Buses

Why the Government Was Wrong to Shutdown Fung Wah Bus Company

The iconic Chinatown bus service was destroyed by regulatory incompetence

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Fung Wah's former storefront, NYC.|||

Curbside bus travel is the fastest growing form of intercity transit in the U.S., thanks to a handful of immigrants from Fujian Province, China, who started their own bus companies in New York City's Chinatown in the late 1990s. These entrepreneurs reversed the long-distance bus industry's half-century-long decline. By charging low prices and picking up passengers right off the street (hence the term curbside), they demonstrated that it was possible to lure hoards of new customers. Established bus companies like Greyhound have responded by starting curbside companies of their own.

The visionary who deserves the most credit for the resurgence was Pei Lin Liang, a former noodle factory deliveryman who started an operation called Fung Wah in 1997. For travel between Boston and New York City, the company originally charged just $10—a price that drew so much business, it turned Fung Wah into a household name in those cities. It was especially popular among college students.

Fung Wah is now defunct. In March 2013, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) forced the company to cease operations, claiming it was an "imminent hazard to public safety." Journalists, many of whom are former Fung Wah customers, both mourned and applauded the news. In Gothamist, Rebecca Fishbein observed, "the feds might have saved the general public from the wretched grasp of Fung Wah's duct-taped bus fleet, but people are sad to see them go." Singer-songwriter Marc Philippe Eskanazi performed a tongue-in-cheek music video about Fung Wah that was produced and distributed by The New Yorker magazine. "I'll think of you always with nostalgia and fear," he sang.

Fung Wah customers actually have much to be nostalgic for and little to fear. Regulators could have shutdown Greyhound, or practically any bus company, on the same grounds they used to force Fung Wah out of business. And if saving lives is the whole idea, regulators should more logically prohibit intercity travel in passenger cars, while mandating travel in buses run by companies like Fung Wah. (The owner of Fung Wah declined to comment for this article, as did the company's longtime attorney, Michael Lam.)

The bus industry has been subject to an onslaught of new regulations in recent years—a reaction by government to a few tragic accidents that drew widespread media attention. While horrific accidents occur periodically, buses are not only orders of magnitude safer than passenger cars, they're safer than they've ever been thanks to engineering and manufacturing advances. There are about 34 fatal intercity bus accidents annually as compared to 23,000 fatal passenger car crashes. An unintended consequence of the regulatory onslaught is that higher ticket prices will lead fewer travelers to forgo their cars for the bus, making them far more likely to die on the highway. What safety-anxious parent would prefer their college offspring to catch a ride home in a car driven by a fellow student rather than take the bus?

The government initiative also fits the classic pattern in which regulation destroys politically weak businesses to the benefit of the politically stronglike Greyhound, Coach USA, and Peter Pan, which have seen their market share grow. Most of Fung Wah's employees and its owner were Chinese immigrants lacking the language skills and legal muscle required to navigate all the red tape. And Fung Wah is only the best-known victim of this onslaught. On May 31, 2012, the Federal Department of Transportation shutdown 26 bus companies in a single day, and since then it has forced an additional 15 closures. Many of those companies were owned by Chinese immigrants. The American Bus Association, a trade association that primarily represents the large corporate carriers, has cheered the government on.

Before looking at the series of vehicle inspections that led the government to shutter Fung Wah, let's first examine the company's much maligned record on the highway. I've compiled a table of every accident involving a Fung Wah bus using a federal database called the Motor Carrier Management Information System, which I've supplemented with press reports and information provided by transit agencies and police departments in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

When a bus service operates for 12 years (Fung Wah became an official bus operation in 2001) logging close to 3 million miles annually, there will inevitably be some accidents. There's no evidence that Fung Wah had an unusually high accident rate compared to other bus companies.

