Megabus explosion: How safe are bargain buses?

The latest Megabus accident did not result in any fatalities, though most of the passengers' luggage was lost.

MEGABUS.COM, a low-cost, express bus service which has served over 50 million passengers since launching in 2006.

Famous for its cheap prices and double decker look, a Megabus bound for Minneapolis caught on fire outside of Chicago on Sunday. Although no one was injured, the accident gave riders a shock and stoked existing concerns about the safety of bargain buses.

The incident took place near the Illinois-Wisconsin border on Route 41 Sunday afternoon, according to fire officials. The driver and roughly 40 passengers were all able to exit the vehicle before firefighters arrived, but most of their luggage was lost. The cause of the fire remains unknown, and the vehicle sustained severe damage.

“When I heard the first boom I was in the bathroom. I came out to a lot of smoke and I couldn’t hardly get off the bus because it was full of black smoke,” one of the passengers, Russicha Watkins, told the Chicago Sun-Times. “As I got off to catch my breath and started walking down the highway, the bus blew up again and fire came from everywhere.”

But Ms. Watkins added that the driver made valiant efforts in getting people off the bus and even attempting to save the luggage.

“The bus driver absolutely did a great job because he told us to get off the bus,” she said.

“As everybody was getting off the bus, by the time everybody got off the bus, it blew up some more and he was trying to risk his own life by throwing all our luggage off but couldn’t because the smoke was too dangerous.”

Megabus spokesman Sean Hughes, the director of corporate affairs for the line's parent company, Coach USA North America, said the company will fully cooperate with the investigation.

“Safety is our top priority and is fully cooperating with the authorities with their investigation into the incident,” Mr. Hughes said in a statement.

Known for offering rock-bottom fares as low as $1, Megabus came into the market in April 2006. It since has ferried more than 50 million passengers to 120 major cities across North America. One-way tickets from Boston to New York, for instance, average about $15 while airfare and train tickets can cost hundreds. But its reputation as an affordable option for discount travelers has been marred by a series of high-profile accidents, especially in the Midwest.

In August 2012, a Megabus enroute to Chicago hit a concrete pillar and a tire blew out, resulting one death. Dozens were injured. As reported by NBC Chicago, another Megabus a week later struck and killed a woman in downtown Chicago. In perhaps its worst accident, four died after a Megabus slammed into the railroad bridge in upstate New York in 2010.

Between 2013 and 2015, there were at least 22 crashes in the US involving Megabus coaches, according to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration online records. Out of these cases, none resulted in fatal injuries. Although Megabus crashes tend to generate a lot of publicity, bus accidents account for only a tiny fraction of overall highway accidents. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 48 bus crash fatalities out of 32,719 highway deaths in 2013.

And while Megabus isn’t exactly a consumer favorite on websites like Yelp and Consumer Affairs, most complaints deal with delayed rides or spotty wifi.

Megabus isn't the only discount bus company that has faced scrutiny for safety concerns. After a string of accidents in 2012, the Department of Transportation shut down 26 bus companies, not including Megabus, that provided services down the East Coast. A year-long investigation found that many bus drivers were driving without a license and were working long, strenuous hours. Many failed to pass the drug-alcohol test.

In general, studies have found that riding in buses is many times safer than traveling by car.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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