Three North Carolina-based passenger bus companies were shut down Wednesday in what federal officials called the nation’s largest crackdown ever of unsafe bus operators.
In addition to bus companies in Rocky Mount and Greensboro, New York-based companies with routes to Charlotte were among 26 companies ordered out-of-service by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The federal sweep was the culmination of a yearlong investigation, spurred in part by a deadly crash involving Charlotte-based bus company Sky Express.
The companies are accused of using a complex web of multiple registrations and overlapping ownership to evade previous shutdown orders and conceal safety violations. Thirteen of the companies had previously been ordered out of service and were operating in defiance of the order, the FMCSA said.
Despite having 26 different names and government operating registrations, authorities said the bus lines were actually clustered into networks and effectively operated as only three companies, controlled by the same people and sharing expenses such as payroll, gasoline and tolls.
For years, officials said, the companies operated well outside the margin of safety, forgoing regular vehicle inspections, flouting service limits designed to prevent driver fatigue, and hiring drivers without drug and alcohol screening – or even without valid commercial driver’s licenses.
“The egregious acts of these carriers put the unsuspecting public at risk, and they must be removed from our highways immediately,” said FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro.
While the crackdown was applauded by industry and safety groups, Jackie Gillan, president of the Washington-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, questioned whether it would have a lasting impact.
“That’s the big question ... will these companies just go back into business?” Gillan said. “You have a high visibility enforcement action; it deters people, but then people go back to their same old habits.”
The companies ordered out of service operated about 30 to 35 buses and carried about 1,800 people a day on Interstate 95 and connected highways, federal authorities said. The North Carolina companies shut down this week were Go To Travel Inc. and Coach 88 Inc., both based in Rocky Mount, and United Tours, based in Greensboro.
None of the companies could be reached by phone Thursday.
Apex Bus and I-95 Coach, both based in New York, also were shut down. Those companies have sold tickets online for trips from the Knights Inn on Glenwood Drive, near Interstate 85, to New York City. An Observer investigation earlier this year found the bus that runs those trips was typically from a third company, Philadelphia-based Happy Go Travel Inc. Happy Go Travel was not among those companies targeted by the government sweep.
Spurred by tragedy
One year ago on May 31, a Sky Express bus from North Carolina to New York City crashed in the early morning hours on I-95, killing four and injuring more than 50 passengers.
The driver, who was from Greensboro, later told investigators he dozed off before the wreck, according to reports. He and the Sky Express dispatcher, from Charlotte, are to stand trial for manslaughter in Virginia this month.
Sky Express was cited for numerous safety violations before the crash. Although the FMCSA ordered the company to cease operations after the crash, Sky Express allegedly repainted some buses and quickly went back on the road. The government issued another shutdown order after that.
The deadly wreck was one of several last year. In March, 15 people died when a bus operated by World Wide Tours crashed in the Bronx. Investigators say the driver was speeding. He also is preparing to stand trial for manslaughter.
Several of the companies targeted for shutdown this week were subpoenaed for their records last year after the Sky Express crash.
A total of 34 people died last year in motor-coach crashes, according to the Washington-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Ferro said the FMCSA will take steps to ensure the companies shut down this week don’t restart operations. Such carriers, known as “reincarnated” bus lines, have been a persistent problem in the industry .
But officials said FMCSA lacks the authority to actually seize and impound the vehicles. There also are no civil or criminal penalties currently being sought against the operators of the 26 bus companies shut down this week.
Companies could face a $2,200-a-day fine if they continue operating in violation of the government shutdown orders.
Ferro acknowledged Thursday that’s just “the cost of doing business” for some unsafe companies. The FMCSA is seeking authority to levy fines up to $25,000 each day for companies that violate shutdown orders.
The National Transportation Safety Board found in a study last year that government inspectors are overburdened, with a ratio of 1.15 inspectors to 1,000 motor carriers. There is often “a lower level of safety oversight for motor carriers transporting passengers than for those transporting freight,” the NTSB said.
Gillan remains critical of the government for failing to put tougher safety regulations in place and not mandating that all new companies be inspected before starting to offer bus service. “It’s very disheartening,” she said. “Really, none of that has changed since Sky Express.”
One major problem for authorities has been the web of connections between many companies. Companies often sell tickets for trips that are then actually provided by a separate company, sometimes with a driver leased from a third company. That makes it hard for passengers to tell who’s actually operating the bus, and can conceal safety violations.
For example, two of the companies shut down in North Carolina – Coach 88 and United Tours – have shared a Greensboro address. The third company, Go To Travel, has a separate address, but the registered email address for United Tours is the name of Go To Travel’s owner.
Thursday afternoon, a gold-colored bus sat empty in a parking lot next to the Knights Inn on Glenwood Drive in Charlotte. A sign by the entrance still read “I-95 Coach Waiting Area,” with an arrow pointing toward the bus. The bus was registered to a company called All Nations Coach Inc., which federal records show has been flagged for driver-fatigue violations.
There was no driver around, and no passengers waiting – only an orange “Out of Service” sticker from the FMCSA affixed to the bus windshield, right in front of the driver’s seat. Observer researcher Maria David contributed;
Portillo: 704-358-5041; on Twitter @ESPortillo