Long-distance buses: Cheap, yes, but are they safe?

You see them every day zooming along I-95. Buses, crammed with folks heading from New York City to Boston and back. They carry exotic names such as Fung Wah and BoltBus. And they’re the hottest thing in interstate transportation these days because they’re also the cheapest. But the recent spate of deadly accidents involving these buses also leaves us wondering: Is low cost also high risk?

The New York-to-Boston corridor is one of the most heavily traveled in the nation. The air shuttles alone carry more than 700,000 passengers a year at a one-way walk-up fare of $359 (first class seats are $24 additional) for the seldom-on-time, 75- minute flight.

Amtrak is enjoying record growth in recent months, with ridership up almost 10% on the Boston-New York line. Mind you, the rail journey runs four hours and 15 minutes (3.5 hours on Acela) and costs $49 one way ($99 on Acela). But hey, it’s a train — virtually immune to the weather and traffic.

If you look at the 220-mile trip by car, assuming 28 miles to a $3.70 gallon of gas, the trip would cost you about $30 one-way, not including tolls and stress. Assuming two passengers, that’s almost 16 passenger-miles per gallon.

Compare that to 39 passenger-miles per gallon by train, 42 passenger-miles per gallon by air or 184 passenger-miles per gallon on the bus (according to the American Bus Assoc.). Which do you think is the greenest?

There’s no doubt which is the cheapest. Fung Wah (Chinese for magnificent wind) charges just $15 one way between New York and Boston. The Lucky Star bus is also $15 bus also offers free Wi-Fi (all fares quoted based on a Friday to Sunday round-trip booked online two weeks in advance). And departures are every hour. Of course, you do leave from the streets of Manhattan, not the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which may be part of the attraction.

What you get for your low fare is a seat, first-come first-served. And one comfort stop en route (in Lucky Star’s case, the Burger King in Vernon, Conn., where you may also board or leave the bus). All of these buses allow passengers to bring at least one suitcase and a carry-on for free, compared to the airlines that whack you $25 for checked luggage.

The BoltBus, a division of Greyhound, leaves from 34th Street and 8th Avenue. It charges $17 and also offers free wireless Internet en route so you may e-mail your friends about how slow the traffic is crawling through Norwalk on I-95. You may also “Bolt” from New York City to Philly, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Peter Pan is $15 one way from Hartford to New York or Boston. But for an extra $5 you may board first and grab your favorite seat.

Megabus, a subsidiary of Coach USA, charges $24 one way, offers double-deck coaches on some runs and also offers Wi-Fi and free movies. Its runs stretch from Boston to Canada to the Midwest. Also in the running, Sunshine ($15) and Boston Deluxe ($15), which also stops in Hartford.

On the upscale end of bus service is LimoLiner ($69 one way) which runs between the Hilton Hotels in the city and Boston. This bus offers two and one seating, more legroom between comfy leather chairs, free Wi-Fi and a movie, satellite TV and radio as well as an on-board stewardess.

The Fung Wah line is the oldest, running since 1998, but also the riskiest. Its buses have been involved in numerous accidents and its drivers are ranked in the worst 2% nationally by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. But hey, what do you expect for $15?

Though you’ll see them plying our interstates day and night, few of these buses serve Connecticut riders. We’re in the equivalent of “fly-over country” for these bus services compared to Amtrak, which stops in Stamford, Bridgeport, New Haven, Old Saybrook, New London and Mystic.

But if the bus wars continue, there’s no reason to think we in the Nutmeg State won’t eventually be offered such service. Meantime, when you see the next Fung Wah or BoltBus come flying along, give a wave to your future. And be sure to see if the driver looks like he’s awake.

 

Jim Cameron is chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council and a member of the Coastal Corridor Transportation Investment Area, but the opinions expressed here are his own. You may reach him at [email protected] or trainweb.org/ct.

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