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City scope: missing the bus

Rong Xiaoqing in New York

 

When Fung Wah - the intercity bus company based in New York's Chinatown that ran services between Manhattan and Boston - ceased operations recently, New Yorkers leapt to express their sorrow. Musician Marc Philippe Eskenazi even wrote a parody of Bob Dylan's classic Farewell Angelina, singing "Farewell, Fung Wah, I'll think of you always with nostalgia and fear; your engines may be crazy but they still got me there."

And it would have got him there for a mere US$15, a frac-tion of the price charged by Greyhound, the best-known United States bus line, and barely enough for a sandwich and a Coke on a train or plane. The price guaranteed hundreds of thousands of loyal passengers, despite the poor condition of the buses themselves and often shoddy service.

Fung Wah was shut down in March, after it was discovered its fleets were poorly maintained and its drivers were not being tested for alcohol or drugs.

It became, in fact, one of many casualties of a clampdown on low-fare intercity operators in Chinatown in the past two years. Founded in 1997 by Guangdong immigrant Liang Peilin, however, it was the oldest such company and its inception triggered a boom in the sector. Even now, there are some 30 companies running more than 200 low-fare routes connecting Chinatown with almost the entire east coast of the US.

The going has never been smooth: due to the level of competition, there have been price wars, physical fights and even shootings. At other times the companies have stood together to fight bigger fish muscling in on their territory.

Every now and then, however, accidents have brought unwelcome scrutiny. The turning point came in 2011, when a Chinatown bus crashed on a highway, killing 15 passengers. Since then, the authorities have conducted hundreds of raids, pulled buses off the road and shut down unscrupulous companies. New York State has also introduced stricter regulations.

Right after Fung Wah fell, Yo! Bus, a joint operation between Greyhound and Peter Pan Bus, stepped in to pick up its Boston route. And Chinese bus company Lucky Star has hired many of Fung Wah's drivers. Life seems to be back to normal; but with increased regulatory scrutiny, the days of US$15 fares may be numbered.

 

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