CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Less than a year after regulators shut down Charlotte-based bus company Sky Express after a deadly wreck, federal records show another bus company operating from Sky Express' old building ranks as one of the country's worst offenders for unsafe driving.
New York-based General Bus has taken over the former Sky Express building, in front of the shuttered BJ's on Independence Boulevard, and put up its own sign. But the new company has racked up its own safety violations.
According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, General Bus ranks worse than 99.5 percent of motorcoach companies for unsafe driving.
Inter-city bus travel has grown rapidly, with a 32 percent jump in discount bus travel from 2010 to 2011, according to a DePaul University study. Cheap fares - $30 from Charlotte to New York on General Bus - and rising airfare have fueled the surge.
But the industry's discount, or curbside, sector has been dogged by safety problems, fatal crashes and complaints from safety advocates about lax regulation. A report in October by the National Transportation Safety Board found that curbside bus services are seven times more likely to be involved in fatal wrecks than conventional bus lines.
Between September and January, General Bus was cited three times for speeding 11-14 miles over the speed limit, and once for speeding 6-10 miles over the limit, following another vehicle too closely and failing to obey a traffic control device.
FMCSA records show inspectors also found tire tread and sidewall separation, inoperative headlights and windshield wipers, wheel fasteners loose and/or missing, improper battery installation, a driver not conducting a pre-trip inspection and a bus with a defective brake warning device or none at all. General Bus was also cited twice for drivers not being able to speak English.
A woman who works for General Bus in New York told the Observer the company is safe, and working to improve its safety practices. "Everything is going very well," said the woman, who gave her name only as Tracy. "We try to do whatever DOT inspection is. We just passed the inspection."
General Bus President Shui Zhen Zheng didn't return emails and phone calls seeking comment.
Another area of concern is driver fatigue, which investigators have said contributed to the wreck last year that killed four in Virginia, when a Sky Express bus crashed. The driver, who is awaiting trial in Virginia on manslaughter charges, told police he had fallen asleep at the wheel, according to news accounts.
The FMCSA says General Bus ranks worse than 78 percent of companies for driver fatigue violations. The company has been cited for drivers failing to retain their driving logs, not having current records of drivers' duty status, making false reports of a driver's record of duty status and not keeping log books correctly.
A driver at the stop in Charlotte said the company switches drivers several times during the trip to New York to avoid fatigue, which passengers confirmed. He also said the company follows all rules about how long drivers can work without a break.
The carrier currently has a "Not Rated" safety rating from the FMCSA, which regulates the bus industry. That means the agency hasn't done a compliance review of the company.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration wouldn't make any officials available for an interview about bus safety. It also would not answer emailed questions regarding General Bus's safety record.
"FMCSA is aware of the public's concerns regarding this bus company. Our agency will continue to do everything within its legal authority to stay one step ahead of unsafe bus operators and protect the traveling public," a spokeswoman wrote in an emailed response.
'A different company'
The similarities between bus companies can make it difficult for consumers to tell bus carriers apart.
General Bus uses the same address in Charlotte where Sky Express operated. A company called Oriental Pearl that sells tickets for General Bus lists the same address in New York that Sky Express did. General Bus also has a phone number listed in federal records that's been listed online by still another company, New Oriental Tour.
The woman at General Bus who gave her name as Tracy said General Bus has no ties to Sky Express or New Oriental Tour.
"Sky Express is a different company. They shut down, so Oriental Pearl saw this market," she said. "That's different companies. No relationship at all." The FMCSA did not answer questions on whether General Bus has been checked for ties to Sky Express.
Charlotte code enforcement manager Ben Krise said General Bus representatives and a lawyer met with the city during the permitting process. Krise said his understanding was that General Bus and Sky Express are separate companies. That lawyer, Collin Brown, told the Observer he no longer represents General Bus, and assisted the company only with zoning issues.
For customers, price is often the determining factor in choosing discount companies such as General Bus.
"Cheapest way to do it. I'd fly if I could," said Alex Monroe, waiting Monday night for a General Bus to New York. Monroe, who works at a Wells Fargo bank branch, was taking the bus overnight for the New York Giants' Super Bowl parade the next day.
Sandra Jones rides General Bus monthly from New York to care for her sick mother in Charlotte. She said she has no complaints about the bus, except the lavatories could be cleaned more often.
Jones has seen improvement since she started riding General Bus, she said Tuesday morning, stepping off the bus after the overnight trip. "In the beginning, some of the drivers couldn't understand English too well," she said. "It has improved tremendously. This guy here, I'd ride with him anytime," she said, pointing to the driver.
"I'd give them two thumbs up," she said. "The price is great."
Leasing from each other
General Bus was first incorporated in New York in 2004, according to records there. The company first received authority to operate interstate buses on May 6, 2011, about three weeks before the fatal Sky Express wreck.
General Bus, which has seven buses and drivers, filed for a certificate of authority to do business in North Carolina on Sept. 16, 2011. The company was granted a Charlotte business license on Oct. 27.
Last week, a man at the General Bus stop on Independence Boulevard said he couldn't talk to a reporter, and provided a phone number to contact company officials. That number is no longer in service.
Another problem, safety advocates say, is unregulated ticket brokers. "The widespread practice of motor coach carriers leasing vehicles and drivers from each other means that consumers often do not know what company will actually be providing motor coach service," the NTSB's report concluded.
The website www.gotobus.com sells tickets for bus trips from Independence Boulevard under the name Oriental Pearl.
Oriental Pearl is not a bus company, and it doesn't appear as a registered carrier anywhere in FMCSA databases. All the buses actually running from Independence Boulevard have General Bus' name and registration number on the side.
