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Port Authority buses showed signs of frame problems in pre-purchase tests

Monday, October 23, 2000

By Joe Grata, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Extensive problems with frame cracking that have developed in Port Authority's new fleet of low-floor buses also showed up when that same model was run through a federal bus testing facility in 1994-95.

Despite knowing about the poor results, Port Authority officials went ahead with the purchase of 160 buses, partly because they assumed the manufacturer, Neoplan USA of Lamar, Colo., made modifications and corrected problems after the tests.

The authority recently announced that all of the buses -- bought to relieve a shortage of vehicles and to modernize the fleet -- would have to be pulled out of service several different times, and up to 14 buses at a time, so frame cracks and related problems could be repaired.

During testing in May 1994 at the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute in University Park, a low-floor bus broke down after being driven only 94 miles and began showing a number of structural cracks after 482 miles. One mile on the punishing test track of ruts and speed bumps equals 10 miles of regular driving.

A summary of the test results supplied by the Federal Transit Administration, which supports the institute, shows that cracks developed and parts broke on at least 32 days that the bus was on the track. On 32 other testing days, the bus experienced mechanical problems including leaks in both fuel tanks, faulty drive shaft, a compartment door that fell off, dead batteries and an electrical short that caused sparks above the front door.

On just one day, Jan. 19, 1995, inspectors discovered cracks in 10 different places in the tubular steel frame, an air cooler outlet and axle mounts. They also found broken brackets on a roof panel, broken brackets on the muffler and several other problems.

By the time the Port Authority awarded a low bid to Neoplan three years later to buy 160 of the same type of low-floor buses, it assumed that Neoplan changed the design and corrected the recurring structural problems found on the test track.

No retesting requested

Neoplan would not detail the modifications it made to the bus to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But neither Neoplan nor the Port Authority requested retesting of the bus. Neoplan has since acknowledged there is a design problem with the low-floor buses and has set up a repair facility at its own expense to fix the cracks.

The Port Authority thought it bought a well-made bus.

"We didn't consider the test results as really relevant because Neoplan said it changed the design," authority operations manger Don Bell said. "We assumed they did."

Neither Bill Siegel, technology director for the Federal Transit Administration, nor David Klanikowski, program manager for the FTA-supported bus testing program, gave high marks to the authority's oversight of the Neoplan deal.

"We're not a regulatory agency, so we can't require the authority to read the test report," Siegel said. "They can ignore it if they choose. I've got to figure [the Port Authority] took a calculated risk."

He said the Port Authority or Neoplan could have gone to the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute to test the latest low-floor model bus at any time. "All they had to do was get in line."

Five years after the Neoplan low-floor bus was tested, Klanikowski said it still stands out in his mind because it had one of the worst test reports of 165 buses he had seen over the 10 years the test track has been in operation behind Beaver Stadium on the Penn State campus.

The authority's order was Neoplan's first significant assembly-line production of low-floor buses, a popular new industry design because the floor rides just a foot above the road and does away with front steps.

The transit agency paid nearly $300,000 apiece -- a total of $47.7 million -- including the cost of painting the buses in pastel colors and decorating them with gold swooshes to coincide with a new look at the authority.

And the 1998 bid contains an option to purchase up to 400 additional low-floor buses from Neoplan at prices adjusted for inflation.

When Klanikowski got word that the 160 low-floor buses bought by the Port Authority developed the same type of cracks as the test model, "I said, 'Gee-whiz, we identified [the cracks] in our report.' "

Test data was available

The Federal Transit Administration requires new model buses purchased using federal funding to go through the test track at Penn State and rigorous evaluations at a sister facility in Altoona. While the FTA doesn't certify buses, the extensive results are published and made available to transit agencies to help them better determine what they're buying.

Port Authority officials had the test report in their hands as early as March 1998, when they awarded the bid to Neoplan. At the time, they didn't give it much relevance.

"Just because the bus was tested doesn't mean it's OK," Klanikowski said. "The question is, 'What did [the Port Authority] and Neoplan do to correct the problems?' If you buy a car and choose not to look at consumer reports, that would be stupid."

Port Authority officials said they're obviously not happy with how things are working out with the Neoplan buses.

"We were locked into a low bid and, to our knowledge at the time, Neoplan submitted a responsible bid that the law required us to accept," authority chief executive Paul Skoutelas said. "Things happened. The buses didn't come out perfect, but Neoplan is taking the blame. They're fixing the problems under warranty and we won't accept the buses until we're satisfied."

He said the low-floor buses being used to carry thousands of riders a day are safe and that Neoplan has successfully built thousands of other types of buses. They include over-the-road coaches and high-capacity articulated buses that feature a bellows-like joint that bends in the middle -- both part of the Port Authority's fleet.

