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Ratings signal warning for fast-growing Fung Wah

Bus line officials say they are addressing problems

A major discount bus carrier that shuttles passengers between Boston and New York rates significantly worse than the national average on two of three federal safety rankings, but state regulators say the bus line is safe.

Fung Wah Bus Transportation Inc., which had one of its buses burst into flames two weeks ago on a Connecticut highway just moments after passengers escaped, said it has run into some safety issues because it has been growing so fast, but it is now fixing any problems.

The company has risk ratings on driver safety and safety management that are close to the point that could trigger a federal investigation.

Fung Wah has a driver risk rating of 73. On the scale, 100 is the worst; 75 or above is considered at risk of being unsafe and can lead to an investigation.

Lucky River Transportation Corp., another low-cost carrier that runs the same Boston-New York route, has a driver risk rating of 74, according to ratings issued in July by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Boston-based Kristine Travel & Tours Inc., another lower-cost carrier that used to run between Boston and New York under the name Travel Pack, had a driver risk rating of 97, one of the worst in the country.

It is not under investigation, federal officials say.

On the driver risk rating, the national average is 24. Among the higher-priced competitors, Greyhound scored 22, and Peter Pan Bus Lines rated 58.

The ratings, which are updated monthly and cover the previous 30 months, are based on drivers' records, including the number of traffic tickets and the number of times their logs show they spent too much time behind the wheel.

A score of 80 means that about 80 percent of carriers had better driver-safety records.

Federal regulators compile and monitor two other ratings:

Safety management risk, which is based on a company's record of violations and enforcement actions: The national average is 29, Fung Wah's score is 71, and Kristine Travel's is 97. There are not enough data to rate Lucky River, Peter Pan, or Greyhound.

Vehicle risk, which includes inspections, performance, and compliance: The national average is 23, Fung Wah's score is 9, Kristine Travel's is 8, Peter Pan's is 4, and Greyhound's is 16. Lucky River, which under the name Lucky Star has offered Boston-New York service since May, has not been rated yet on vehicle safety.

State regulators say Fung Wah and Lucky River are safe, citing the companies' vehicle maintenance records, the results of regular state inspections, and the companies' willingness to be properly certified. Officials at the state Department of Telecommunications and Energy, which oversees all passenger buses, say the companies are responsive to inspectors and make recommended repairs quickly, often the same day.

''The idea that because the ticket price is low that therefore the carrier is unsafe is not fair," said Brian Cristy, head of the department's Transportation Division.

Critics of the discount bus carriers, known by many passengers simply as ''the Chinatown buses," have long accused them of cutting corners in order to offer low fares. Fung Wah charges $15 each way between Boston and New York, up from $10 two years ago. Lucky River also offers the $15 one-way fare. Peter Pan and Greyhound list online specials of $18 each way, but their standard fares range from $30 to $35 one way.

The Fung Wah fire and a similar incident involving another carrier in December prompted US Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, to call last week for more oversight of discount bus companies. Citing the federal safety statistics, Schumer said in a statement that he is urging regulators to conduct more surprise inspections, to require carriers to display safety ratings onboard buses, and to ensure that no unsafe buses get on the roads.

In March, a Travel Pack bus burst into flames on the Massachusetts Turnpike, and the passengers escaped uninjured. Travel Pack has since stopped its low-cost passenger service between Boston and New York and limited its business to charter travel.

Fung Wah officials attribute any safety issues on the company's rapid expansion and said safety is a paramount concern that they are addressing. During the past few months, Fung Wah has replaced its entire staff of 23 drivers, and in recent weeks, the company enlisted the help of state inspectors in conducting comprehensive driver training.

''When a small company grows so fast, sometimes it gets a little off," Fung Wah spokeswoman Mona Louis said last week.

Fung Wah is one of the oldest and largest of the Chinatown bus carriers. It was started in 1997 by Pei Lin Liang, a noodle factory deliveryman in New York City who emigrated from China 12 years earlier.

Liang, 43, borrowed $60,000 from relatives to buy four vans and started shuttling Chinese immigrants between Brooklyn and Chinatown in New York. Competition was too fierce, though, and Liang decided a year later to obtain a federal passenger-carrier permit and begin van service to Boston.