The NTSB's report in October highlighted problems inspectors often face with curbside bus lines, such as owners who are difficult to contact and companies that try to evade detection by operating with multiple names and registration numbers.
The report concluded that inspectors are overburdened, with a ratio of 1.15 inspectors qualified to do safety compliance reviews to every 1,000 motor carriers. A thorough safety compliance review can take several weeks, especially with large companies or when records are disorganized, the NTSB said.
In some cases, there is "a lower level of safety oversight for motor carriers transporting passengers than for those transporting freight," the NTSB said.
Inspections and safety compliance reviews have increased. In 2005, the FMCSA carried out 12,991 safety inspections and 457 on-site safety compliance reviews with companies. In 2010, the agency conducted 25,074 safety inspections and 1,044 safety compliance reviews.
N.C. Highway Patrol Capt. Douglas Shackelford said troopers have conducted more than 1,800 motor coach inspections since January 2011 in the state. He said federal regulators handle compliance reviews, where they examine a company's paperwork and records, while state troopers inspect buses and drivers at stops.
Curbside bus companies present a special challenge, he said. "There's no real avenue to seek out where they're stopping unless you search the Internet," he said.
Jackie Gillan, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said bus travel is poorly regulated and safety regulations not effectively enforced.
"We're treating motorcoach riders as second-class citizens," she said. "It's almost like we're saying if you fly a plane we'll guarantee the highest possible safety, but if you take a bus - we'll try our best."
Shutting down bad operators can be a struggle. The FMCSA lacks the authority to simply impound buses, and it can't stop buses on the road to inspect them. It can revoke a company's authority to operate and try to impose a $2,000 a day fine on companies that keep driving.
After the crash last May, the FMCSA said Charlotte-based Sky Express was to have been shut down for safety violations, but had received an extension. The bus line could have been put out of service days before the fatal wreck. Officials have since said the practice of granting extensions has ended.
After Sky Express was shut down, however, the FMCSA said the carrier repainted buses and sold tickets under other names, such as 108 Bus. The agency issued another shutdown order.
The agency has requested more authority from Congress, such as the ability to fine companies $25,000 a day for continuing to operate after an order to shut down and a uniform standard for identifying "reincarnated" companies that are really carriers who have been shut down.
Gillan said regulators aren't going far enough. Her group supports safety measures such as mandatory seatbelts and more comprehensive oversight of operators.
"I don't really get the sense that they're moving as vigorously and aggressively as they could," Gillan said of regulators. "We welcome their enforcement. But is that enough to ensure safety? I'm not sure it is." Staff researcher Maria David contributed.
A web of connections
General Bus said it has no ties to other bus operators. But government regulators and safety advocates have said the webs of connections between bus companies can make it difficult for consumers and regulators to tell whether companies are really independent. For example:
A phone number listed by General Bus in federal registration records appears online and in directories as belonging to New Oriental Tour, a separate bus operator.
The email listed for General Bus in federal registration records belongs to Coach Bus Repair, a maintenance company that shares a Brooklyn, N.Y., address with New Oriental Tour.
Sky Express and a successor company called Express Bus did business in a Virginia Beach storefront, according to published accounts in the Virginian-Pilot newspaper. But Express Bus' DOT registration number identified the company as New Oriental Tour, the paper said.
A phone number on the building permit obtained to upgrade the General Bus building (formerly Sky Express) on Independence Boulevard is a former phone number for Sky Express, according to Charlotte Better Business Bureau records. After the permit was amended, to change the owner's name to General Bus, the phone number remained the same. - Ely Portillo
Other low-fare bus companies in Charlotte
Megabus: The low-cost carrier runs from the Transportation Center uptown to Durham, Washington, D.C., and other destinations. Megabus has been cited by regulators for driver fatigue and unsafe driving violations. Megabus president Dale Moser said the company exceeds safety requirements by giving drivers at least nine hours off between shifts, installing warning devices that alert the driver if the bus starts drifting and requiring two drivers on all trips from midnight to 5 a.m.
I-95 Coach/Apex Bus/Chinatown Bus: These companies sell tickets online for a trip from the Knights Inn on Glenwood Drive, near I-85, to New York City. The bus actually making the trips was from a fourth company, Happy Go Travel Bus, when a reporter visited. Happy Go Travel has been cited for failing to implement a drug and alcohol testing program and for fatigued driving violations. The owner, Guo Tang, said his bus line is safe. "My buses have no problem. I do alcohol testing," he said. He also said drivers aren't fatigued. "We check their logbook, each driver. That's very important."
ATA Trail: Company was shut down in November after regulators discovered it was using drivers who had not met medical requirements and was using buses that were not regularly inspected and repaired.
Brothers Bus Line: The company picks up passengers on Mallard Creek Road and Trade Street, a company representative said. Winston-Salem-based Brothers has been cited for unsafe driving and fatigued driving violations. Manager Michael Truong said the company has made "leaps and bounds" in safety since those violations, including hiring higher-quality drivers, a full-time mechanic and a safety coordinator.
- Compiled from carrier website and FMCSA records
Some fatal wrecks in 2011
March 12, Bronx, N.Y.: A World Wide Tours motorcoach carrying people back from a casino rolls over and slams into a highway sign support pole, nearly severing the bus' roof. Fifteen passengers are killed.
May 31, Virginia: A Sky Express motorcoach swerves off the road and lands on its roof, killing four. According to media reports, the driver told police he fell asleep at the wheel.
June 27, Raleigh: A motorcoach driven by former N.C. State basketball star Lorenzo Charles runs off I-40, killing Charles.
July 17, New York: Two people die when a tire blowout causes a motorcoach to crash on its way to Niagara Falls.
- Compiled from published reports and Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.