However, in the early 1980s the transit agency bought 410 Neoplan buses that developed early mechanical and rust problems. The buses continued to be a maintenance nightmare for years after the problems allegedly were solved; the authority sued and negotiated a settlement with Neoplan in 1990 worth $2.2 million in cash, parts and service.

Neoplan accepts blame

Skoutelas and authority staff involved in the low-floor bus purchase emphasized several times that Neoplan has cooperated and accepted blame for defects and problems in the skeleton-like, tubular steel frames.

The company has set up a repair shop in Trafford and hired 60 workers to weld, strengthen, replace and retrofit frames, plates, straps, mounts, gussets and rods at its expense, taking up to 14 buses at a time out of service for the work. Frame cracks that Port Authority mechanics first discovered in the rear engine area, and then in the front, are now appearing in other areas.

The new low-floor buses the Port Authority has put in service since August 1999 are supposed to have a 12-year life expectancy and last for 500,000 miles of service.

Authority operations manager Bell said that inspectors were present at the Neoplan plant while the buses were being assembled, "looking at the craftsmanship." But Bell said the authority doesn't get involved with mechanical engineering and structural design aspects.

"Our bus contracts are based on performance," he said. "It's up to the company to provide the bus we specified. We did everything expected of us to try to make sure we got a good one."

Anne Marie Chenoweth, chief executive officer of Neoplan USA, said the company will pick up the tab "for whatever needs to be done." It has flown engineers to Pittsburgh from Germany, the bus manufacturer's world corporate office.

She explained axles used on the low-floor buses are different from the ones tested at the University Park track and, therefore, are behaving differently. "It's a matter of load distribution and load transfer into the tubular skeleton [frame]," she said. Since the Post-Gazette obtained the test results and sought to ask follow-up questions, she hasn't returned calls made to her office.

Essentially, the Port Authority assumed -- wrongly, it appears -- that the Federal Transit Administration OK'd Neoplan's low-floor buses as having structurally sound frames when Neoplan asked the FTA if the bus would have to be put through another round of tests at Penn State after the axles were changed.

Ronald D. Kangas, director of the FTA's office of technology, wrote Neoplan that "the difference is not significant," based on information that Neoplan provided to the federal agency. Kangas has since retired.

The Post-Gazette's review has also found:

* After different axles were used, either Neoplan or the Port Authority could have requested another round of testing at the Penn State bus-testing track, albeit voluntary testing. When asked about the feasibility several weeks ago, Chenoweth likened it to Monday morning quarterbacking. Port Authority officials said they regarded Kangas' letter as a waiver of further testing. FTA officials said the letter reflects the fact that the same test results would have occurred with the new axles.

"Based on information that Neoplan provided, the FTA's letter is correct," Klanikowski said. "It would imply, though, that the problems would be there the second time around."

* The Port Authority didn't receive a copy of the FTA's letter until September 1999, well after production of the low-floor buses was under way, although it had been asking Neoplan for a copy. Authority officials said they knew that the letter existed and it wouldn't have affected their actions, but they wanted a copy for records.

*The Port Authority was anxious for Neoplan to start manufacturing the low-floor buses because, by the spring of 1999, it was faced with not having enough buses to meet rush-hour schedules. As a result, the authority rented three buses from Lenzner Coach Lines Inc. of Sewickley and received two buses on loan from Neoplan USA.

*After the first cracks appeared after delivery of Port Authority's low-floor buses, and after Neoplan finished the first structural strengthening repairs at its Trafford facility, bus No. 5041 was sent to the Penn State test track. After being driven only 1,353 miles, cracks occurred in other frame areas, including the front of the bus.Jim Dwyer, director of technical support and special projects, was assigned to bus procurement, and therefore the Neoplan contract, in January 1999, after the contract had been awarded but before full-scale production began.

After the cracking, "Neoplan told us flat out they made the design error," Dwyer said. "They've been making changes for the past three months. To date, none of the cracks they fixed has recurred."

He said the difference between the authority's 1980s purchase of Neoplan buses that developed early mechanical and rust problems and the recent purchase of Neoplan low-floor buses is "they denied responsibility the first time...they're spending a lot of money re-engineering the bus this time."

Since the low-floor buses began developing cracks, Port Authority officials have looked at Pennsylvania Transportation Institute test results on other buses.

"We've looked at nine different buses, and every one of them had some number of deficiencies," Bell said. "I don't know how you can look at [the Neoplan low-floor bus test report] and say it [added up] to a bad bus."

Skoutelas said the situation shows the process involving bus manufacturers and the Federal Transit Administration merits review and more understanding if the national bus-testing program at Pennsylvania Transportation Institute is going to be more valuable.

"If things were that bad" with the low-floor bus, Skoutelas said, "why didn't the FTA say it?"



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