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Grading Intercity Buses

Monday, June 20, 2011

An intercity bus in New York City's Chinatown (photo by Kate Hinds)

Following a series of deadly intercity bus crashes which have killed 25 people since the start of the year, New York Senator Charles Schumer has proposed an idea that will be familiar to many New Yorkers: letter grades.

In a letter to US Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the Senator wrote that his idea was inspired by NYC Department of Health grades that are prominently displayed in New York City's restaurants. "This simple grading system provides customers with the information they need when choosing where to eat and a similar scheme could be used to bring more transparency to the intercity bus industry."

The idea is that the DOT and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (which regulates the tour bus industry) develop a ratings system that assigns letter grades to operators. Companies would then be required to display the information at both the point of purchase, as well as on the bus. "If bus companies have a poor safety record, passengers should know about it before they purchase a ticket," Schumer said in a written statement.

The FMCSA currently maintains an online safety database, but Schumer said it is "difficult to navigate and the rating system is not easy to understand."

In recent weeks the DOT and the FMCSA have been criticized for not moving fast enough to shut down tour bus operators with dozens of safety violations. Last week Anne Ferro, the head of the FMCSA, told Congress that shutting down unsafe bus companies was a cumbersome process and that her agency needed "stronger authority" to better regulate the industry.

LaHood has not yet commented on the Senator's idea. His office says he'll respond to Schumer "directly."

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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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WNYC News

Bus Company in Deadly Crash Still May Be Operating: DOT

Sunday, June 05, 2011

WNYC

The U.S. Department of Transportation has ordered the Sky Express Bus Company to cease and desist after it said the budget bus operator continued to run its business under another name in defiance of a government-ordered shutdown last week.

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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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