News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

December 13, 2013

German bus company in Terre Haute halted by federal agency

TERRE HAUTE — A federal agency has halted operations of a German motorcoach business with North American headquarters in Terre Haute.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration pulled the operating license for Rotel North American Tours, LLC in September. The move was announced in a Thursday press release from the FMCSA along with similar steps taken against more than 50 other motorcoach companies.

Rotel, which provides bus tours worldwide exclusively for German tourists, was shut down as part of Operation Quick Strike, an FMCSA initiative launched over the summer. Quick Strike involved “in-depth inspections” of motorcoach businesses deemed to be “higher risk,” said an FMCSA spokesman Friday.

Operation Quick Strike was launched in April in response to two fatal bus accidents that took place in the western United States about a year ago, the spokesman said. Those incidents did not involve Rotel North American Tours buses.

Those fatal incidents “really told us we need to … look at how we were doing business and what we can do to get ahead of the curve, so to speak,” Duane DeBruyne, a spokesman for the FMCSA in Washington, told the Tribune-Star Friday.

Operation Quick Strike shut down 52 motorcoach companies for compliance violations, according to an agency news release issued Thursday. More than 50 specially-trained investigators conducted in-depth reviews of 250 motorcoach companies identified deemed “most at-risk” using roadside inspection and safety data, according to the news release.

Rotel North American Tours is a German company that has hired a Terre Haute couple, Walter and Paula McHenry, to purchase park permits and handle other paperwork and compliance aspects of the business in the U.S. The McHenry’s speak German and lived in Germany, where they made their connections with Rotal, said Paula McHenry.

“I think we have the best safety record of just about any company in the U.S.,” Paula McHenry said Friday in a telephone interview. However, Rotel uses unusual buses, equipped with large sleeping areas, making the company not fit with what federal inspectors might be used to, she said.

Rotel provides tours all over the world. Their bus fleet in North America is comprised of just six buses, McHenry said.

Because all of the tourists are from Germany, Rotel typically hired German “master drivers,” a prestigious distinction in Germany, McHenry said. This year, the FMCSA refused to allow the company to continue to hire drivers without state-issued motorcoach drivers licenses, something difficult for foreign nationals to obtain since Sept. 11, 2001, she noted. The FMCSA refusal left the company in need of hiring new, less experienced, drivers in mid-season, she added.

According to the FMCSA website, Rotel’s buses in the U.S. were cited this summer for not having proper emergency exits. McHenry said the federal agency halted two tour buses in Alaska for not having the proper “push-out” windows.

The agency logged other violations in its Quick Strike July and August inspections and audits, including “inoperative required lamps,” “no discharge or unsecured fire extinguishers” and “oil and gas leak.”

Rotel has spent about $10,000 per bus attempting to get into compliance with the FMCSA, McHenry said, adding that follow-up meetings with the FMCSA are scheduled soon.

“As far as I know, we’re going to get our license back,” McHenry said. “I think we are a very safe company, especially when we have our German drivers.”

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.

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