Fung Wah Accidents, 2001-2013 |||

Contrary to the claim that the company became more dangerous in its last few years, in the three-year period from 2010-2012 the company's buses didn't have a single accident. In its 12 years operating as an official bus service, the company wasn't involved in any fatal crashes—with the exception of a 2008 incident in which an out-of-control dump truck struck a parked Fung Wah bus, triggering a chain of events that led a pedestrian to have a fatal heart attack. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which a bus company could be less at fault.

There are two serious accidents in Fung Wah's history for which the company deserves blame. The first took place on August 16, 2005, when a New York-bound Fung Wah bus caught fire on I-91 near Meriden, Connecticut. All passengers evacuated before the flames spread and there were no injuries.

This incident tells us little about the overall safety of Fung Wah buses. "If your bus catches on fire, it doesn't mean it's in a state of disrepair; if you're diligent you can still catch on fire," says bus engineer Christopher Ferrone, who in 2008 was commissioned by regulators to study the causes of spontaneous bus fires.

Bus fires are a thorny problem for mechanics and engineers: There are about 160 fires annually, according to a 2012 government analysis, though the actual figure is thought to be much higher since most go unreported. Thankfully, 19 out of 20 reported bus fires don't result in injuries.

Fung Wah had one bus fire in 12 years. To demonstrate how unremarkable that is, over the past three years (the albeit much larger) Greyhound saw its buses catch fire in at least eight different cases, according to news accounts.

The other serious accident in which Fung Wah was at fault occurred on September 5, 2006, when a bus pulling off the highway in Auburn, Massachusetts hit the curb and rolled on its side. Thirty-four of the 57 passengers were taken to the hospital, although nobody was seriously injured.

This accident also says little about the company's overall safety. Fung Wah had one rollover in 12 years. In contrast, from 2005 to 2010, Greyhound had at least seven rollover incidents, according to news accounts.

Journalists repeatedly bring up and dramatize these accidents, which occurred over seven years ago, conjuring headlines like "Penny-Pinching Peril," or "We're a Lot Safer with Fung Wah Buses Off the Road." Fung Wah was a "rattletrap operation" that was "known for carrying shallow pocketed passengers," according to David Wescott writing in Bloomberg Businessweek. According to Adam Martin of New York—the magazine has published several anti-Fung Wah stories over the years—this "wacky-yet-lovable institution" was "even more dangerous than we already knew."

A recent item in College Humor titled "An Important Safety Message from Fung Wah Buses" mimics a company manager telling drivers in broken English that if a bus catches fire, "pull over at either the first sight of flames or the first smell of burning flesh, whichever comes later."

Imagine the press reaction if Fung Wah, not Greyhound, had made news for running a roach-infested bus. Or if it had been a Fung Wah bus, not a Greyhound, aboard which a man stabbed, beheaded, and consumed portions of his seatmate?

Fung Wah's drivers have a relatively good safety record, with four violations in the past two years.[*] Three out of four of those violations had little bearing on passenger safety. In one case, a driver was caught with an improperly formatted doctor's certificate testifying to his good health. Two drivers were cited for sub-par English language skills.

The remaining infraction is serious, though not to the degree that the official record reflects. On August 14, 2012, a Fung Wah driver was pulled over for speeding. The officer then issued the driver a citation for operating a bus without having been issued a commercial driver's license. According to information obtained from the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles, the officer actually caught the (licensed) Fung Wah driver not wearing his glasses and then mistakenly gave him the wrong type of citation. Unlicensed driving is considered is a far more serious offence by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. In the past two years, Greyhound drivers have been cited twice for operating a bus without having been issued a commercial vehicle license.

Fung Wah's real troubles began in February, when safety inspectors in Boston found multiple cracks in the frames of its buses during a series of inspections. "Not trivial stuff," said Ann Berwick, chair of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, which oversaw the inspections.

But these frame cracks were, for the most part, "trivial stuff." The inspectors who examined Fung Wah's fleet, Steve Boleyn and Dyann Prouty, placed 11 Fung Wah buses out of service because of frame cracks. What the two inspectors didn't seem to know is that all active tour buses have frame cracks. Because tour bus bodies are fabricated in one large metal piece, these cracks don't threaten the structural integrity of the vehicles. School buses, on the other hand, have assembled frames, so cracks need to be treated more seriously. Boleyn and Prouty seemed to be unaware of that distinction. (Boleyn and Prouty, through a DPU spokesperson, declined to be interviewed for this article.)

