The Fung Wah bus company, which has a history of crashes and other safety problems, has taken almost its entire fleet off the road following inspections by the state Department of Public Utilities that found cracks in the frames of many of the company’s aging buses.
The department is asking the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to shut down the low-cost carrier until it fixes safety problems found in the state inspections. The DPU does not have that authority.
In a letter to the federal agency, state officials said Fung Wah does not understand basic safety requirements and is “currently incapable of maintaining a fleet of motor coaches.”
“We’re recommending that they deem this to be an imminent hazard, which would mean that they would shut down the company until the problems were addressed to the satisfaction of the federal Department of Transportation,” Ann Berwick, chairwoman of the state Department of Public Utilities, said in an interview.
Fung Wah, based in Boston, is running reduced service to and from New York, primarily by using charter buses.
A spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a division of the Department of Transportation, confirmed it had received a letter from Berwick but declined to comment. Fung Wah would not comment, either.
Fung Wah, which offers Boston-New York tickets for as little as $15, pioneered low-cost bus service on the route, helping to drive down prices and spurring the entry of several other low-cost carriers into the market. But the company has come under intense scrutiny for safety violations.
Last month, one of its buses hit two pedestrians in Manhattan, according to news reports. In 2007, a Fung Wah bus crashed into a guardrail at the Allston-Brighton tolls, and a driver trying to change lanes wedged a bus atop a concrete barrier at the Weston toll booths. In 2006, a Boston-bound coach rolled over while rounding an interstate ramp, slightly injuring 34 passengers, and in 2005, one of its buses caught fire on a highway in Connecticut.
Fung Wah buses have been cited for 159 maintenance violations in the past two years, including 23 instances of cracked, loose, or broken frames, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Its drivers are ranked in the bottom 3 percent of drivers nationwide, based on experience and training.
Drivers have racked up a dozen speeding violations in the past two years and been cited six times for failure to speak English or operating without a commercial driver’s license, according to federal regulators.
State inspectors first discovered cracks in steering axles, motor mounts, engine cradles, and other locations in Fung Wah bus frames during a random inspection on Feb. 7.
Inspectors returned over the next few weeks and found similar problems in additional buses.
After talking to the distributor for the buses, manufactured by the Belgian company Van Hool, the DPU asked Fung Wah to take 21 buses built before 2005 off the road. Fung Wah has about 28 buses in its fleet.
Cracks in frames are not uncommon for older buses, the distributor told the DPU, but it is uncommon for one fleet to have so many older buses. These types of cracks can create major safety issues, Berwick said, including causing the driver to lose control of the steering. “Not trivial stuff,” she said.
Fung Wah voluntarily took the buses out of service on Saturday evening and started running the charter buses in their place, reducing its level of service between Boston and New York, said Stephen Squibb, general manager of South Station, from which Fung Wah operates. The Department of Public Utilities has never asked a carrier to pull that many buses out of service, Berwick said.
The DPU’s letter to federal authorities stated that Fung Wah’s attempted repairs since the initial inspections “appear to be substandard because the welds have not been completed and/or have failed and the cracks appear to be larger than they were when the buses were initially inspected.”
Fung Wah is sending the buses to the distributor, ABC Cos., in Camden, N.J., for further analysis.
One of Fung Wah’s 28 buses was already out of service before the inspections began; the department has not inspected the remaining six buses.