The Toronto-bound double-decker Megabus that left Philadelphia the night of Sept. 10 would never reach its destination, slamming instead into a railroad bridge near Syracuse, N.Y., nearly three feet too low for the bus to clear.
Four of the 28 passengers would die, and 20 others would be injured along with the driver, in a trip that went disturbingly wrong for reasons investigators still are trying to determine.
What that “horrible… tragic” crash also did, said Dale Moser, president and chief operating officer of Megabus’ parent company, CoachUSA, was put “a certain focus by the public on us.”
Moser asserts — and federal transportation records seem to support — “that we are a safe company. We’re not a fly-by-night company.”
The government’s current rating of the low-cost bus line — derived from compliance-review results, random roadside-safety inspections, and its crash history before the crash — is “satisfactory,” said Duane DeBruyne, spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation assisting in the accident investigation.
At Megabus, however, the crash already has the company “reviewing all policies relevant to this particular incident,” Moser said, including driver training.
“We’re trying to make sure we have every bit of evidence before we rush into any type of conclusion,” said Moser, a former school bus driver who has led CoachUSA for five years.
Yet some Megabus riders who contacted The Inquirer after the crash contend there is already enough evidence that the company’s drivers need more training.
A common theme in the passengers’ accounts was drivers getting lost. Indeed, authorities have said, that’s how Megabus driver John Tomaszewski, 59, of Yardville, Mercer County, wound up on Onondaga Lake Parkway in the Syracuse suburbs, headed for a bridge that would shear the roof off his vehicle shortly after 2:30 a.m. Sept. 11.
On July 28, Philadelphian Paul Lucre, 41, said, he fell asleep on a Megabus bound for Toronto and was stunned when he awoke to find the vehicle way off course in Harrisburg. On Aug. 25, Brad Wilson, 47, of Philadelphia, said, he was on a Megabus that “wandered around” Syracuse for two hours before the driver stopped at a gas station for directions to I-481.
Those rides apparently didn’t come close to the adventure Kristen Miller described during Megabus’ maiden Toronto-Philadelphia run July 21. The first leg of the trip was without incident, but that changed when the bus got a fresh driver in Buffalo, said Miller, 31, of Philadelphia, a freelance writer.
As Miller described it, the odyssey started with the double-decker lurching away from a transit depot in Buffalo with a driver at the wheel who clearly was not proficient at shifting gears. Before it ended at 30th Street Station around midnight, she said, the bus drifted repeatedly from its travel lane and was pulled over by Pennsylvania State Police in a steady rain near Plymouth Meeting.
Police said they were responding to panicked calls from passengers. Earlier in the trip, Miller said, some had used their GPS devices to help the driver find his way.
After determining “inexperience and weather conditions played into his driving,” the driver was permitted to finish his route, said State Police Lt. Myra A. Taylor.
“No citations were issued, as the trooper did not believe the alleged violations rose to the level of citing, and used his discretion in choosing to verbally warn the operator,” Taylor wrote in an e-mail Tuesday. She would not provide further details, including the driver’s name.
When the Megabus reached 30th Street Station, a station employee had to park it, Miller said, because the driver couldn’t get it in gear. By then, she said, she had concluded, “I was never taking Megabus ever again.”
Told of her account, Moser said he was unaware of the incident. He defended Megabus’ nearly 300 drivers as “professionals” and its driver-training program as “one of the best in the industry.”
According to an FMCSA-maintained database, Megabus Northeast L.L.C., responsible for the bus that crashed near Syracuse, had four total accidents involving two injuries and no fatalities in the 24 months before Monday. (The data do not include the Sept. 11 accident.)
Megabus had fewer vehicles and drivers ordered off the road after inspections than the national average, according to the data. Reported infractions included defective emergency exits, inadequately inflated tires, falsified logs, and speeding.
Transport-industry observers said the safety of so-called curbside-to-curbside lines such as Megabus — cheaper alternatives to luxury bus lines burdened with terminal-overhead costs — is much better now than when they started proliferating about six years ago. The observers attributed that to the fact that larger-scale bus lines subject to federal oversight, such as CoachUSA and Greyhound, have gotten into the curbside-to-curbside business.
Outside 30th Street Station one afternoon last week, drivers of Megabuses headed for Boston, New York, and Washington said they were not permitted to talk to reporters about their training or anything related to their jobs.
One walked around his bus, crouching at each tire and running his hands over the treads as passengers settled into seats equipped with free WiFi and laptop outlets.
As Tim Lee, 24, waited to board a Boston-bound Megabus with friend Anil Bridgpal (both are software developers at Comcast Cable), he said he had no hesitation about taking the discount bus line. He did acknowledge, though, that the Syracuse accident would influence his trip a bit.
“We’ll be sitting in the back,” Lee said.
In interviews, a half-dozen passengers, sharing a loading zone with customers of Greyhound-operated competitor Bolt, cited Megabus’ cheap fares (as low as $1), its city-to-city routes, and the prohibitively high prices of air and rail travel as reasons to ride the blue-and-yellow buses.
Since its debut in Chicago in 2006, Moser said, Megabus has transported seven million customers and logged 26 million miles. Riders fit three demographic groups: professionals ages 18 to 30; women 30 to 55; and retirees.
Megabus serves 12 states and two Canadian provinces, he said; the bus line has had a Philadelphia presence since May 2008. Its business model — Moser prefers the term yield pricing over low cost, with an Internet booking system — got a four-year test run in the United Kingdom by CoachUSA’s parent, Stagecoach Group of Scotland.
CoachUSA, which has annual revenue of $400 million, conducted a 2005 survey to gauge the appeal Megabus would have in the United States and found the traveling public eager for an alternative to driving, Moser said. Gas prices were on the rise, as were highway congestion and consumer interest in reducing the carbon footprint.
But maneuvering vehicles 40 to 45 feet long and nearly 14 feet tall with upward of 80 passengers is not for everyone. Moser said Megabus drivers meet all federal and state standards. At minimum, he said, they must have a Class B commercial driving license, attend more than 40 hours of classroom training, and have 18 hours of behind-the-wheel instruction before ferrying a single passenger.
The FMCSA sets minimum standards for commercial driver’s licenses issued by the states. A commercial driver carrying passengers is limited to driving 10 hours, after eight consecutive hours off duty.
Moser said 27 percent of his company’s trainees were rejected for employment. Those who are hired make $16 to $19 an hour, plus benefits.
The classroom training is intended to prepare a driver for “controlling a vehicle in different environments,” Moser said, including making proper turns and backing up — which Miller said the driver of her bus could not do.
Following company policy also is emphasized. Drivers are issued written directions, Moser said. But should they get lost, he said, “there’s a protocol: They pull the vehicle over safely, contact dispatch, and potentially even contact local authorities to help get them back on route.”
Moser said he did not know why Tomaszewski did not take those steps after missing the turn for the bus depot near Syracuse on Sept. 11.
Instead, authorities said, Tomaszewski was using his personal GPS unit to get back on track when he struck the bridge. Moser said Tomaszewski had a driving record free of violations prior to the accident. He has been placed on indefinite unpaid leave.
While the investigation continues, said Sgt. John D’Eredita of the Onondaga County (N.Y.) Sheriff’s Department, no information about Tomaszewski or about the accident will be released.
Miller said news of the crash renewed bad memories of her $11 white-knuckle ride on July 21 and “made me sick to my stomach.”
“That could have been us.”
For more on the Megabus accident, including links to safety information, a phone number for reporting unsafe buses, previous coverage, and more, go to http://go.philly.com/megabus
Staff writer Sam Wood contributed to this article.
Credit: The Philadelphia Inquirer