Feb
26

On the need for Chinatown buses, briefly

By

The Chinatown buses that have proliferated over the past few decades maintain an interesting place in the scheme of regional transit. Operating out off the sidewalks of northeast Chinatowns, these buses are not known for their safety, but they provide cheap rides between New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, D.C., and points further afield. Some may scoff at the way the chaotic boarding process crowds the sidewalk and frown at the way idling buses pollute the neighborhoods. But these vehicles serve a purpose if we want, as Cap’n Transit has shown, trips at every price and level of luxury.

Yet, even as we acknowledge the Chinatown buses, these vehicles pose serious problems. With low cost comes low safety, and many Chinatown buses have pulled off the roads by federal safety regulators. Today, Fung Wah, one of the more popular low-cost providers for the Boston-to-New York route, was ordered off the road by the feds due to serious concerns over vehicle integrity. With that move, very few big-name Chinatown bus companies remain untouched.

The coverage of the Fung Wah safety story has been peculiar from certain corners. J.K. Trotter, writing for The Atlantic Cities wrote a post that seemed to be mocking the Chinatown buses and deriding any remaining riders. Now, safety is a serious concern, but so too is maintaining the array of intercity travel options if we are to encourage transit usage. Somehow, we have to figure out how to provide cheap, reliable and safe intercity travel without looking down upon those who opt for the least expensive solution.



Categories : Asides, Buses

35 Responses to “On the need for Chinatown buses, briefly”

  1. Someone says:

    I ride these dollar buses often, and now I get why they’re so cheap. The low price you get to pay is the price of your life.

    • SEAN says:

      You see something similar in New Jersey with mini busses haling passengers at NJT bus stops. These busses are opperated by Spanish Transportation & are often found in such places as Garden State Plaza & along Boulevard East from West New York to Weehawken headed to Manhattan.

      From what I understand, these busses are legal but cant undercut NJ Transit fares for a similar trip.

    • Eric says:

      Still probably safer than private cars…

  2. g says:

    The most logical answer would seem to be more capacity on the Northeast Regional. Longer trains, addition of NJT-like bilevels for lower price point travelers, and more frequent service.

  3. Phantom says:

    G

    Spot on.

    The Amtrak fares to Philly are really high for the distance, and some of those trains, along with the NJT / SEPTA trains that serve the route, are pretty empty at times.

    I bet more seats would be used if there was more variable pricing on those trains.

    • g says:

      It wouldn’t kill Amtrak to borrow a few bilevel cars from NJT and attach to current NE Regional runs in order to test the market.

  4. Andrew Smith says:

    Don’t fall into the trap of assuming things that seem dangerous are dangerous. Subway platforms with no walls seem extremely dangerous but, by any reasonable standard, they aren’t.

    Failed inspections are not the way to determine bus safety. Passenger miles traveled per fatality or serious injury are the only numbers that matter. And I have yet to see anything that suggests the Chinatown buses are dangerous within an order of magnitude when compared to driving individual cars, particularly the somewhat dodgy cars that are the likely alternative for many of these bus riders.

    Are there numbers I’m not aware of?

    • Bolwerk says:

      You think “serious concerns over vehicle integrity” moving at 70mph on a major highway isn’t enough to be a little concerned about safety? You would ride a bus where “inspectors found cracks in the frames of many of the company’s aging buses”?

      Sure, there is a low risk of any actual fatalities because of this. The most likely outcome is a breakdown. Still, it’s not fair to anybody else who has to deal with the risk or the resultant traffic issues that would arise. (Also, the precise reason they don’t have a large fatality:psgr-mi ratio might be because we have safety inspections.)

      • Eric says:

        “Sure, there is a low risk of any actual fatalities because of this.”

        There you go, even you say that Chinatown buses are safer than cars.

        “(Also, the precise reason they don’t have a large fatality:psgr-mi ratio might be because we have safety inspections.)”

        Nobody is proposing to get rid of the current inspections! With the current inspections, Chinatown buses are the safe option. With better inspections, which I would support, they would be even safer. But if you refuse to ride Chinatown buses until even higher safety standards exist, and drive a car instead, and say it’s “for safety reasons”, you’re just being stupid.

  5. Bolwerk says:

    I use Bolt Bus to Philly sometimes. $14, seems safe/efficient enough. It’s probably about as far as a commuter bus can comfortably take someone.

    Amtrak is perhaps 45m faster, and way more reliable, but more expensive by a factor of 4 if you’re lucky. NJT plus SEPTA is more expensive than Bolt, and takes longer, which is plain delusional.

