buses

Thursday, May 05, 2011

WNYC

Nearly two months after 15 people were killed in a bus crash in the Bronx, federal regulators have announced new safety rules for long-distance buses that increase oversight on drivers and new bus companies.

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Transportation Nation

Amtrak: Our Discount Bus-Level Fares Have Nothing To Do With Discount Buses

Thursday, April 21, 2011

This pro-train ad is not meant to imply competition with other modes of long-distance travel.

(New York, NY - Jim O'Grady, WNYC) Amtrak is in the midst of a three-day sale for northeast corridor travel. No big deal, according to Amtrak spokesman Cliff Coles, who said the railroad has been holding such sales for a year now. But what caught our eye were the Chinatown Bus-like prices: $29 for Washington, D.C., or Baltimore to New York; $19 for Washington, D.C., to Richmond, Virginia . The fares are valid for travel from May 10 to May 26.

That raises the obvious question of whether Amtrak is responding to competitive pressure from inter-city buses, which a DePaul University study says grew by six percent nationwide in 2010. Perhaps now is the time for Amtrak to make a savvy push to snag customers rattled by a string of deadly crashes that raise safety concerns about curbside buses.

Officially, none of that has anything to do with the low fare offer. "I don’t know that there’s anyone we’re competing against," said Coles. He added that Amtrak ridership nationwide in the last six months was up by four percent--as in, one-third less than the growth of inter-city buses. Coles did not have numbers for the northeast corridor.

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WNYC News

Budget Bus in Fatal Bronx Crash Was Speeding, Feds Find

Friday, April 15, 2011

WNYC

The budget bus that crashed on I-95 in the Bronx killing 15 passengers last month was speeding at 78 miles per hour moments before the tragic accident, a report by federal investigators revealed.

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Transportation Nation

Former National Safety Board Chief Rips Bus Industry

Monday, April 11, 2011

(New York, NY -- Jim O'Grady, WNYC) When three inter-city buses crashed in the northeast last month, killing 17 people and injuring dozens of others, public officials and many in the booming industry itself said the time had come for reform. The debate is over what kind of regulations to impose on the sprawling industry, which makes 750 million passenger trips a year and accounts for more than 2,000 arrivals and departures every week in New York City.

Among those calling for stricter regulation is James Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1984 to 2001, who in an interview with Transportation Nation criticized long distance bus companies for placing profits over safety, and government for letting it happen.

“We haven’t seen a commitment by the industry or the government," Hall said. "They have treated the people who ride these buses as second-class citizens and given them second class safety.”

He said the 2009 crash of a commuter airline in Buffalo, which killed 50 people, led to tighter regulation of short-hop air carriers; but fatal bus accidents have left bus operators relatively untouched by stricter safety rules.

"I'd like to see the federal government take the responsibility for the safe transportation of citizens on motorcoaches just as seriously as they take the safe transportation of more affluent citizens on commercial aviation," he said.

Hall said he's familiar with the rise and fall of official ire in the months after deadly bus crashes. Federal lawmakers, who have authority over interstate travel, express grave concern. They sometimes even take the next step and author a serious set of recommendations, such as the U.S. Department of Transportation's 2009 Motor Coach Safety Action Plan.That report inspired The Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act, which would've mandated safety upgrades like seat belts, stronger windows and fire suppression equipment on long distance buses.

The American Bus Association, a trade group based in Washington, DC, largely opposed the measure. It estimated the cost of the regulations for new buses at as much as $89,000 per vehicle. A typical new motor coach costs about $500,000. The bill failed.

Association president Peter Pantuso said he supported training bus drivers to a national standard. But he's concerned that mandatory safety features could drive up fares. And low fares are what keep bus operators in business, especially in the burgeoning discount sector.

"The industry is really made up of a lot of very, very small mom and pop companies who operate very safely," he said. "And there are a lot of regulations already in place. It’s a matter of enforcement."

Hall was not satisfied with that sentiment. “I have yet to see the American Bus Association be aggressive on the subject of safety," he said. "They’re aggressive in regard to insuring the profits of their own membership but they need to be just as aggressive in policing their own industry.”

Congress is poised to weigh in with two separate bus safety bills, both of which call for training drivers to a national standard and conducting stricter checks on them. They differ as to how much safety equipment upgrades should be imposed.

And soon the NTSB will release the results of its investigation into the March 12 crash in the Bronx that killed 15 people. The NTSB will also be examining the effectiveness of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the agency charged with regulatory enforcement of the tour bus industry and which has been criticized for lax oversight.

Pantuso said his association is all for rigorous enforcement of existing rules on driver rest and fitness, and inspections of vehicles. But he's wary of over-regulation. He says despite recent crashes, taking a long-distance bus is one of the safest modes of travel in North America--and that should count for something.

Philip White is a bus driver who earns $320 for driving round-trip in two days from New York to Richmond, VA--a five and a half to seven hour trip each way, depending on traffic. He works for Apex Bus, a company based in Manhattan's Chinatown. He recently leaned on the steering wheel in his bus and considered what's at stake when it comes to bus safety.

“Everybody on this bus has a wife or husband and kids," he said. "Or a mother and father at least. It’s not a joke.”

Listen to WNYC FM this morning to hear Hall's remarks.

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Transportation Nation

New Motorcoach Safety Bill Introduced in Congress

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

(Alex Goldmark, Transportation Nation) In the wake of a string of deadly bus accidents, a Senate hearing, and chilling preliminary findings from the NTSB, Congressman Bill Shuster (R-Penn.) has introduced a motorcoach safety bill, Wednesday. It's not the only one either.

Shuster's bill has two Democratic co-sponsors already. The Bus Uniform Standards and Enhanced Safety (BUSES) Act of 2011 calls for a tighter controls and enforcement of bus driver screening, including calling for federal oversight of state requirements for commercial licenses. What the bill does not do, is mandate safety reforms to the buses themselves by a certain date.

“My legislation also recognizes that the best safety improvements come from sound science and empirical study, not from bureaucratic government mandate,” Shuster said in a statement. Shuster's spokesman Jeff  Urbanchuk explained to Transportation Nation, "The idea here is government putting a mandate with a date certain on an entire industry generally does not work out too well."

That's in contrast to the other bus safety bill that was previously introduced, the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act of 2009. That bill introduced in the last session of Congress by John Lewis (D-Georgia) , along with a version in the Senate introduced by Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tx), calls for specific alterations to buses themselves, like adding seat belts, and strengthening the windows and structure of the buses to prevent passengers from being ejected during accidents.

Bus industry officials say this kind of requirement would impose a prohibitive cost burden on them and prefer voluntary safety improvements already underway.

The Brown-Hutchison bill -- like the Shuster bill -- suggests new measures for preventing unqualified drivers from getting behind the wheel of a passenger bus.

Either bill could be incorporated into the transportation reauthorization bill.

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