Feds Hit Brakes On So-Called 'Chinatown Buses'

This week the federal government shut down 26 bus companies that operate along the I-95 corridor because of numerous safety violations. These buses have become a travel lifeline for immigrants, students and low-income travelers who need to shuttle between New York City and other cities along the East Coast.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Interstate 95 stretches from Florida to Maine and runs through some of the nation's biggest cities: New York, Washington, Boston. Well, traveling up and down the 95 corridor may be a bit safer this weekend, though also a bit more expensive.

That's because federal officials shut down 26 intercity bus companies this week for safety violations. These so-called Chinatown buses have become a lifeline for frugal travelers. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, the crackdown left many scrambling for other options today.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Even on a good day, the Chinatown bus experience can border on chaotic. It was even harder today for travelers like James and Ruth Chestnut(ph) of the Bronx. And where are you trying to go?

RUTH CHESTNUT: I'm going to Raleigh, North Carolina.

ROSE: And what did they tell you when you got there?

CHESTNUT: They tell them no buses, no buses. So I figured they had a wreck. He said no, we didn't have no wreck.

JAMES CHESTNUT: They just closed them down, I guess.

ROSE: Federal officials announced the crackdown yesterday in New York City's Chinatown, a hub for dozens of low-cost bus carriers. New York Senator Charles Schumer urged those carriers to pay attention.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: If you flout the rules, if you cut corners, if you put profit ahead of passenger safety, you're going to get caught and you're going to be shut down.

ROSE: Authorities have been under pressure to rein in curbside bus carriers since a rash of fatal accidents last year. Transportation officials have been scrutinizing the safety procedures at these companies, and in some cases, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood did not like what he saw.

SECRETARY RAY LAHOOD: They used drivers who did not hold commercial licenses, and they drove buses that did not meet the highest standards that we have set. And shutting them down will save lives.

ROSE: The feds shut down 26 bus companies, but most were subsidiaries of just three main carriers. The storefront office of one of those carriers, Apex Bus, was closed today. The metal grating was pulled most of the way down. But a few people were still coming in and out, including this man who declined to give his name. Excuse me, sir, are you with Apex?

UNDENTIFIED MAN: No.

ROSE: Can I just ask you a few questions?

MAN: (unintelligible). I just cleaning guy.

ROSE: Maybe so, but then he taped up a piece of paper that said Apex Bus, no bus line going out today, apologize for any inconvenience. Customers of Apex and other carriers may want more than an apology. Nolan Orange(ph) of Raleigh, North Carolina, wants his money back, too.

NOLAN ORANGE: They said the bus wasn't running, and they got to give people their money back. And I paid for it on a card. So it's like I lost my money already. And, you know, it was just a big inconvenience. I don't have a phone on me and nothing like that, a major inconvenience.

ROSE: Not all Chinatown bus carriers were shut down. Lucky Star and Fung Wah busses are still leaving for Boston more or less on time, but the crackdown can be felt up and down the Eastern Seaboard. In Washington, D.C.'s Chinatown, Tyrone Burr(ph) works for tips helping customers get their luggage. He thinks the carriers could have done a better job of explaining the situation to customers.

TYRONE BURR: They shut down without informing already ticket holders and, you know, that's lousy. I mean, that's bad for business.

ROSE: Truth be told, customer service was never one of the Chinatown busses' strong points. Federal officials may not be able to fix that, but they do aim to make safety a higher priority. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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