Attracted by rock-bottom fares of $30 a round trip, Richmond's college students, big city aficionados and penny-pinching retirees often went to a nondescript parking lot near Brook and Parham roads to board a "Chinatown" bus that would whisk them to lower Manhattan in a little more than five hours.
Just over a year ago, however, one such bus hustling all night from Greensboro, N.C., to New York flipped on its side south of Fredericksburg, killing four people and injuring 50. Investigators blamed an overly tired driver and an overly ambitious bus dispatcher. After a year-long probe, the U.S. Department of Transportation has shuttered 26 business entities in five states associated with the Chinatown bus system, including Apex Bus Inc., which runs the Richmond-Big Apple route.
Federal investigators say that Apex and out-of-business Sky Express Inc., involved in last year's wreck, racked up numerous safety violations, including using drivers without commercial licenses, requiring them to drive excessive hours and not maintaining equipment. Once challenged, the companies "evaded enforcement by 'reincarnating' into other forms," according to the Department of Transportation. Telephone calls to Apex went unanswered.
The demise of the Chinatown bus service raises questions about Richmond's access to inter-city transportation. The area is handled by another low-cost bus carrier, Chicago-based Megabus. "We're in operation, we're not Chinatown," a spokeswoman says, although the company doesn't offer service from Richmond to New York without a transfer. But a round trip to New York, with a transfer in Philadelphia, is around $32.
Getting there by other means is problematic. Amtrak offers expanded routes from its Staples Mill Road station to New York, but it costs roughly $250 per round trip. Richmond International Airport offers 17 flights to New York, but they cost about $500 round trip, not including New York area cab fares that can add $90 or more.
George Hoffer, an economics professor at the University of Richmond, says he believes another low cost carrier soon should fill the Chinatown bus's shoes. Costs of entry are "virtually free," he says, because the industry was deregulated 30 years ago. Equipment is cheap and standardized, he says, although safety requirements remain. Hoffer says Megabus.com, the express bus company that offers fares starting at $1, had a healthy record of 11,000 Richmond passengers in April. If the feds can improve safety, he says, low cost bus service will expand, although it might cost a little more.