The Colorado-based manufacturer of buses that have been plagued by structural cracks has been told by federal officials to repair the problem buses, used in Los Angeles and other cities, or face a formal investigation that could lead to a mandatory recall.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in a letter to Neoplan USA Corp., referred to the cracked support frames and problems with defroster units on buses as "safety-related defects" which pose a potential hazard unless replaced or repaired quickly.
Neoplan officials, denying that any safety problems exist, said Wednesday they were preparing a written response to the federal agency challenging its assertions and said no recall effort is underway.
Meanwhile, Neoplan is doing temporary repairs on the RTD buses at the rate of two a day in the company's Van Nuys facility, according to RTD spokesman Marc Littman. Neoplan is paying for grinding out and rewelding the cracks, Littman said, while seeking a permanent solution to the problem.
About 1,600 Neoplan buses are being used by transit operators in such cities as Atlanta, Oakland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington, and in this area by the nation's largest all-bus operator--the Southern California Rapid Transit District.
The RTD, which recently bought 415 Neoplan buses, disclosed last week that cracks were found on the A-frames of 62 buses, including a dozen that were pulled out of service. RTD spokesman Marc Littman said Wednesday "hairline cracks" have been found in another 19 buses, but repairs on those are underway, and all the buses sidelined earlier are back on the streets.
100 Removed From Service
Four months ago, the district was forced to remove 100 Neoplan buses from service after similar cracks were discovered around the A-frame, which helps support the rear of the bus.
Despite reassurances from the company that the Neoplan buses are sound, the Dec. 27 letter from the Office of Defects Investigation Enforcement of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration urged a voluntary recall of the buses "in the interest of safety."
In his letter to Neoplan President Bob Lee--a copy of which was obtained by The Times--Philip W. Davis, the office's acting director, said problems with the A-frame could cause a driver to lose control of the bus. Davis likened the situation to a widely publicized recall of Grumman Flxible buses a few years ago--after the discovery of similar cracks--and urged Lee to "install the safest and latest design A-frame and transverse link" to strengthen the frames.
Davis noted that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority reported an "A-frame collapsing" last August. And he said problems with a defroster unit on another Neoplan bus in Washington was blamed for an electrical fire that forced the driver and passengers to flee.
"Should you decide not to take immediate action, this agency will have to take steps to open two formal defect investigations, one involving the defroster and the other involving the A-frame," Davis wrote.
Roslyn Kaiser, a spokeswoman for the federal agency, said a formal investigation could lead to a demand for a recall and possible civil penalties--including a maximum $800,000 fine "for any related series of violations"--against the firm if it does not comply.
In Lamar, Colo., Neoplan spokeswoman Joyce Surprise confirmed that the company had received the federal request but "disagrees with several statements" in the letter and "a recall has not been initiated by Neoplan."
Surprise said the Washington fire is the lone incident involving a defroster unit and a technical response to federal officials is being prepared.
"Neoplan wants to reemphasize that no safety aspect is involved on either issue," she said.