The voice on the other end of the line sounded wary. "We're too busy to talk right now," said the man at Fung Wah Bus Service in New York City, before hanging up.
Such reticence is perhaps understandable: The granddaddy of ultra-cheap Chinatown bus services, Fung Wah has had its share of bad publicity in recent years. Last year, two of its buses caught fire on the road, and its federal safety ratings were low enough to prompt U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to call for an investigation.
Mr. Schumer may have had a personal interest in checking up on Fung Wah: His daughter, he said, has friends who use the carrier to commute back and forth from college in Boston to New York. Fung Wah, which means "magnificent wind" in Chinese, was the first of the so-called Chinatown bus services to appear in 1998 to serve the children of Asian immigrants commuting to college in Boston.
Since then, dozens of other carriers have popped up, with names like Lucky River, Double Happiness, Eastern Travel and Dragon Coach, mostly picking up and dropping off passengers in a particular city's Chinatown. But their clientele has expanded beyond the Chinese community, mostly to young, white, cash-strapped college students willing to put up with long lines and -- in some cases -- broken air conditioning or toilets.
Kin Yeung of McCandless said that when he took a Fung Wah bus from New York's Chinatown to Boston, more than half of the passengers were non-Asian.
Nonetheless, "a lot of people in the Chinese community in Pittsburgh are using these bus services because they're so cheap," he said.
His daughter, Lynn, 20, a student at Penn State University, said she had used a bus service from Pittsburgh to New York's Chinatown last year, but couldn't recall which company. "There are so many of them," she said, adding that the bus seemed pretty comfortable. "I thought the driver drove safely," she said. "I'd do it again, definitely."
On July 6, All State Travel Bus Co. established a curbside "depot" at Market Street and Fort Pitt Boulevard, Downtown. According to the eBusTicket.com Web site, a one-way ticket on All State from Pittsburgh to New York City's Chinatown is $35, compared with a $52 one-way ticket to New York via Greyhound -- although if you purchase a Greyhound ticket seven days in advance, it's $45.
A ticket from Pittsburgh to State College costs more from All State, at $25, compared with Greyhound's $21.50, a reversal that neither Greyhound spokeswoman Anna Folmnsbee nor officials at All State could explain.
Ms. Folmnsbee said Greyhound's generally higher bus prices, for the most part, subsidized buildings and staff.
"We put a lot of money into our facilities, to make sure our passengers have a safe, comfortable, warm place to wait and customer service agents who tell you where to go to line up," she said. "Plus our passengers know we offer more schedules, a dozen to New York per day as opposed to maybe a handful."
While Ms. Folmnsbee declined to discuss how Greyhound regards the advent of low-cost Chinatown bus services, the company did sue Fung Wah in 2004 for lacking proper permits. The lawsuit was dropped after the permit paperwork was cleared up.
"Our general stance is that we welcome competition as long as it's on a level playing field," said Ms. Folmnsbee, "because in some cases, we're finding it brings more passengers to the market overall."
Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1949.