An axel falls off. A bus catches fire. Scary as hell? Or just par for the course when you get a New York to Boston fare for just $10? How much are you willing to risk to get a really, really cheap ticket?
When I lived in New York, I was a “frequent flyer” on the ultra-cheap bus services connecting Boston and New York, including Fung Wah and Lucky Star. Ferrying frugal commuters up and down I-95 for as low as $10 each way, there has never been a shortage of passengers for these low-cost bus lines.
In fact, new services are sprouting up not just in the Northeast, but nationwide. Megabus is a U.K. company that is now selling U.S. intercity bus fares for as little as $1 each way when booked in advance. (The fares will go up as seats fill).
Though competition from Megabus, Greyhound and others is forcing some changes in the cheap bus industry, when I was riding Fung Wah the buses were truly “no frills”. The buses loaded an unloaded on street corners in Chinatown.
There were no guaranteed seats and no lines; just a mob of passengers desperate to get a cheap ride home. There were times I felt like I was in a hungry mob, scrambling for a few morsels of food, just to get a seat. There were other times I didn’t get a seat and gave up on making it home for a weekend.
Still, people line up to ride. After all, it’s only $10.
And that’s not surprising when the alternatives – Amtrak or airline shuttles – can cost $100 or more each way.
But such cheap fares beg the question: How can these companies afford to operate, and what costs are they cutting to stay profitable?
As Fung Wah’s safety record shows, the company is definitely cutting corners, and I don’t mean by eliminating the plasma TVs in driver break rooms.
In September 2006 a Fung Wah bus rolled over, injuring 34 passengers in Auburn, MA; just one of several incidents on the $10-a-trip bus line that drew heavy criticism from the local media. But the stories don’t end there. While there was media coverage of speeding tickets, failed safety inspections, and a Fung Wah bus that burst into flames, plenty of scary stuff happened on my trips that went unreported.
There was the late night run to New York with a driver who was falling asleep, occasionally veering onto the rumble strips.
There was the driver who stopped to fuel the bus only to have to ask a passenger how to operate the gas pump.
There was the driver who took the entire bus at least 45 minutes out of its way to stop in Providence, RI to talk to somebody for five minutes.
And then, my favorite, the time our bus’ axel snapped off on the middle of the highway. We pulled over and were ordered to get out of the bus and stand on the side of the Mass Turnpike for over 2 hours while the driver spoke in Chinese and broken English on his cell phone. The conversation, however, was clear: his boss wanted him to “keep driving”. The poor driver could not get through that the bus simply was not drivable.
When a new bus finally picked us up, we were on our way again, only to run out of gas two hours later, and wait on the side of a (now dark) highway for yet another bus to pick us up.
That trip was the last straw for me. I stopped taking the $10 buses, but then realized I couldn’t afford to go back and forth between my job in New York and my family, friends, and girlfriend in Boston, so I moved back to Massachusetts.
Have you ever done something really cheaply to save money only to later have concerns it was unsafe? Are you willing to sacrifice safety to save a few bucks? What about convenience? How much are you willing to pay for reliability, whether it’s a bus fare, airfare, or a physical product?
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