Battle Of The Buses

Journey on Eastern is anything but uneventful

July 27, 2008|By Brad Schleicher | Brad Schleicher,Sun reporter

With a slowing economy and rising gas prices, travelers are looking for ways to vacation on the cheap. Nothing seems quite as frugal as taking the bus. Trust us, we know. Three Sun reporters each traveled from Baltimore to New York on the same day on three different bus lines - the new, upstart megasbus.com, the Chinatown bus and the stalwart Greyhound. The good news is everyone made it back safely. The bad news is some of them may never go near a bus again.

The children in the back of the minivan were lucky to be alive.

After all, if it wasn't for my bus driver's catlike quickness in applying the brakes, the front end of our mammoth charter bus might have turned the minivan into a tiny subcompact.

I'd like to say that this was the only close call that took place during my trip to New York City with Eastern Travel - one of the many bus companies that make up "Chinatown bus" lines.

I might have been able to forgive my driver for such dodgy driving - if it was his only offense. However, this little mishap took place during the first half-hour of the 3 1/2 -hour trip and unfortunately, there were many more to come.

My rather eventful journey to the Big Apple started at 8 a.m. when I arrived at the Baltimore Travel Plaza. I never traveled via charter bus before and had no idea what to expect for my $20 one-way ticket. After asking around, I discovered that Chinatown bus passengers were picked up from a grassy knoll in front of the TA gas station on the other side of O'Donnell Street.

If it weren't for the few people on the side of the road, holding luggage and wearing confused looks on their faces, I might not have caught my bus in time. Since there were only eight other passengers at the bus stop, I thought there would be ample seating, allowing me plenty of room to stretch out. That was not to be the case. Little did I know that Eastern Travel started its charter from Washington - not Baltimore - so by the time the bus arrived, it was packed.

I managed to squeeze myself into a seat next to a sleeping passenger, one of the few who hadn't barricaded herself into her window seat with her belongings. After settling in, we tore off from the embankment, heading north at 8:31 a.m, about 10 minutes later than scheduled.

Although the 60-passenger bus looked and felt clean, the interior resembled reclaimed carpet from an '80s bowling alley. It was midnight blue with touches of yellow spirals and white diamonds - the kind of tacky pattern that you can stare at for only a short period of time before going completely insane.

I would've been totally pleased with the bathrooms if it weren't for the smell. Upon entering, I was greeted with a stench defined by equal parts urine and bleach.

But the decor and cleanliness coupled with the bathroom's horrid aromatic cocktail became sort of an afterthought considering how often I feared for my life during the ride. My driver's frequent displays of bus jockeying left me shaky and wondering if he was trying to break some twisted land-speed record. Weaving in and out of traffic like a participant in the Gumball 3000 rally, he pressed on as if no charter bus had ever graced New York City and that his, by god, would be the first.

Tearing up Interstate 95, he occasionally would honk the horn in protest of just about any vehicle that was actually adhering to the speed limit.

At one point, the driver tried to make a jutting lane change and nearly sideswiped an 18-wheeler. Swerving back to our original lane, the driver had to slam on his brakes to avoid rear-ending yet another 18-wheeler.

What was most surprising about the chain of near highway disasters was the passengers' reaction. All but one of the few passengers who weren't asleep sat in stunned silence. It was as though anesthesia was being pumped through all of the vents and all had accepted their fate as victims of some ghastly vehicular Armageddon.

But just as I was about to speak up, someone beat me to the punch.

"Ooh, Jesus! This bus driver is crazy!" screamed a concerned Curtis Mallory, 23, after one of the near catastrophes.

Mallory, a student from Washington, says he has always taken one of the many varieties of the Chinatown bus lines to New York to see Broadway plays. Although he admits he's had different experiences every time, he never experienced such a ride.

"Chinatown bus has always been easy and cheap," said Mallory, "but I might have to find another way to get to New York from now on."

Without making any stops along the way, I arrived in Midtown at Seventh Avenue and 34th Street about noon, tucked into a tiny ball and clutching my seat for dear life. I was never so happy to stand on solid concrete. As the bus pulled from the curb back into traffic, I hoped that the ride home later that evening would be more relaxing.

As it turned out, I ended up taking a different Chinatown bus back to Baltimore. Although the Double Happiness bus offered a smoother ride, I think Amtrak may be the true path to happiness.

brad.schleicher@

baltsun.com

Eastern Travel responds

We contacted David Wang, a representative of Eastern Travel. Here's his e-mailed response:

On speeding: "Every bus is locked at 75 miles per hour." (Meaning, it cannot go above this speed.)

On driver: "Our safety rating from [the U.S. Department of Transportation] is satisfactory, the safety category is H, that is the highest among motor carriers. [We have not] had any accident among the past 12 months. (Except some scratches.)"

On cleanliness: "This bus should be a pretty new bus. The bathroom was dumped every day in New York."

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