Sleeper buses on way out

Updated: 2012-08-28 07:17

By Zhi Yun (China Daily)

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Authorities consider restrictions on dangerous long-distance vehicles

The sleeper bus, a unique public transportation means in China, may disappear from the roads in five or six years, and restrictions on its use are being considered to prevent more accidents from happening, a senior official said.

In the early hours of Sunday, 36 people in a sleeper bus were killed when it rammed into a tanker carrying methanol, a highly flammable liquid, and caught fire on a highway in Shaanxi province.

The government halted the manufacturing of sleeper buses on March 1, and work safety authorities will take measures to make sure manufacturers follow the order, said Zhu Yichang, deputy director of the policy and regulation department of the State Administration of Work Safety.

Sleeper buses on way out

Industry insiders estimate that with the production halt as ordered this year, some 60,000 buses may disappear from the roads in five or six years - their service life.

Before their retirement, more efforts will be made to prevent such accidents, such as shortening the travel routes and allowing the buses to travel only within a province, Zhu said.

The investigation of Sunday's accident continues, but industry insiders agreed that sleeper buses have safety hazards.

Li Dusheng, head of the branding department of Zhongtong Bus & Holding, a major bus manufacturer, said that sleeper buses are more likely to roll over when speeding or braking hard than conventional buses, because their center of gravity is higher.

Sleeper buses also are more hazardous in fires. Their bunks make the interiors very cramped, and the buses cannot be fitted with an emergency door, he said.

Moreover, the entrance door usually cannot be opened after accidents, and pillows and blankets on the buses are all inflammable.

Making matters worse, most sleeper buses produced after 2005 are enclosed, air-conditioned buses whose windows cannot be opened. This makes it even more difficult for people to escape during accidents, Li added.

In recent years, the hazards of sleeper buses have caught people's attention.

This year alone, at least three accidents involving sleeper buses have occurred, causing 62 deaths and leaving 67 people injured. All of them happened at night.

Last year, a fire engulfed a sleeper bus and killed 41 people in Henan province.

In July 2011, the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Public Security issued guidelines that sleeper bus drivers should rest from 2 am to 5 am because most accidents involving sleeper buses were related to driver fatigue.

In the accident on Sunday, however, the sleeper bus was driving on the expressway at 2:40 am.

The reason the guidelines that drivers rest in the early hours cannot be implemented is that they are not mandatory, Zhu said, adding that currently, there is no legal punishments for violators.

And the difficulty in reducing the number of sleeper buses on the road is that the market has needs, Zhu said.

Li agreed, saying that sleeper buses were introduced in the early 1990s, when the railway network was underdeveloped, but migrant workers needed to travel long distances.

Even with the fast construction of the railway network through the years, sleeper buses still have retained their market because sleeper bus tickets are much cheaper than other forms of public transportation. In addition, they can reach many remote mountainous areas that the railways cannot, Li said.

This is why migrant workers form the main group of passengers on sleeper buses - they have low incomes and live in areas that railways cannot easily access, Li said.

Huang Daohui, a factory supervisor in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, often takes the sleeper bus when he travels between Shenzhen and his hometown, a small town in Hunan province during holidays. He said it is more convenient.

"I can go home directly if I take the sleeper bus from the bus station near my factory. If I take the train, I have to first go to Changsha (capital of Hunan province), and then transfer to a coach. And I have to carry a lot of luggage with me. It's so much more trouble," he said.

Huang Yuli in Shenzhen contributed to this story.