By Mike Hixenbaugh
June 5, 2011
Dileep Batel, a recent graduate of Old Dominion University, arrived at the dimly lit Norfolk parking lot around 11:30 p.m. to catch a $25 bus ride to New York City. The 26-year-old man needed to be in New Jersey the next morning, and the Blue Sky overnight bus service was the only way he could afford to make it there on time, he said.
The discount bus company’s safety record didn’t concern him, he said. Nor did a recent string of accidents linked to the booming low-fare bus industry, including a wreck last week that killed four and injured 50 others in Northern Virginia.
“It’s faster than a Greyhound, and much more affordable,” Batel said before boarding the bus to New York’s Chinatown. “I would rather go with the economical option.”
As the economy tanked and gas prices climbed in recent years, the discount bus industry exploded, accounting for thousands of passenger trips a year, including more than 100 departures and arrivals every week in Hampton Roads on at least eight bus lines, according to advertisements and websites.
Federal regulators and representatives of the mainstream commercial bus industry say some of the nation’s discount carriers skirt safety regulations, driver training standards and speed limits in order to deliver cheap tickets and short travel times.
Passengers can go round-trip from Norfolk to New York for less than $50. A one-way trip from the Beach to Washington, D.C., recently sold for $20 or less.
Following the deadly wreck outside Richmond on Tuesday – chalked up to driver fatigue and resulting in involuntary manslaughter charges against the driver – state and federal officials shut down the Charlotte-based discount bus company, Sky Express. The company had operated a Virginia Beach-to-Washington route, and vowed to step up enforcement of tour bus safety regulations nationwide.
Sky Express had been cited for numerous safety violations before the wreck, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Late Friday, the safety administration issued a cease-and-desist order against the company, saying it was repainting buses and trying to operate under the names 108 Tours and 108 Bus.
The agency also said it had subpoenaed records of three websites, including GotoBus.com, that have sold tickets for Sky Express and other discount bus companies. The subpoena was issued to Xiangping Chen, aka Jimmy Chen, the president of Ivy Media Corp./GotoBus.com, which runs the ticketing sites. It orders Chen to turn over all records and communications related to Sky Express and 14 other bus carriers, including Blue Sky and Coach 88, another line with stops in Hampton Roads.
Robbie Quick, president of the Virginia Motorcoach Association, a trade group representing about 50 charter bus companies in the state, said the crackdown is overdue. His group has long sought action by the authorities, he said.
In Virginia, state police are charged with enforcing federal bus safety standards, but inspections of discount carriers rarely happen here, Sgt. Larry Montgomery said.
“To be honest, I don’t think we’ve inspected one of these buses in the past couple years,” said Montgomery, who oversees motorcoach inspections throughout Hampton Roads. “It’s hard to keep track of these companies.”
That was apparent Wednesday night as Batel and dozens of like-minded travelers prepared to climb aboard the Blue Sky bus bound for New York. The bus was parked along East Virginia Beach Boulevard in Norfolk outside a storefront where a sign hung for Everyday Bus, another company offering low-fare trips.
A quarter-mile away at another Norfolk strip plaza along the boulevard, dozens of passengers waited to board a bus run by AA Bus, a Delaware-based company offering nightly trips to and from New York. The bus idled outside a storefront with a sign for New Everyday Bus, a discount liner based in Philadelphia.
GotoBus.com, the ticketing website, listed six companies serving Hampton Roads. Yet only three of those companies were listed under the same operating names in a federal database of motor carriers at www.fmcsa.dot.gov, the website of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, making safety record checks difficult.
Attempts Friday to reach people who could speak for several of those companies were unsuccessful.
Two companies that were listed, Blue Sky Bus Tours and Double Happiness Travel, which operates AA Bus, have been cited for a number of violations, according to records on the safety administration’s website.
Both companies have been stripped of their operating authority on multiple occasions in recent years, only to regain their licenses a week or two later, according to the federal records.
In the past two years, Double Happiness drivers were cited 49 times for violations, including speeding, illegal passing, following too closely, falsifying driver fatigue logs and not being able to speak English, the safety administration site says.
Blue Sky drivers were cited 30 times over that period for similar violations, the safety administration’s site says. The company, based in Long Island, shares a customer service cell phone number with at least two other bus companies that make stops in Hampton Roads.
A man who identified himself as a manager at Blue Sky, John Lin, answered the customer service phone Wednesday. He defended the company’s safety record – “We’ve fixed those problems,” he said – and blasted federal officials for unfairly targeting discount bus operations.
“All the bus companies have accidents, not just the low-price bus lines,” Lin said. “If they are going to shut down the low-price market, they will have to find a way to replace it, because there will be no people traveling. It will hurt the economy.”
Blue Sky’s status on the safety administration site is listed as “satisfactory,” but the company is one of several that have been targeted for increased inspections because of past violations, the safety administration site indicates.
Double Happiness also is on the regulator’s list of companies requiring more frequent roadside inspections, according to the federal records. A representative for the company reached by phone Friday declined to give her name and refused to put a reporter in touch with the business owner.
The discount bus industry thrived largely under the radar the past five years. It was thrust into the national spotlight earlier this year following one of the deadliest bus wrecks in recent memory. In March, a World Wide Tours bus careened out of control on a New York highway. Its roof was sheared off, and 15 people were killed.
Following that accident, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced new safety measures making it harder for tour bus companies to become licensed and easier for the government to put rogue operators out of business.
On Friday, after the government issued the cease-and-desist order against Sky Express, LaHood pledged further action.
“We are relentlessly targeting unsafe and illegal bus companies,” LaHood said in a statement. “This action sends a strong message that the U.S. Department of Transportation will utilize every legal and enforcement tool available to shut down unsafe bus companies and protect passengers and motorists.”
Charter buses transport more than 750 million passengers a year in the United States – nearly as many as airlines – but under current regulations, they are allowed to go into business and operate for as long as 18 months without a safety evaluation.
Even after a failing evaluation, some bus carriers slip through the cracks, said Norm Littler, vice president of regulatory affairs for the American Bus Association, a trade group representing Greyhound and other major tour bus companies.
“Most of these companies, once they get into trouble, they repaint the bus, change their name and move to a new location,” Littler said.
Safety is one of the concerns of Victoria Higgins, a 46-year-old woman from the Bronx, who was among the passengers lined up to board the Blue Sky bus in Norfolk on Wednesday night.
The last time she bought a discount bus ticket for a nonstop trip from New York to Virginia Beach, she said, the bus driver ignored speed limits and recklessly passed cars on the Eastern Shore. She said she could not recall which bus line it was, but that she booked the ticket on GotoBus.com. When she complained, Higgins said, she realized the driver spoke very little English – a violation of federal rules.
“All of that concerns me very much,” Higgins said. “I’m sitting here wondering if I’m going to make it home in one piece tonight. But you just can’t beat the price.”