By Mike Hixenbaugh
June 25, 2011
Jeanette Wilkins bought a $25 bus ticket for passage from Washington to Virginia Beach last week stamped with the name “Sky Express.”
She noticed that the word “Sky” had been crossed out with black marker, and that the tour bus she rode in was marked with a different name altogether.
Wilkins, like other passengers on the bus, said she had no idea that Sky Express was at the center of a federal crackdown on the booming discount bus industry after a deadly wreck on Interstate 95 in May, or that other bus companies offering low-fare trips out of South Hampton Roads have similarly poor safety records.
“I wouldn’t even know where to go to get that information,” Wilkins said.
Local residents in search of a cheap ride to New York or Washington may not know which company’s bus they are boarding, never mind its safety record. Some bus lines advertise under different names than those listed with federal regulators, and companies can lease each other’s buses.
Furthermore, the tendency of some companies to change names and locations makes random safety inspections difficult, State Police say.
In Virginia, there were fewer than 10 roadside inspections of charter bus drivers last year. Other states, including North Carolina, did hundreds.
The rollover crash outside Richmond last month – chalked up to driver fatigue and resulting in four involuntary-manslaughter charges against the driver – has illuminated the convoluted world of discount buses, and efforts to regulate them.
Since January, 12 bus crashes nationwide have resulted in 28 deaths and more than 200 injuries, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has responded by shutting down five bus companies in three weeks after they racked up repeated safety violations – including one Michigan bus line that transported passengers in the luggage compartment.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., and other members of Congress have called for ratcheted-up enforcement of regulations and the creation of a simplified system to help consumers track safety records.
At least eight discount bus companies run 13 daily routes from Virginia Beach and Norfolk to New York and Washington. Of those, only two appear under their advertised names in the online federal database of safety records, meant to help passengers weed out unsafe bus companies.
The Beach-based business incorporated under the name D.C. to Va Beach Express Bus is not among them.
The bus company on Newtown Road previously sold tickets under the name Sky Express. That daily route between Virginia Beach and Washington’s Chinatown neighborhood halted last month after federal regulators ordered Sky Express buses off the road.
The Beach business re-emerged 10 days later with new buses registered to New Oriental Tours, a New York-based company with a history of safety violations.
Although the former Sky Express bus route is no longer advertised on www.GotoBus.com – the primary online ticketing hub for many discount buses – a call to the company’s local customer service line can still get you a $25 ticket to Washington, with one stop in Newport News. Business cards available outside the Beach storefront read “Sky Express Bus Tours” and advertise the twice-daily route, but the word “Sky” has been blacked out.
“Yes, we’re still here,” a customer service representative said over the phone last week. “You can buy a ticket at the office, but cash-only now.”
A manager at the Beach storefront denied any affiliation with Charlotte-based Sky Express. The local bus company, the manager said, had only rented Sky Express buses, advertised under the name Sky Express, and sold tickets stamped with the words “Sky Express.”
“We are not actually Sky Express,” said the woman, who refused to provide her name. “We are renting new buses now.”
The scenario the manager described – although confusing to Wilkins and other passengers – is legal under federal regulations. Companies are permitted to advertise under one name and operate under another while leasing buses from other companies. Similar scenarios play out every night at several dimly lit discount bus stops that dot strip plazas along Newtown Road and Virginia Beach Boulevard.
The Government Accountability Office warned Congress two years ago about so-called “chameleon carriers” – small bus companies that rack up poor safety records, then move and “reincarnate” with a clean slate under another name.
Teresa Biscoe, a college student from New York, said she tried to review federal safety records before buying a $35 ticket to travel from Norfolk to New York. But she couldn’t find the operator, Everyday Bus, in the federal safety database, she said.
That’s because the bus line is operated by Double Happyness Tours, a Pennsylvania-based company that has been flagged by regulators nearly 50 times in the past two years for violations that include speeding, illegal passing, following too closely, falsifying driver-fatigue logs and employing drivers who are unable to speak English.
“It’s terrifying that you don’t really know what bus you’re getting on until you get there,” Biscoe said, before climbing aboard the idling bus outside a Norfolk bingo parlor.
Even when a passenger is able to track down a bus company’s federal safety records, the information – which compares bus lines by percentiles in a series of safety categories – can be difficult to decipher.
Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, asked the Department of Transportation last week to develop a simplified letter-grading system for buses. Companies would be required to display the letter prominently on board. “If bus companies have a poor safety record, passengers should know about it before they purchase a ticket,” Schumer told reporters outside a discount bus ticket booth in New York last week.
Some bus industry advocates are calling for stricter enforcement of the rules already in place. “That would be the place to start,” said Norm Littler, vice president of regulatory affairs for the American Bus Association, a trade group representing Greyhound and other major tour bus companies.
In Virginia, State Police receive about $4 million a year from the federal government to enforce safety regulations for commercial motorcoaches. That includes both tractor trailers and buses – but inspections of discount bus carriers rarely happen here, said Corinne Geller, a State Police spokeswoman.
In 2010, Virginia State Police conducted a total of eight roadside inspections of charter bus drivers, which includes a review of fatigue logs and driver fitness, according to statistics from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Only four states conducted fewer such inspections.
North Carolina, by comparison, conducted 370 inspections of charter bus drivers that year, according to the safety administration.
“We’ve been aware of the poor safety records among the discount buses, but there are certain things that hinder our ability to regulate them,” Geller said. Because the discount bus companies often change locations and names, she said, troopers have difficulty finding where buses pick up or drop off passengers – the best spots to conduct unannounced inspections, according to the federal safety administration.
Regulators from several states have offered similar explanations for low inspection totals, said Littler, the bus industry representative. But he questions that argument.
“You can find them,” Littler said. “I can find them. Thousands of passengers can find them. How come the guys with the badges and the guns can’t find them?”
Gwen Elmore, president of Fun Tours, a Beach-based charter bus company that offers one-way trips to Washington, D.C., for $77, said she supports stiffer safety regulations but stressed that not all small bus companies are bad.
Over the past two years, Fun Tours buses have been inspected 48 times without a single on-road violation, according to federal safety records.
“What I can tell you is that most of us in this industry are very legal, we are very reputable, we follow the guidelines, and we do that not just for ourselves but for our passengers’ safety,” Elmore said. “If it looks like a deal, it’s not always a deal.”