"Most frame cracks have no safety impact," says bus engineer Christopher Ferrone. "People that do a very good job of running their buses are getting wrongly impounded for frame cracks," he says. (Ferrone has no direct knowledge of Fung Wah's fleet.) He says that some cracks are beneficial because they relieve stress on the vehicle. Others should be "monitored or repaired," but generally are of "no safety consequence."

Bus safety experts have long been concerned that field inspectors overreact to frame cracks by taking vehicles out of service; while it's too late for Fung Wah, the closing of a major company because of frame cracks seems to have finally prodded them to take action.

Lieutenant Donald Bridge, Jr., is head of the Passenger Carrier Committee of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, which determines safety inspection criteria for commercial vehicles in all 50 states. One month after Fung Wah was shut down, Bridge says his committee began the process of rewriting the guidelines for field inspectors with the goal of "alleviating some of the misdiagnosed violations" stemming from frame cracks. (Bridge, who works closely with federal and state regulators, characterized bus inspectors overall as "awesome," and denied that it was Fung Wah's closure that directly led his committee to rewrite the guidelines.)

Cracks in some parts of a tour bus frame require more attention than in others. The cracks Boleyn and Prouty discovered in the drive axle area of Fung Wah's buses had been repaired, though not to their satisfaction. But the two inspectors may not be the best judges of what constitutes an adequate repair.

In Boleyn's vehicle examination reports, which I obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and have posted here, he repeatedly claims that the repairs were not appropriate according to a work procedure issued by the bus manufacturer Van Hool.

There's strong evidence that Boleyn was being overly literal in interpreting that document. The work procedure Boleyn consulted, WP449, was issued in April 2007. In April 2013, just one month after Boleyn used WP449 to take much of Fung Wah's fleet out of service, the procedure was revised and made less stringent—likely a reaction to his misreading of the 2007 document. (A representative with ABC Companies, which is the North American distributor for Van Hool buses, declined to comment.)

Fung Wah's Ticket Booth |||

Beyond the claim that Fung Wah's buses were in disrepair, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's shutdown order lists several internal procedures Fung Wah allegedly failed to comply with, such as failing to monitor their drivers' work schedules and their drug and alcohol testing. The rules governing internal procedures have become so stringent in recent years, an aggressive regulator might find similar fault with any bus company. The shutdown recites a series of offences, but lacks any specifics.

The most serious charge in the shutdown order is that Fung Wah drivers "made fraudulent or intentionally false entries" on the simple inspection forms they're required to fill out at the end of every shift. When asked how the FMCSA knows that Fung Wah drivers were knowingly committing fraud on these forms, agency spokesperson Duanne DeBruyne declined to comment.

The new regulatory regime that ensnared Fung Wah is in danger of bringing intercity busing back to what it was like for much of the 20th century, when a cartel of large companies (particularly Greyhound) dominated a declining industry. President Reagan deregulated busing in 1982. That made it possible for Pei Lin Liang and others to open their own companies and reinvent the business 15 years later. The new competition forced Greyhound and the other big carriers to relearn how to fight for customers; with all the shutdowns, they won't have to fight so hard.

[*] Only the past two years of driver and vehicle violations are available on the FMCSA website. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, I've asked for data for all 12 years of Fung Wah's service. Once I receive the information, I'll post an update on Hit & Run.

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56 responses to “Why the Government Was Wrong to Shutdown Fung Wah Bus Company

  1. One of these “chinese buses” (as they’re known around where I usedto live) made big news when it crashed. Then again, so did Miley Cyrus’ bus when it did pretty much the same thing.

    I don’t remember anyone saying that’s why Miley shouldn’t tour.