He says he thought Chinese immigrants with children attending colleges in the Hub could probably use a low-cost alternative to Greyhound and other established bus carriers. ''I really wanted to provide a service to people who don't speak English," Liang said through an interpreter at Fung Wah's cavernous office in Boston's Chinatown.

He began with one trip a day, but within months, he was up to three. In 1999, Liang borrowed more money and bought several passenger buses.

Liang trained as a mechanic and did most of the minor bus maintenance himself. As his fleet grew, he hired more mechanics, and two years ago, he said, he hired a special contractor to help with maintenance, an experienced mechanic with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Fung Wah soon became one of the best bargains in Boston, an option for hip, budget-conscious travelers. Passengers could purchase a then-$25 ticket in a Boston Chinatown storefront, where someone would direct them, usually in broken English, to a spot on the street outside to catch the bus.

'' 'Over there.' That's all they'd say," recalled Melissa Donovan, a New York filmmaker who once contemplated doing a documentary on the company.

The company now has 21 buses and runs 18 round-trips a day, seven days a week.

But with increasing popularity came a slew of problems. Chinatown residents and business owners complained about idling buses. Police began ticketing the buses regularly, and the company racked up thousands in fines before moving last year to a berth at South Station.

The company also drew increased scrutiny from federal authorities, who formed a task force in 2003 and hired a Cantonese-speaking inspector to check on Fung Wah and other Chinatown bus companies.

Fung Wah has paid $19,680 in fines since October 2003 for infractions, including three violations for failing to test its drivers for illegal drugs and alcohol, according to federal records. It has not received a violation since March 2004. In some cases, federal officials say, Fung Wah officials' limited English skills contributed to paperwork oversights that led to some of the violations.

''For the most part, the carriers stepped up to the plate," said James Lewis, spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. ''They responded and showed us that they were earnest about wanting to run legitimately."

Last year, Greyhound and Peter Pan Bus Lines sued Fung Wah, accusing it of not being properly permitted. The suit was dropped after the permit paperwork was cleared up.

Through all the problems, Liang repeatedly considered giving up because of the stress. He spends only three or four nights a week with his wife and three children in their two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. The rest of the time he's in Boston, supervising a staff of about 40, or on the road, driving a bus.

On Aug. 16, Liang was walking down a Chinatown street in New York, on his way to see his attorney, when his cellphone rang. A staff member at the New York ticket counter told him a driver had reported smoke coming from a bus en route from Boston. Liang rushed to get another bus and drove to the scene on Interstate 91 in Meriden, Conn. He was not prepared for what he found.

''It was unbelievable," he recalled.

The passengers had escaped only moments before the smoke turned into flames that shot high in the air and left the bus a charred mess. Liang, who arrived about 6 p.m., herded the passengers onto the other bus and instructed the driver to take them and their smoky, water-logged bags to New York.

Several passengers said that when they reached Chinatown in New York, they received little help or information.

Louis, who was inside the ticket office, said staff members did not speak English well enough to comfort the crowd. She said they hid from passengers at one point, afraid and not knowing what to do.

Louis said she and Liang have been working tirelessly since then, trying to address insurance investigators' needs, dealing with more inspections -- which turned up only minor violations -- and instituting the comprehensive driver training.

''We're just trying to do our best," she said. ''But sometimes, we're misunderstood."

On a four-hour trip from New York to Boston on a recent Friday night, a Fung Wah bus hurtled down highways in Connecticut and Massachusetts, reaching 80 miles per hour on several occasions.

A bathroom on the bus had no light and no doorknob -- a piece of wire strung through the doorknob hole held the door shut.

The motor sounded like an overworked propeller.

Still, passengers said they would continue to take Fung Wah.

''With all the other things that can happen, with terrorism and that, I figure it's not a big deal," said Ann Sweeney, a social worker in Boston who heard about the low-cost buses from her 29-year-old son in New York.

''You can't worry about everything," she said. ''Besides, I figure they're going to do more inspections now."

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com. Mac Daniel can be reached at mdaniel@globe.com.

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