    • JE says:

      The BoltBus WiFi system is considerably more reliable than Amtrak’s.

      • Kai B says:

        Those wi-fi systems are only as reliable as the cellular provider they use. Once they are upgraded to LTE they will work much better.

        Of course, if you’re on a device where you have unlimited or a pie-in-the-sky data limit, you might as well use that versus sharing a connection with the whole bus.

    • digamma says:

      I still ride NJT+SEPTA when I have the time to spare, because it’s so much more comfortable and convenient than Bolt or Megabus.

      • Bolwerk says:

        The seats are more comfortable arguably, but the ride is longer and there is a transfer. (Also, there is no wifi as yet, right?)

        Now, if NJT offered a through service I’d say it deserves a second look.

    • Eric says:

      When I last traveled the Northeast Corridor (admittedly, 10 years ago), the buses were much more reliable than Amtrak…

  6. Epson45 says:

    Fung Wah has been shutdown by the government.

  7. Phantom says:

    The NJT / SEPTA conbo is painful on the weekend

  8. Someone says:

    According to Fung Wah’s website:

    Welcome to Fung Wah Bus, The largest (Chinatown Bus) bus service provider between New York and Boston, serving the New York Chinatown to Boston route for more than 10 years. Fung Wah Bus is licensed and permitted by Federal Highway Administration.

    Fung Wah Bus is Chinatown’s first Bus company to provide low cost transportation between New York Chinatown and Boston Chinatown. Fung Wah Bus is located at the heart of New York Chinatown between Bowery Street and Canal Street.

    It says nothing about a shutdown.

    • John says:

      If you bothered to click around for maybe 20 more seconds, you would see that any attempts to buy a ticket online reveal that every trip is “sold out.” Also, I’m willing to bet that this website’s information is about as accurate and trustworthy as the scheduled yearly inspection stickers on their buses.

  9. Ant6n says:

    It seems that the question of cheap rail travel has been going the rounds. TransportPolitic talked about OuiGo, chsr blog mentioned it, etc. (I wonder whether commuter equipment could be used for intercity travel during off-peak, to compete with Chinatown buses).

    • SEAN says:

      It maybe possible, but there may need to be some catenary & or switch upgrades.

      When NJT started “Train to the Game” service, numatic switches were installed to allow there engines to opperate on the New Haven Line as there’s a change in voltage between the railroads. Interestingly the conversion only cost somewhere around $20,000, making it cost effective & opens the door for future through running.

      • Alon Levy says:

        $20,000? That’s dirt cheap.

        Do you have a link that I can spam everyone with when they tell me It Can’t Be Done?

        • SEAN says:

          Introducing Metro-North Service to Meadowlands Football GamesDirect New Haven Line Service Begins September 20
          Former Jets wide receiver Wayne Chrebet will join MTA Metro-North Railroad President Howard Permut on Sunday September 20 to kick off direct train service on the New Haven Line to the New Jersey Meadowlands Sports Complex.

          Chrebet and Permut will meet and greet customers at the Larchmont train station at 9:30 a.m. then board the 10:18 a.m. train for the ride to New Jersey.

          The service uses NJ Transit’s new bi-level coaches, Metro-North and NJ Transit crews and Amtrak’s tracks on the Hell Gate Line, part of the Northeast Corridor, through the east Bronx and Queens into Penn Station, New York and on to Secaucus. There customers change trains for the quick shuttle to the Meadowlands station, which is right next to the stadium.

          “Three railroads and three states came together to provide one fantastic service,” said Metro-North President Howard Permut. “This test of regional integration took several years of planning but only minor investment in infrastructure. We think this tri-state train service – a first in the century-long history of these three railroads – will be great for football fans. No traffic, no parking lot jam-ups and a safe, easy ride will make getting to and from the games a breeze. I hope it catches on.”

          “The new Meadowlands Rail Line offers a great way to avoid the hassle and expense of driving and parking, taking pressure off of roadways,” said NJ Transit Executive Director Richard Sarles. “Metro-North thru service is a good example of interagency cooperation that will enhance regional travel and give New York and Connecticut riders the opportunity to travel to New Jersey’s great sports and entertainment venues.”

          “Every Jets and Giants home game attracts numerous Connecticut fans,” said Connecticut DOT Commissioner Joe Marie. “Taking the train to the game will make a fun day even more so. Metro-North and my counterparts in New York and New Jersey are to be commended for pulling this new service together.”

