"I would say people take the Chinatown bus from D.C. rather than the Greyhound," John Lippert, waiting on a D.C. corner to catch his first discount bus, told United Press International.
"Hopefully it's going to work out all right," he added in anticipation.
Judging from the number of luggage-bearing young people milling around all four corners of the intersection where Lippert was waiting, plenty of customers seem to think the discount buses work just fine.
For many of them "just fine" does not mean perfectly.
"The bus I came down on was horrendously late," Carol Lim told UPI.
Lim, who was visiting on vacation from Singapore, said she didn't mind the delay. After all, she knew she was paying about half of what she would to ride a full-price bus line and as little as one-fifth of what she would have to pay for a train ticket.
In fact, the bus Lim and Lippert were set to ride this particular day never came to the unmarked corner where they had been instructed to wait. After a worried customer called the bus line, Dragon Coach, the crowd learned the pick-up point had been moved several blocks east and the departure time had been pushed back by at least half an hour.
The bus arrived about forty-five minutes behind schedule and travelers loaded their luggage and boarded. Lim translated ticket questions for the driver, who didn't speak English.
Finally, about an hour late, the bus left for New York City.
The burgeoning Chinatown bus industry isn't winning its customers with high-end service, but it is winning them. What began a decade ago as a van service to help Chinese immigrants reach jobs outside of New York City has since grown to include large fleets of full-size buses ferrying customers between major cities from Boston to Washington D.C.
While the bus lines' traditional Chinese clientele is still present, their customer base has grown to include students, young people and others from all backgrounds.
The draw is the prices, which are almost inconceivably low. This correspondent's round-trip ticket from Washington to New York cost $35, and even that is an increase from earlier fare-war rates.
Trips from New York to Boston cost a rock-bottom $10 each way.
Despite their popularity, Peter Pantuso, President of the American Bus Association, told UPI the discount carriers are "not only cutting into to the business, but they're destroying the market structure and the fare structure."
The discount carriers avoid fees associated with public bus stations like Port Authority and the costs of maintaining private terminals by picking up and dropping off passengers on the street. The disadvantages of that approach are clear -- especially when it's raining -- but plenty of passengers have shown themselves willing to make the sacrifice.
Other savings are more controversial.
"I don't think they're following the federal Americans with Disabilities Act requirements," Pantuso said. Those requirements call for lifts and other measures to make buses accessible.
Pantuso and others have raised further concerns about the maintenance of discount-carriers' buses and the qualifications and working standards of their drivers. A February raid by New York police resulted in 16 buses being seized for safety and other violations.
Jimmy Chen, however, who owns an Internet booking service used by several discount bus lines said claims of safety violations are largely unfounded.
"They have to follow certain standards of the transportation department otherwise their licenses will be suspended," Chen said. "They have to follow certain standards to get their bus service insured."
Inspection Selection System ratings, which guide government safety inspectors in deciding which buses should be inspected, are consistently better for full-price bus services. The ratings are based on crash history, driver history and safety management experience. The ratings are given along a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being the most in need of safety inspection.
Greyhound Lines has a rating of 35, which puts it in the "pass" category, meaning no inspection is required. Peter Pan Bus Lines currently has an even better rating of 30.
The discount lines do not rate nearly so well.
Dragon Coach, which this correspondent rode to New York has a rating of 73, making its buses "optional" to authorities for roadside inspection. Fung Wah, one of the largest discount bus lines with service mainly between New York and Boston has an inspection rating of 98, putting its buses at the highest priority for inspection.
Still, plenty of customers are willing to assume the potential safety risk in exchange for a major price cut.
The Dragon Coach bus didn't show up in New York until 10:45 PM, around two hours late from its tentative arrival time, but none of the exiting passengers complained.
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