California Highway Patrol inspectors, concerned about potentially dangerous mechanical deficiencies discovered on Continental Trailways buses, said Wednesday that they will recommend revocation of the company's license to operate within the state.
Officials at the patrol's Los Angeles-based Southern Division said the decision followed three investigations this year, two of them routine and the latest--on Tuesday at the Trailways downtown Los Angeles terminal--a surprise.
Nine of 10 buses inspected Tuesday were found to have mechanical violations and were ordered out of service until repaired. Brake problems were the most common, and one CHP official said some of the flaws could be considered hazardous to passenger safety.
The suspension recommendation must first be reviewed and approved by CHP authorities at Sacramento headquarters, a process that could take a month. The matter would then be forwarded to the state Public Utilities Commission. A PUC official said Highway Patrol requests to shut down bus companies for safety reasons are routinely granted upon receipt.
Trailways is the nation's second-largest bus carrier. While sanctions against some of the smaller tour bus companies that have sprung up after industry deregulation four years ago are not uncommon, PUC officials said they could recall perhaps only one other occasion in the last 15 years when a company the size of Trailways has been the target of a license revocation request.
CHP officials denied that the unusual recommendation was the product of heightened public concern about bus safety after a May 30 crash of a tour bus that killed 21 elderly passengers from Santa Monica and Los Angeles.
What impact the action could have on Trailways was not clear. PUC officials said that if the license is revoked, the carrier could appeal to the full commission and probably would be granted a prompt hearing. Once it demonstrated that maintenance had improved enough to satisfy the CHP, the license would be reinstated.
Moreover, national bus companies such as Trailways, which operates in 43 states, are licensed both by state agencies and by the federal government. Revocation of the state license would prohibit the bus company from hauling passengers from point to point within the state, but with its federal sanction Trailways could still pick up passengers at California points for transport out of state or, conversely, deliver them to terminals within the state from elsewhere in the nation.
A PUC official said the firm would not be allowed to pick up or drop off passengers within California while on an interstate route.
A Trailways public relations official at the company's Dallas headquarters denied that the firm had a problem with bus safety, and appeared to be unaware of the pending recommendation by CHP inspectors to their superiors in Sacramento.
"We welcome inspection by the California Highway Patrol," said Roger Rydell, the company spokesman.
Los Angeles-based CHP officials, however, said they had been unsettled by results of earlier inspections of Trailways buses.
Since 1963, bus companies operating in California have been subjected once a year to what the Highway Patrol calls "routine surprise inspections." Buses found to have mechanical flaws are ordered repaired, and it is the responsibility of the company to make appropriate repairs. No follow-up inspections are done.
Last year a "routine surprise" inspection of 19 Trailways buses found enough flaws to require 16 to be repaired before returning to the road, said Glenn Sewell, deputy division commander of the CHP's southern division. A letter was sent expressing dissatisfaction with Trailways' maintenance, and a follow-up inspection turned up no mechanical violations.
Last March, at the request of the PUC, Highway Patrol experts again made an annual inspection. Only one of six buses was found to have violations, but CHP officials said they were not satisfied enough with the results to make a recommendation to renew the Trailways operating license.
They conducted a follow-up inspection on Friday and again only one of six buses was found in violation. However, suspecting that their "routine surprise" inspections were more routine than surprise, the inspectors went back unannounced to Trailways on Tuesday and discovered nine out of 10 buses with violations.
"Maybe they will take us seriously now," Sewell said.
The CHP supervisor said results of inspections conducted in the patrol's seven other divisions were not yet known, and he said the Sacramento decision on whether to forward the recommendation to revoke the license would be based in part on results of those probes.
Not Based in L.A.
Sewell added that the buses inspected in Los Angeles are not based here. "They come in from all over the country," he said, "and what we could have here is an indication their national maintenance is not up to snuff. It's not a matter of a local fix."
Ironically, in what seems a quirk in the regulations, Trailways can lawfully put the buses found to be in violation back on the road once they are repaired to the firm's satisfaction, and a company official indicated Wednesday that indeed all the buses found in violation in the inspection the day before were already returned to service.