WHEN BUS DRIVER Trulio Arias stopped at the National Constitution Center in Center City yesterday morning to drop off 36 Chinese tourists, he figured he'd have a quiet hour to himself before he retrieved them and headed to New York City, their next stop.
Instead, Arias became the surprise star of a news conference held by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to announce a national blitz of bus inspections. As TV cameras recorded and the Chinese tourists waited nearby, city police inspected Arias' bus and ordered it out of service until a mechanic could arrive to replace a well-worn rear tire.
A broad two-week crackdown on inter-city charters and vans.
Chinatown buses are known for a lot of things – their bare-bones service, their close quarters, their appeal for anyone who doesn't possess Amtrak-caliber cash. They are not, on the other hand, known for their regulatory rigor.
If you board one in the next two weeks, though, you may be in for some serious transportation-safety theater. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration announced this week that it's rolling out a "strike force" of surprise inspections on intercity bus travel in all 50 states (with emphasis on what they suspect are the shadier operations). Law enforcement officers and commercial motor vehicle inspectors will be popping up, unannounced, at terminals and drop-off points to board buses and pick over everything from windshield wiper fluid to tire pressure.
Vehicles caught violating safety standards, warns FMCSA head Anne Ferro, "will be put out-of-service on the spot and not allowed to continue."
The agency actually did this earlier this week in Philadelphia for the benefit of the media in unveiling the effort. As Philly.com described the awkward scene:
So what happens to you if you've got a ticket for one of these suddenly decomissioned buses? Good news: Federal law has actually anticipated this scenario. As the agency tells us:
Consumers who bought a ticket on a bus company that FMCSA has recently placed out-of-service may be entitled to a credit from their credit card company under the Fair Credit Billing Act if they paid for the ticket by credit card.
Pay for it by debit card or cash, though, and you're out of luck. For the rest of you, the FMCSA will helpfully refer you here.
Top image: Flickr user Elvert Barnes