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Low-fare bus fleets face scrutiny; A series of fatal crashes since September prompts calls for tougher regulation of young, booming industry

The past year has been one of exhilarating expansion, and deadly setbacks, for the fleets of inexpensive buses plying the highways of the Northeast.

Lured by cheap fares, convenient routes and in some cases free wireless Internet, customers queue up daily from curbside pickups in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.

The industry is in the fifth year of a solid boom, thanks to a new breed of bus service that eschews terminals and thrives on low prices Amtrak couldn't hope to match. But a string of fatal crashes over six months also has prompted calls for tougher regulation.

In September, four people died after a Megabus driver missed his exit for a depot in Syracuse, and smashed into a low bridge on an unfamiliar parkway. Last Saturday, a bus swerved off Interstate 95 in New York City and was sliced in two by a pole, killing 15. On Monday, a bus drove off the New Jersey Turnpike and struck a bridge support, killing the driver and a passenger.

The buses were all operated under different circumstances. One was owned by a big corporation with deep pockets. Another was a casino shuttle. The third was a tiny company serving mostly Chinese immigrants. Still, all three crashes happened in the dark, and on any bus route drivers are susceptible to fatigue.

Brian Lancaster, a driver who cruises a route between Philadelphia and Atlantic City, N.J., said that many times he has felt like pulling over to the side of the road to rest.

"But if you do that, you get yelled at by the passengers and your managers," he said, while waiting for a load of gamblers.

Joseph Schwietermann, professor at the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University, said 2010 was "a year of spectacular growth" in discount bus travel. Overall, ridership on intercity lines was up 6 percent, with curbside discount services accounting for almost all of the growth, he said.

Chicago, where Megabus launched a few years ago, is another thriving hub for discount buses, and service has been spreading to other parts of the country. Megabus began service in Buffalo in May 2008. From Buffalo, Megabus serves Toronto, Syracuse, Rochester, Philadelphia, New York City, Harrisburg, Pa., Baltimore, Md. and Washington, D.C.

Only a few years ago, the main competition to Greyhound, Trailways and Peter Pan for bus routes between big Northeastern cities was a handful of small, fiercely competitive companies that catered almost exclusively to recent Chinese immigrants, with an occasional backpacker or college student.

The catch was that riders had to be comfortable traveling with people who didn't speak English and adventurous enough to hunt out a ticket agent and pickup location in Chinatown because the buses didn't use traditional depots or terminals.

The new services take everything people liked about the Chinatown buses -- the cheap fares and express routes -- and add corporate gloss. The buses are new, spacious and have Internet access usually not seen on Amtrak.

They don't operate from terminals -- a plus among passengers who would rather shiver or bake on the sidewalk than deal with bus depots that still have a "Midnight Cowboy" feel in some cities.

"We're seeing the demographics really blossom," Schwietermann said. "In the beginning, it was mainly younger people and penny pinchers. Now, it's a really mainstream clientele."

Peter Pantuso, president for the American Bus Association, said the adoption of the Chinatown model by companies like Megabus, created in 2006 by Coach USA, and BoltBus, a joint venture of Greyhound and Peter Pan, is doing for buses what Southwest Airlines did for air travel.

"It has really changed the bus industry," he said.

At the Megabus curbside location in Manhattan, passengers said the allure was simple.

"It's cheap," said Carolyn Hargey, 25, who paid $22 for her round-trip fare from her home in Philadelphia. "If I had enough money to ride Amtrak or travel some other way, I would never take the bus again."

The big question for travelers is whether those cheap fares -- $10 to $15 for a ride from Boston to New York, compared with $70 or more on Amtrak -- mean the companies are cutting corners on safety.

Industrywide, statistics suggest that there has been no significant change in the number of people being killed or injured in bus crashes that might be linked to the industry's evolution.

An examination of the safety records of some of the bus lines in the recent New York-area crashes suggests that the situation varies greatly from company to company.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records show that Megabus, even with the Syracuse crash, did better than the national average on inspections and in safety rankings during the 24-month period that ended Feb. 25. But its 105 buses in the Northeast -- Coach USA said it now operates 135 -- got 20 speeding tickets during the period, compared with 117 for about 1,400 buses operated by Greyhound Lines Inc.

Dale Moser, president and chief operating officer of Coach USA, said that when it comes to safety factors, there is no difference between the Megabus service and other bus lines operated by the company.

Drivers are paid the same. They have the same work rules and schedules. The company puts them through the same classroom training sessions and conducts the same annual safety reviews, in which drivers are scrutinized based on video recordings of them driving on the job.

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