    1. I don’t remember anyone saying that’s why Miley shouldn’t tour.

      Only because there’s so many better reasons…

    2. my neighbor’s aunt makes $89/hr on the computer. She has been without a job for eight months but last month her payment was $20121 just working on the computer for a few hours. Go to this web site and read more WEP6.COM

  2. This is how government promotes mass transit and provides transportation options to the less affluent. Alternatively, this shows that the private sector cannot be trusted with transportation, which should be left to public authorities with spotless safety records, like WMATA.

    1. Or that efficient, safe, always on time Amtrak service.

      1. The big thing causing Amtrak scheduling trouble is that the rails proper are owned by the freight haulers, and their contracts require the cargo be given precedence over the passenger trains (I think the Acela line might be the exception to this) I’m not saying it’s well run, indeed, allowing such a disadvantageous contract clause to be left in for decades is a sign that there’s something amiss.

        1. …”indeed, allowing such a disadvantageous contract clause to be left in for decades is a sign that there’s something amiss.”

          If Amtrak had to lay its own rail, we wouldn’t have it.
          The taxpayers are only of average intelligence, but the cost for that would have meant all those rent-seekers on the NY/DC route would have to pay full-boat.

          1. Amtrak owns most of the track in the NE corridor, if I am not mistaken.

            1. The question of who owns the track on which Amtrak operates still doesn’t absolve the horrible service given by WMATA, whose subway lines have their own ROW.

              1. Oh, no doubt – all these agencies offer horrible service for reasons we all understand.

            2. Rhywun| 7.16.13 @ 10:45AM |#
              “Amtrak owns most of the track in the NE corridor, if I am not mistaken.”

              Yes, the NY(actually Boston)/DC ROW is theirs, or at least most of it. It was acquired through the bankruptcy of several carriers; i.e. bargain-basement costs. That’s the only stretch that could possibly be owned; it represents 25% of Amtrak’s revenue. By their reckoning, that stretch is ‘profitable’.
              Imagine the cost of paying for the rest of the country’s ROW with the remainder. I’m pretty sure no politico has enough ‘capital’ to push that cost on the taxpayers.

        2. But the freight hauling companies don’t set Amtrak’s schedules, Amtrak does. If the rights-of-way which currently exist can’t reliably meet the schedules that Amtrak promises then they should stop pretending otherwise.

  3. Given that the owners of the bus company were Chinese immigrants, they should have seen it was exactly like at home: If you bribe the right people, rules don’t apply to you, and they seem to start applying to the other guy even more harshly.

  4. “The Wing Kong exchange? The most dangerous cutthroat den of madmen in Chinatown? You can’t just waltz in and out of there like….”

  5. I’ve noticed very recently a trend toward using words like “shutdown” and “setup” as verbs. I use them as nouns only, and “shut down” and “set up” as verbs. Makes more sense that way. The bus line is shut down, and then you can complain about the shutdown. Later they can again be set up, and then you can admire the setup.

    1. is that like rob bert is a verb and robert is a noun…haha see what i did there?

  6. If they hadn’t hired the driver Som Ting Wong, they wouldn’t be in this situation.

    1. I thought the driver was called Ho Lee Fuk?

      1. Only after Wi Tu Low got fired.

  7. Whatever. Fung Wah has shown that cheap intercity bus travel is possible, so someone else will eventually come along and provide same.

    1. Until they get shut down.

    2. Will they? You going to invest time, effort and money into a business idea that has an extremely high likelihood of being shut down?

      1. Well, see, that’s the question faced by any biz anywhere. What’s the political climate going to be?

        So what reason do we have to think the political climate’s going to continue to be bad for bus lines? It was good for long enough that it paid for these guys to go in business. Maybe it’ll be another 30 yrs. before the next crackdown.

        1. Robert| 7.16.13 @ 2:29PM |#
          “Well, see, that’s the question faced by any biz anywhere. What’s the political climate going to be?”

