Nearly 4,000 people travel daily on Southwest Transit’s fleet of 61 transit buses. More than 99 percent of the time, they arrive on where they need to be when they need to be there.
That’s no accident.
The transit agency for Chaska, Chanhassen and Eden Prairie offers express bus service Monday through Friday to downtown Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota. A lot of work goes on behind the scenes at the company’s Eden Prairie maintenance garage to make that happen.
There is one “road call” incident (which may or may not involve a breakdown) for every 32,000 miles driven. To put this into some perspective, the distance around the planet at the equator is 24,900 miles. The national average for transit-related road calls, Southwest Transit CEO Len Simich said, is one per 8,500 miles driven. Southwest’s record has won the organization national recognition, he said.
“As you can see, we’re far exceeding our peers, and it doesn’t happen by accident,” Simich said. “There are a lot of factors that go into it. These guys do a lot of preventative maintenance. Most of our equipment is relatively young compared to some transit companies – the average life of our buses is between 12 and 14 years. We stay on top of that.”
Buses are maintained by seven technicians starting at 4 a.m. each morning. There is one technician for every eight buses, Simich said, compared to an industry standard of one tech for every five buses, or in extreme cases, two.
The maintenance facility is equipped with parts, lifts, bays and welding equipment to repair just about anything that can go wrong with a bus. This time of year, buses are also washed and mopped twice per day and are stored inside. The average Southwest Transit bus travels nearly 100 miles per day, and its fuel tanks, which start at 110 gallons and go upwards, are topped off every other day.
“Each day, before they leave, drivers do a ‘pre-trip’ on each bus, and that’s the driver’s responsibility,” said Maintenance Manager Jon Donovan. “They have a 30 point list. Once they pass the inspection, they can go out on route.”
Buses are inspected every 3,000 miles and brought into the shop at least once a month. Typical repairs include systems checks and replacement of tires, brakes and fan belts.
“We have two classifications of repairs: one is ‘scheduled’ and the other is ‘unscheduled,’” Donovan said. “Scheduled are the preventative maintenance repairs where you are doing it on time or mileage, and those are what you want to see most. The unscheduled are things that are failing or that you catch (during inspections).We also have driver write-ups, and we also have customers – if something is not right on a bus, they will email our customer service, and we’ll check it out. Those are pretty high priority, and they are usually right most of the time.”
“We’ve have ‘secret riders’ that will go out, and they are looking or listening for certain things,” said Steve LaFrance, maintenance and facilities director. “Management and staff is required to go out and ride, and you’ll hear a squeaking belt in the back of the bus. Maybe it’s nothing, but that helps.”
In the late 1960s, the United States managed to send astronauts to the moon using a guidance computer that had 2k in memory and a 1.024 MHz processor.
Nearly forty-five years later, the average Southwest Transit bus uses many more times that computing power to get people around the metro. Each of the organization’s buses uses global positioning technology, digital tire pressure sensors and a variety of other electronic devices to keep the wheels on the bus going ‘round and ‘round.
“These are not the buses our parents grew up on,” Simich said. “Everything is computerized, right down to the destination signs. They used to be a roll sign that you would turn by hand. Now, it’s all computers.”
“The emissions are 80 percent cleaner than they were 10 years ago,” Donovan said. “Fuel mileages are starting to get better on these buses. It’s about five miles per gallon. We’re starting to go on the plus side. We’re hoping to see six as our average someday.”
A different bus requires a different mechanic, Simich said. Technicians have to deal not only with the years-old principles of the internal combustion engine, but also the computer control systems that keep them running smoothly.
“In terms of training and re-training, these guys do a lot in that area, whether it is webinars or people coming in from the various bus manufacturers,” Simich said. “Things change. A bus is not a bus – each one is a little bit different. While this 45-footer is the bread and butter of our fleet, we also have 40-footers from two manufacturers, and again, each one depending on which year they came in off the line, they are all (a little bit different).”
Repairs are logged through computer software that keeps track of the mileage of each bus and schedules regular repairs accordingly. Seasonal repairs are also done depending on the time of year. Cold weather service usually focuses on making sure heaters work and that tires have enough tread. Another categorizes repairs using a vehicle maintenance code system to provide a cost breakdown.
“You can really break it down, where you are putting your money as far as labor and parts,” Donovan said. “If you have several buses that are identical and one is getting terrible mileage, the dossier will let you know … if you’ve got something to tune up or you have a problem.”
“Even for inventory, it shows us what parts we are replacing more often,” Simich said. “Inventory is money, it’s money sitting on a shelf, so rather than putting all of that cash flow into parts to just sit there, it tells us, ‘We need these, but not so many of those,’ that type of thing. Before, it was kind of a shot in the dark. It has made it more of an exact science. We don’t have a lot of money sitting on shelves anymore.”
Keeping the buses mechanically maintained contributes to overall fuel efficiency, much like a car. Modern buses have nearly doubled their fuel efficiency in the past 20 years, with the average Southwest bus getting nearly 5 miles to the gallon in 2012, when drivers drove 1.4 million miles. Mileage-to-distance is tracked using software called Gasboy.
The mileage, LaFrance said, gets put into perspective when one takes into account that each bus has the potential take 57 cars off the road when 57 drivers decide to be driven instead.
Southwest stands out from the pack in another way due to its practice of parking mid-day buses at the Metrodome and thus avoid burning fuel for a return trip to Eden Prairie. The practice saved 180,000 miles and 37,000 gallons of fuel last year, Simich said.
Standing near the open clamshell doors of one of the company’s 45-foot MCI Coach buses, Simich is dwarfed by the sheer size of the parts involved: the 450-horsepower engine and a three-foot-wide cooling fan in particular.
“It’s like opening the hood of your car – you see similar-looking things, but more of them and much bigger,” he said, peering up into the open bay. “The tools and everything, and how you get to things, it’s totally different.”
As they watched two technicians begin to inspect a 45-foot-bus on a hydraulic lift, Donovan and LaFrance agreed that each day on the job presents unique challenges, which is one of the qualities they enjoyed most about it.
“There is never the same day twice here,” Donovan said. “It’s always different.”
Contact Joseph Palmersheim at firstname.lastname@example.org.