Meeting Maintenance Challenges with Fewer Dollars

Before Rebuilding
Before Rebuilding
After Rebuilding
After Rebuilding

The challenges of meeting the transit industry’s mandate to keep equipment in a state of good repair with limited capital funding has Hampton Roads Transit thinking creatively about how to squeeze more life out of its aging fleet.

HRT’s bus fleet averages 10 and a half years old, nearly four years beyond what is recommended by the Federal Transit Administration. More than half — 65 percent — are older than 10 years and 33 buses have an astonishing 700,000 to 950,000 miles on the odometer.

The older equipment breaks down more often and requires a greater effort by HRT maintenance staff to keep in reliable condition — a critical feature for the agency to meet its on-time performance metrics.

HRT forecasts that it will fund only $170 million of its $265 million in capital needs over the period FY2017 to FY2023. This revenue will be spent on the most critical needs within HRT’s system, it aging bus fleet, the replacement of older paratransit vehicles, and the replacement and improvement of critical IT software and hardware.

To address challenges faced in its bus operations, HRT initiated in 2013 its Repower-Rebuild-Replace program. As its name suggests, it’s a program that allows HRT to identify specific buses that would be eligible for replacing a powertrain (engine and transmission), or undergo a complete restoration. The third option, the most expensive, is to buy new buses — but at nearly $500,000 per bus, that is a limited option.

HRT’s current contractor, Coach Crafters, Inc. of Tavaras, Fla., has one hybrid and two 1500 series buses in for repair. And later this month the agency will issue a Request for Proposals for an additional 37 vehicles for repower services, while in July HRT will seek rebuild services on 22 vehicles.

Buses that qualify for repower work are driven to Florida on a flatbed truck to the company’s operations. There, engines, transmissions and cooling systems are removed and replaced with rebuilt equipment. This process replaces the leak-prone and outdated hydraulic cooling systems with electric fan arrays that keep the powertrain in better operating condition. These power trains require far less regular maintenance and are more reliable than older powerplants with high miles on them. Repowering a transit bus in this fashion generally costs between $65-75,000 per vehicle, depending on the need.

The rebuild program is far more involved but it produces a more dramatic result.

Depending on the problems presented, contractors thoroughly examine a worn bus and develop a parts list for everything needed. The vehicle is then completely disassembled. The undercarriage is power washed, descaled and sandblasted. Major components are removed, including engine, the transmission, the air conditioning system, all damaged panels, the flooring, seats, side windows and quite a few of the electrical components to ensure all harnesses and connections are inspected.

Structural repairs are then made — if necessary — and may extend to axles. The undercarriage is then recoated. A new engine, cooling system and transmission are installed and, if necessary, the front suspension is addressed to ensure all bushings and trailing arms are in proper working condition.

The flooring is replaced along with any side panels. The vehicle is then repainted. Windows are replaced. New seats added. New badges — or the distinctive markings that identify HRT equipment — are applied and the vehicle is tested and ready for service.

Rebuilding a bus is often achieved at a cost of about half of a new one — meaning scarce transit dollars can be stretched a little further. Depending on the amount of work, a typical rebuild on a 40-foot bus can cost $250,000 and can add seven years to its service life.

Between FY2013-15, HRT has had 44 buses fully rebuilt, 12 repowered, and 33 replaced. In ideal circumstances, HRT should buy about 25 new buses each year to keep its fleet average within FTA acceptable age. But the agency often cannot afford that, thus its repower, rebuild and replace program helps keep the fleet healthy and ready to serve.