          That’s fine, but the model that these guys used is now illegal.
          What “cheap intercity bus travel” are you proposing? And yes, I mean “you”; you are the one who blew off the shutdown and suggested it’s easy to start up again, right?
          OK, how easy? Given it’s so easy, what do YOU propose?

      2. Fung Wah has plenty of competitors – they always have. Sunshine and Lucky Star were the two original ones, then there were buses like Bolt and Mega, which are very cheap and very much thriving.

  8. I am reminded of the wildly excessive safety requirements imposed on train travel in the US but nowhere else. Trains are basically designed like tanks. They must endure head-on collisions within certain strict tolerances, as if those happen every day. One result for example is that NYC subway cars are two or three times heavier than they need to be, which has obvious impacts on cost.

  9. “Unexplained fires are a matter for the courts…”

  10. this “wacky-yet-lovable institution” was “even more dangerous than we already knew.”

    I wonder how much of this is ignorance, vs. straight-up racism.

    1. “I wonder how much of this is ignorance, vs. straight-up racism.”

      Dunno if you’re old enough to remember when ‘Made in Japan’ meant crummy. Well, ‘Made in China’ is the new ‘Made in Japan’. If you go to China, it’ll be obvious pretty quickly that the crap that gets the rep is that way because we pay that amount.

      1. I don’t think the buses are made in China, just the drivers.

        1. yeah those buses…totally korean

  11. So, after getting Fung Wah and others shut down, the rules get changed to be less onerous. I’d say that, for Greyhound and others, this seems very…convenient.

    1. The Church Lady agrees.

  12. Fung Wah should file a lawsuit against the FMCSA. If the report is based on falsified or incorrect data, then there’s got to be some legal basis for challenging the order.

  13. Fung Wah is now defunct. In March 2013, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) forced the company to cease operations, claiming it was an “imminent hazard to public safety.”

    Why?

    Follow
    The
    Money

  14. We’re told, for instance, that the TSA is a “highly dangerous job”. Could someone provide the number of TSA agents killed in the line of duty?

    1. You’d be in danger too if you were consuming all the food & drink confiscated not to mention the tools you experiment with.

      http://www.naturalnews.com/034…..urity.html

      http://infinitelegroom.com/201…..ted-items/

  15. And let’s not forget this gem:

    https://reason.com/24-7/2013/03…..ive-collea

  16. I really hate to be that guy, but nanny has a point here. I’m from Boston, and the Fung Wah bus was an absolute menace to society. If you were traveling down the Mass Pike and you saw a big white bus spewing black smoke and weaving in and out of its lane, you didn’t even have to drive up close to know it was the FWB. They were notorious for being involved in hit and runs and failing to report incidents to the police except when it couldn’t be hidden (I.e. when the bus rolled over or caught fire), hence the misleading “excellent safety record” cited in the article. That and the fact that even Masshole drivers learned to give them a WIDE berth.

    1. Yeah I’m sure a large bus filled with witnesses got away with dozens of unreported hit and runs…

      1. I could easily believe that. The witnesses have an interest in collaborating with the driver in keeping such incidents unreported, because the passengers know they’re at little risk in collision with smaller vehicles, and are benefiting by cheap service on a regular basis. It’s like if you knew the auto shop you frequented gave you better prices because they used stolen parts. “We cheat the other guy and pass the savings on to you.”

      2. The culture among recent Chinese immigrants is not to report anything to the police (police in China simply show up and extort money from you). This is why organized crime is so powerful in Chinatowns. They may also have had an “inside man,” which is the only reason I can think of why they were allowed to operate as long as they did.

        I can also attest to the fact that driving into Boston every single weekday for years, that Fung Wah Bus had an awfully hard time staying within its own lane, and rarely had any other cars within 100 feet of it.

        1. “(police in China simply show up and extort money from you).”

          You mean you can pay the cops in China not to shoot your dog? That’d be awesome.

          “They may also have had an “inside man,” which is the only reason I can think of why they were allowed to operate as long as they did.”

