$13 casino bus not always a bargain

A Dahlia Group Inc. bus booked by VMC Travel Express picks up waiting passengers from the roadside at the intersection of Prince Street and 39th Avenue in Flushing, N.Y., on Sunday, March 20, 2016. (The Day/Shelly Yang)

Seventy-four-year-old Shin-Chia Tan doesn't remember hearing anyone scream when the packed bus heading to Mohegan Sun hit a guardrail and toppled onto a snowy Interstate 95 in February.

As the sound of blaring horns and squealing tires filled the air, he and the 54 others on the bus seemed to lose their voices, perhaps aware of how little control they had over the situation.

Tan, a Flushing, N.Y., resident originally from Taiwan, was just one of at least 36 passengers injured Feb. 8 when the Dahlia Group Inc. bus flipped over in Madison. At least six of them were in critical condition for a period of time.

A state police report confirms Tan's version of the story: Keyi Zhang, the 63-year-old driver from Flushing, lost control while merging from the right to the left lane, closing I-95 north for 4½ hours.

An investigation by The Day shows that while Dahlia Group and other bus lines serving casinos repeatedly are cited for unsafe driving, vehicle maintenance and other violations — some at a higher rate than others — most of them continue to operate.

Dahlia Group and its drivers have been cited with 38 violations — ranging from driving too fast to drinking while driving — since February 2014, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

By the safety administration's standards, the 33 violations racked up by Dahlia's New York branch — it also has one in Boston — mean 83 percent of motor carriers in the same category have better on-road safety performance than it does.

The safety administration calculates an unsafe driving measure based on the number and severity of violations, the number of vehicles and the miles traveled by each vehicle.

By far, Dahlia has the worst rating of the buses that travel regularly to Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods.

Yet Dahlia continues to run as many as 14 buses between Mohegan Sun and Flushing each day, according to the website of VMC Travel Express, the agency that books buses including Dahlia. 

Mohegan Sun lists 20 bus companies and three booking agencies on its website for customers to use, under either "line runs" or "Asian line runs." Dahlia isn't listed, although VMC Travel Express is.

Other agencies listed include I-Fun Entertainment and Oriental Travel LLC. The former books trips on buses owned by Cash World Tours Inc., whose rating with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is "conditional," which is similar to being on probation.

The latter runs SOE Tour Inc. buses. On March 2, one of those buses burst into flames and filled the highway with thick black smoke while en route to Mohegan Sun from Boston.

All 45 passengers escaped without injury.

Catching the bus

It's not explained clearly on Mohegan Sun's website, but the so-called Asian lines — as with Foxwoods Resort Casino's "international" lines — have pick-ups in Chinatown neighborhoods in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Boston.

In the case of VMC Travel Express, also known as VMC East Coast, catching a bus can be difficult for those not in the know.

Although the schedules listed online show multiple pick-up locations in Manhattan's Chinatown — and indeed there are multiple locations — it's easiest if one shows up at the first location listed.

It's even better if that person speaks at least a little Chinese.

Without that benefit, one might walk right past the small VMC sign — written mostly in Chinese — that hangs in front of the Bank of America at 30 Bowery St. in Manhattan.

And one might not realize the lady speaking loudly in Chinese from a telephone booth across the way is attempting to hawk tickets for the bus — just $13 round-trip, with $20 in food coupons and $40 for gambling.

Given its private status, information about how Dahlia can afford to charge $13 for the trip when other lines typically charge $30 or more wasn't readily available.

A man who answered the phone number listed for Dahlia on Friday and confirmed he was with Dahlia said he had no comment. When asked whether he could transfer a reporter to someone else who might, he repeated his statement.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's unsafe driving measure, Dahlia is the least safe carrier operating to and from Mohegan Sun.

Asian line Cash World Tours Inc. of Quincy, Mass., is the second worst of those carriers serving Mohegan Sun.

In 40 inspections over the last two years, it has received 30 violations, including speeding in a work/construction zone and failure to obey a traffic control device.

At Foxwoods, Skyliner Travel and Tour Bus Corp of Astoria, N.Y., an international line, is tied with another carrier as the most unsafe. Its drivers have been caught speeding 15 or more miles per hour over the limit three times in the last two years.

Asian and international lines have been involved in all three of the large-casualty Connecticut casino bus crashes that have made headlines in the past five years.

When a World Wide Tours bus crashed outside New York City in March 2011, killing 15, it was heading from Mohegan Sun back to Manhattan's Chinatown.

In July 2012, a Star Tag Inc. bus careened out of control just two miles away from where the March 2011 accident took place, sending 24 to the hospital. Passengers aboard that bus were traveling from Foxwoods back to Chinatown in Queens.

'Look before you book'

Some of the motor carriers listed on Mohegan Sun's and Foxwoods' regular line run pages — the ones that charge $30 or more for the same round-trip and similar coupons — have several violations, too.

Academy Lines LLC of Hoboken, N.J., is the other line servicing Foxwoods that's ranked least safe. With 78 violations in 143 inspections, records show 28 percent of similar carriers doing a better job with safety.

