Feds shut down Georgia bus service for 2nd time

/ Source: The Associated Press

Federal regulators have shut down a Georgia-based charter bus service for the second time since 2009, saying the company changed its name to avoid a previous order to cease operations because of safety violations.

U.S. Department of Transportation regulators filed a written order Thursday against JCT Motor Coach Inc., saying the metro Atlanta bus service poses an "imminent hazard to public safety" and keeps its three buses "in a mechanically unsafe operating condition which, if driven, substantially increase the likelihood of serious injury or death."

James Turner, the company's manager, did not immediately return a telephone message from The Associated Press seeking comment Friday.

Regulators say Turner's bus service operated under a different name, JT's Travel and Charter, until 2009 after the company was ordered to shut down following citations for four safety violations since 2000. Several of the citations said the company had failed to require its drivers to submit to drug tests.

To avoid penalties, regulators say, the company resumed doing business as JCT Motor Coach.

It's not an uncommon practice. The National Transportation Safety Board has investigated several fatal accidents over the past decade involving bus companies that were ordered to shut down by the government, but which continued to operate under new names or in new locations. The problem is so common that such companies are known in the bus industry as "reincarnated" or "chameleon" carriers.

Deregulation of the inter-city bus industry in the 1980s sparked the creation of hundreds of discount bus companies, with more than 3,900 tour bus companies operating nationwide today. Many, such as JCT Motor Coach, operate only a handful of buses.

Even after adopting its new name, the Georgia bus company failed to avoid the notice of regulators.

A complaint that the company was operating without insurance and failed maintenance inspections helped Turner's bus service rack up four more citations, including an unpaid fine of $7,030, between September and last week.

Regulators said an inspection last week found the company's repair and maintenance program to be "grossly ineffective and almost nonexistent." Most of Turner's maintenance records for the buses were so outdated, officials said, that inspectors saw Turner trying to write new dates on documents to make them appear more recent. Inspectors also noticed that most of the maintenance records referred to the bus company by its old name.

In a 2009 report, the Government Accountability Office identified 20 carriers that were reincarnated from companies ordered out of service by the federal government. That number, which GAO said probably understated the problem, represented about 9 percent of the 220 carriers ordered to close their doors during the two years examined in the report.

A recent string of deadly tour bus accidents has renewed attention to the problem. Two weeks ago, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ordered Sky Express Inc. of Charlotte, N.C., to shut down after an accident in Virginia that killed four passengers and injured dozens of others. Within days, the government had to order the company to shut down again after investigators discovered the carrier was repainting its buses and continuing to sell tickets under the names 108 Tours and 108 Bus.