          Or perhaps they did not have an inside man, and Greyhound does. Or perhaps they didn’t have nearly as many problems as you think they did.

    2. So then Jim Epstein ignored a class of info in his research, i.e. anecdote. I have to concede that for all it’s denigrated, sometimes anecdote provides more accurate info than official stats. Whether that’s the case here, I don’t know, but it could be that enforcement looks unfair because of the stats but was based unofficially on anecdote.

      1. I heard somewhere you’re a moron.

    3. How do you hide a hit and run when the cause is big bus traveling at a known place and time and driven by a known company? That just sounds… far-fetched.

    4. Ray| 7.16.13 @ 1:24PM |#
      “I really hate to be that guy,..”

      Well, you’d do better if you had a point.
      Let’s say the buses are so bad that even Mass drivers avoid them; and the cops never notice?
      Sorry; if they’re driving recklessly, the solution is to cite them. Enough of those and either it fixes itself or they go broke.
      Fail.

      1. They were cited, repeatedly, and they changed absolutely nothing.

  17. Comparisons of incident numbers are made between Fung Wah and Greyhound, these should have been cited in percentages since Greyhound operates a vastly larger network than Fung Wah.

    Statistics comparing car and bus accidents should have also been cited in percentages. Of course 34:23,000 sounds like a huge gap, but we all know the ratio of intercity bus to private car trips is not 1:1. The article also fails to distinguish wether those 23,000 fatal car accidents are intercity trips or local urban trips.

    Why did Van Hool refuse comment and not back up the claim by the article’s author that the inspectors mis-interpreted their maintenance procedure? Van Hool wants to sell buses to any company so it’s in their best interest to make such a statement, if it were true.

    Fung Wah failed to adequately monitor their employees work schedules and do alcohol and drug testing – yet this is written off because you could find these problems at any company. Just because these problems might be found elsewhere, does that mean they aren’t problems?

    Read the shutdown order for yourself, specifically Section IV (page 6) that outlines the requirements Fung Wah needs to meet in order to be permitted to resume operations. This list is not particularly long or unreasonable, and contains courses of action we would expect from any transportation operator, be it land, sea, or air.

    1. “This list is not particularly long or unreasonable, and contains courses of action we would expect from any transportation operator, be it land, sea, or air.”

      I see a WHOLE LOT of innuendo, claims absent evidence and then the statement quoted; it’s just ‘reasonable’, right?
      Sniff, sniff; what is your incentive? It stinks.

  18. “There are about 34 fatal intercity bus accidents annually as compared to 23,000 fatal passenger car crashes.”

    I dislike it when people use stats like these to make their case. The only way this can be relevant is by breaking it down to miles traveled per person. It’s like when people say airline travel is safest but never control for the fact that far more people travel by car. When comparing deaths per mile (as opposed to mindlessly stating a lot less Americans died in plane crashes than car crashes) the risk of death by flying and driving are actually about equal.

    To be clear I’m not defending the shut down of FWB, and I hate Government intervention as much or more than using bogus statistics to make a point.

  19. “And if saving lives is the whole idea, regulators should more logically prohibit intercity travel in passenger cars”

    Not to worry, sooner or later they will. And they’ll probably cite your statement in support of the initiative. Something along the lines of: “Even right wing libertarian Jim Epstein advocates banning long distance automobile travel.”

  20. “There are about 34 fatal intercity bus accidents annually as compared to 23,000 fatal passenger car crashes.”

    A lot more people get sunburn during the day than at night, too.

  21. Anyone else try to figure out the joke until they realized that it was an actual bus company name?

  22. If Fung Wah was so safe, why did I get that little chill every time I saw on of their busses coming up behind me. In my extensive experience sharing the road with their busses, Fung Wah had the worst drivers and were most likely to tailgate and bully in traffic. I saw a lot of their busses daily and I can’t remember one that wasn’t driven aggressively. Nor one of their busses that didn’t seem to have dents on their bumpers from previous encounters. Frankly I won’t miss them or, for that matter any of the other casino bus operators.

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