According to Duane DeBruyne, spokesman for the safety administration, unsafe driving violations come with a fine and make carriers more susceptible to roadside and bus terminal inspections, but can't lead to a motor carrier's rating dropping from satisfactory to conditional or unsatisfactory.

Instead, he said, the ratings are the result of compliance reviews conducted at the companies' headquarters. 

During those reviews, inspectors check on things including driver and maintenance records, licensing and insurance, and companies' drug and alcohol testing protocols and results.

Those who receive a conditional rating have a finite time to come up with a corrective action plan, he said. Those rated unsatisfactory are no longer allowed to operate.

DeBruyne said the safety administration takes steps each year to shut down companies that are out of compliance with federal regulations.

Still, he encouraged those considering traveling on any bus to "look before you book."

"Never let price be your sole determinant," DeBruyne said, noting that the administration's Safety Measurement System as well as its SaferBus mobile application make it easy to see carriers' violations.

Chinese New Year

Tan, who said he used to ride a VMC-booked bus one or two times per week, said he'd always been keenly aware of the drivers' speeding, but hadn't thought much of it.

Sitting in two of Mohegan Sun's bus terminal waiting areas earlier this month, many casino-goers expressed similar sentiments, whether first-time riders or once-a-week devotees. One said the Feb. 8 crash in Madison was simply bad luck.

For Tan, who retired from Foxwoods in 2008, the trip from Flushing usually meant a chance to visit his daughter in Norwich.

On Feb. 8, though — the first day of the Chinese New Year — it was the first step toward having fun with some money his three daughters and wife had given him for the holiday.

He'd tried to get a ticket for an earlier bus that day, he recalled while sitting in his daughter's living room, but it was full.

It wasn't snowing too badly in the city yet, though, so he hopped on the 10 a.m. bus instead.

Tan secured seat No. 40, a window seat near the back left side of the bus, and slept for almost two hours.

When he awoke around noon, he sensed quickly that something was wrong. A car in the right lane was sliding around, struggling on the slippery surface. The bus driver elected to pass it.

"Why does he have to drive that fast?" Tan recalled thinking as he looked through the window at the snowy road.

Then he saw the median barrier draw nearer and nearer. Mere minutes after he'd raised his hood and his hands over his head, tires squealed. Snow swirled up from the ground.

The aftermath

For what felt like minutes, Tan could barely breathe. His head lodged against the luggage rack, his left hand against a cracked but not yet broken window, three people landed on Tan: one at his feet, one on his hip and one on his waist.

Crews transported Tan, who was complaining of pain in his head, shoulders and ribs, to The William W. Backus Hospital, where he was released without an overnight stay. He had no broken bones, torn muscles or any other such injuries.

Still, Tan said, he had problems falling asleep for about two weeks after the accident.

"It was the most unforgettable Chinese New Year in my life," he said.

The aches continue today, Tan said, much like his struggle to take care of his medical bills.

The first he received — a $23,150 bill from Backus about a week after the accident — seemed too outrageous to be true, Tan said. Not much later, he received another bill, this time for $1,400, which appeared to reflect the amount due after health insurance.

But even $1,400 seemed a steep price to pay for an accident in which he played no role, Tan said. At the advice of a VMC ticket seller, Tan hired a lawyer.

Neither Tan nor his wife has received any phone calls, emails or letters from Dahlia or VMC apologizing for the accident, Tan said.

Despite the ordeal, Tan said, he's taken three VMC-booked buses since the Feb. 8 Dahlia bus crash.

The $13 ticket coupled with the convenience of the casino's proximity to his daughter's home all but rules out more expensive options such as Amtrak.

Besides, he said, the crash in Madison had less to do with the bus line than with the driver.

"I believe it was mainly the human factor that caused the accident," Tan said. "If the driver had not been driving that fast, if he had not changed lanes and attempted to pass ... the bus would not have rolled over."

Day Visual Journalist Shelly Yang contributed to the reporting of this story.

l.boyle@theday.com

Shin-Chia Tan talks to a Day reporter in his daughter's Norwich home on March 17, 2016, about his experience on the Dahlia Group Inc. bus that rolled over near Madison on its way from Flushing, N.Y. to Mohegan Sun on Feb. 8, 2016. Tan was one of 55 passengers involved in the accident. (The Day/Shelly Yang)
Shin-Chia Tan talks to a Day reporter in his daughter's Norwich home on March 17, 2016, about his experience on the Dahlia Group Inc. bus that rolled over near Madison on its way from Flushing, N.Y. to Mohegan Sun on Feb. 8, 2016. Tan was one of 55 passengers involved in the accident. (The Day/Shelly Yang)
A casually dressed woman, who sells tickets for bus rides from Flushing to Mohegan Sun run by VMC Travel Express,  holds a clipboard and some cash on the corner of Prince Street and 39th Avenue in Flushing, N.Y., on Sunday, March 20, 2016. (The Day/Shelly Yang)
A casually dressed woman, who sells tickets for bus rides from Flushing to Mohegan Sun run by VMC Travel Express, holds a clipboard and some cash on the corner of Prince Street and 39th Avenue in Flushing, N.Y., on Sunday, March 20, 2016. (The Day/Shelly Yang)

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