WASHINGTON - Some of those sleek, modern buses that pass between East Coast cities may be operated by sleepy, untrained drivers and running on bad tires and worn-out brakes, federal officials said Thursday as they ordered about 30 of the vehicles off the road.
The crackdown targeted three companies that operate under some two dozen names, carrying about 1,800 passengers a day along the Interstate 95 corridor between New York and Florida.
Authorities said the companies have evaded past federal efforts by playing a common trick: the shell game. Whenever they were shut down, the companies resumed business under another name.
“They’ve slapped another name on the side of the bus and started driving again,’’ said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “These buses are not on the road today, and we’re going to focus like a laser beam in making sure they don’t get back on the road.’’
Not among the well-known carriers such as BoltBus or Vamoose, they have been called “ghost’’ companies because their buses often are stark white, unadorned by brand names.
Nationwide, bus companies rival the airlines in carrying about 700,000 passengers a year, and their fares often are far less than the cost of gas and tolls for trips between major cities.
A dispatcher for one company is scheduled for trial this year in connection with a Virginia crash that killed four people and injured 54. A bus overturned north of Richmond last year after the dispatcher allegedly ordered a driver who complained that he was tired to head back on the road.
The company that operated that bus, SkyExpress, reportedly had been cited for driver fatigue 46 times in the two previous years. It was ordered shut down after the fatal accident, but authorities said it resumed operation under two other names within days.
The federal action was described as the culmination of a yearlong investigation of the companies. The announcement came seven months after a National Transportation Safety Board report that said curbside companies were five times more likely to be involved in fatal accidents than conventional intercity bus service companies. In 2009, 221 people died and 10,000 were injured in bus crashes.
The NTSB said the surge in intercity bus services since 2005 had overwhelmed state and federal inspectors: 2,327 safety inspectors were responsible for 53,097 buses.
“With these actions today, the DOT and its state partners are telling bus operators to put safety first or get put out of business,’’ said safety board chairwoman Deborah Hersman. “We’ve seen the tragic results of rogue operators too many times in our investigations.’’
The crackdown was welcomed by the American Bus Association, whose membership includes many companies that are in compliance with federal regulations.
“It’s good for all of the traveling public because it means that people will not be riding these unsafe companies,’’ said bus association president Peter Pantuso.
Pantuso said the illegal buses pulled up to known curbside locations where passengers congregated awaiting legitimate curbside operators, and they didn’t offer discounted seats.
The shutdown orders named three companies - Apex Bus, I-95 Coach, and New Century Travel - that each operated a network of other bus companies.