          This pilot program operates only on Sunday afternoons when the Jets and the Giants, New York’s two professional football teams, play 1 p.m. home games. The NJT equipment used for the three round-trips between New Haven and Secaucus is only available for early afternoon games because the trains are needed for regular Monday morning rush-hour service.

          The only infrastructure investment involved the installation of magnets along the right of way where there are electrical phase breaks, where energy providers change along the 86-mile route.

          Unfortunately I cant find the $20,000 figgure at the moment, but I do recall seeing it.

    • Anon256 says:

      Between NY and Philadelphia there is already a “cheap” rail option using commuter equipment (with significant state subsidy) in the form of NJT+SEPTA changing at Trenton. At $24.25 oneway it’s still more than twice as much as the Chinatown buses on that route (which are typically $12 despite paying tolls almost the whole way), with approximately the same travel time. Even the time-is-no-object PATH+NJT+RiverLine+PATCO option is $16.65. These routes also carry large numbers of daily commuters, offsetting the financial and political cost of serving a smaller number of intercity riders; a cheap train towards DC or Boston would not have this benefit.

      As nice it would be, I don’t see how a “low-cost train” on the Northeast Corridor could compete with the bus companies on price without heavy subsidies, which I think could be better used elsewhere (e.g. for urban transit people ride every day rather than just for occasional trips).

      • ant6n says:

        Well, all this only makes sense if the service could run without too many subsidies. How could that be done? By re-using existing infrastructure, equipment, during times when they are not heavily used (think marginal costs). By keeping staffing levels low. By not offering many amenities. By stopping only at big cities, so that time is reduced even with slower equipment. By filling bi-level trains with a thousand cost-conscious passengers.

    • Bolwerk says:

      Fast rail travel can be cheaper than slow rail travel. If you can get more runs out of the same crew and equipment, you save.

      I’m not so sure about the economics of the buses. Notably, the buses are smaller vehicles with very low overhead and capital costs. Maybe rail could compete if a single operator could haul a short train on a non-stop run, but that borders on illegal for now.

  10. Peter Smith (@shmooth2) says:

    last bus trip i did was BOS -> NYC a few months ago and it was a breeze, very easy, brand new Peter Pan bus — think it supposedly had internet, etc., tho not sure it worked.

    i paid like $24 instead of the cheapest option on some other carrier $16 or so.

    would much rather have taken the train, but not at 10x the price or whatever it was.

  11. Nate says:

    I suspect that as various Chinatown bus operations are shut down for this or that violation, Bolt Bus and Megabus will use the opportunity to raise fares as they increase their market share. There was no Bolt Bus before 2007, at which point Greyhound saw the success of the Chinatown model and wanted to jump into the city-to-city, street-corner bus stop market. Budget travelers everywhere were thrilled, but it didn’t take long before most of the leather seats disappeared and the fares crawled up.

    As long as significant federal tax dollars continue to be directed toward funding highway infrastructure, it will always be difficult for rail to compete on price against buses, no? Local commuter rail is a patchwork of state-funded agencies (with all the annoying train transfers that comes with that), and Amtrak sees the NE as the only place in the country where they can turn a profit. I could be wrong, but I’ve always assumed that Amtrak pegs their fares against the cost of the Delta and USAirways shuttles, at least for the Acela Express. Then the regional is always less, but still a relatively crazy price point.

  12. Theorem Ox says:

    I guess I have been really lucky so far on riding low-fare buses. Have never had any problems riding Lucky Star, Fung Wah and Bolt for over 7 years.

    I only really appreciated that fact after watching a violent multi-car/truck accident near Mount Laurel, NJ in late December while riding Boltbus to Philadelphia. Only found out on my return trip that there were fatalities involved and that the morning crash was causing major traffic congestion through the evening rush hour. Not sure how our bus driver managed to avoid hitting all the cars and trucks involved merely a couple hundred feet in front of us at high speed.

    That said, on Boston.com, I’ve read some commenters who suggested a conspiracy involving the USDOT and long-time incumbent Greyhound in an effort to drive prices up. Well, it’s not like we haven’t had transit related conspiracies in the past before. The NYC-Boston route definitely has very heavy competition.

    Noticed that you now have to book well over a month in advance for Boltbus in the middle of the week to get a ticket fare price less than $15. What a surprising development, eh? (Not.)

  13. hh8 says:

    No doubt Fung Wah had some serious safety issues, but it’s not like Megabus/Coach USA has a sterling safety record either. (ie: that annoying habit of decapitating passengers by running double-decker buses into low clearance bridges)

    Has anyone compared their injury/fatality rates? Sometimes I think Coach just gets away with more because they have better lawyers and PR people.

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