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Strip District bus to NYC's Chinatown allied with company in good standing

| Monday, May 11, 2015, 10:51 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Shortly after midnight, passengers board a charter bus in Pittsburgh bound for Chinatown in New York City on April 24. The bus stop is in the 1600 block of Penn Avenue in the Strip District.

Punk music blaring past 11 p.m. inside the crowded Altar Bar can be heard for blocks on a section of Penn Avenue near the 16th Street Bridge in Pittsburgh's Strip District. The McDonald's restaurant next door attracts a steady flow of customers.

Across the street, several people quietly wait outside a nondescript, one-story building with their rolling travel bags, bookbags and pillows. Some pass the time by smoking; others stare at their cellphones. Most turn down interview requests, saying they speak little or no English. The front door of the building opens, and they enter a foyer and disappear downstairs into the basement to buy tickets.

Within an hour, they'll board an unmarked white bus that pulls up outside and be on their way to New York's Chinatown.

“People needed an alternative to Greyhound, Megabus and Amtrak. The Chinese coach buses are reasonably priced, clean, and the travel time is much quicker because they don't have all those frequent stops,” said George Chow, who helps market the interstate bus line that's known locally as Great Wall Line Inc.

Great Wall Line literally operates in the dark in Pittsburgh: A bus leaves the Strip District daily for New York's Chinatown about 12:30 a.m. and returns about midnight that night.

One-way tickets cost $60. College students with ID are eligible for a $15 discount.

Great Wall Line also operates in the dark as far as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is concerned. Records show the agency deemed the company “unfit” because of three violations in May 2011.

Although the Great Wall name is used on signs at the Penn Avenue bus stop and on ticket-buying websites, the federal registration number listed on the Pittsburgh-to-Chinatown buses is for Brooklyn-based Asian Express Travel Inc.

Safety agency spokesman Duane DeBruyne said it's not uncommon for people affiliated with a former bus line to become “ticket sellers” for a new company in good standing. Some retain the former name for sales purposes because it's recognizable to local customers.

The federal agency began cracking down on Chinatown bus companies after a rash of deadly crashes, including two in March 2011 that killed a combined 17 people and injured 58. Great Wall's violations resulted in combined fines of about $2,000 and included a failed random drug test by a driver, a driver's failure to keep adequate duty records and inadequate pre-employment screening by the company. It was given as many as 45 days to come up with a corrective action plan but did not do so, DeBruyne said.

Asian Express owner Winnie Wong said that's when her company began dealing with Great Wall. She said Asian Express owns and operates the white buses, and Great Wall pays a fee to charter them. She would not say how much the fees totaled.

A man who identified himself as an Asian Express manager in a phone interview but would not provide his name said the buses between Pittsburgh and New York City typically carry “20 to 30 passengers, tops” and usually far fewer.

A same-day, roundtrip commuter on Great Wall Line has about 10 hours in New York City between the arrival and departure in Chinatown.

Chow said that provides enough time for him to “get a haircut for only $4 and get things I couldn't get in Pittsburgh,” where people of Asian origin represent only 4 percent of the metro population — paling in comparison to New York's 13 percent share, according to census data.

Asian Express has a satisfactory safety record, though the fitness of its drivers compares unfavorably with peers, federal records show. During the past two years, federal inspectors cited Asian Express drivers for nine violations, including five for not being able to speak English. That places the company in the bottom 9th percentile among peers, making it subject to increased inspections or other federal intervention, records show.

Wong described the violations as “minor.”

Asian Express has been involved in one reportable accident in the past six years: One person was injured in a December 12 crash in Somerset County, records show.

Willie Gu of Monaca, Beaver County, a cook at a Chinese restaurant, said he takes the Great Wall Line bus once every few months to visit family in New York. He usually stays for the weekend.

“The price is OK, and it goes right into Chinatown,” Gu said. “Sometimes the drivers drive too fast, but other than that, (the service) is good.”

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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