Two of seven RTD bus yards spot-checked by the California Highway Patrol in recent months have failed inspections because of safety-related equipment problems.
In the worst case, five of the nine buses inspected by CHP officers during a surprise check at the district's Pomona bus division were ordered off the road. The buses were sidelined in the April inspection because of a flat tire, a variety of potentially dangerous brake defects and suspension problems, Cecil Heldreth, commander of the CHP Inland Division's bus inspection unit, said Thursday.
Broken Axle Ignored
Earlier this month, another Southern California Rapid Transit District bus division in Carson failed a CHP inspection. Three buses were ordered out of service for brake system and other problems. The most serious discovery was that one bus was put back in service unrepaired after a broken axle U-bolt was spotted by mechanics.
"That's what holds the axle on," said Al Palmer, commander of the CHP's Los Angeles area bus inspection unit. "If someone slammed the brakes on good and hard, the axle's likely to come out from under (the bus)."
"Someone failed to do their job out there," Palmer said.
The "unsatisfactory" ratings given the two divisions mean that maintenance improvements must be made in the next two months or those bus yards could have their operating permits suspended. Five RTD bus divisions have not yet received their annual CHP inspections.
Failing two of the seven inspections given this year, however, is an unusually bad showing for an agency that often sees all of its 12 bus divisions easily pass the CHP checks. And it reopens a large public relations wound that RTD officials had hoped was beginning to heal as news of spectacular bus accidents and equipment problems had subsided in recent months.
It also comes in the midst of embattled General Manager John Dyer's six-month plan to solve the agency's problems--a key part of which focuses on improved bus maintenance.
RTD officials and other sources familiar with bus operations say that a number of problems may be combining to undermine bus maintenance. For one, as a result of reports of increased complaints about service by riders a few months ago, bus division managers are under tremendous pressure to field a full complement of buses each day.
Though RTD officials deny it, some sources say that buses with unrepaired maintenance problems increasingly are being placed in service to meet the daily quota of vehicles.
Overtime Cut Back
Compounding the problem is a cutback in overtime for drivers and mechanics and a shrinking bus fleet. It is becoming too costly to keep many older buses running, and defects discovered in newer buses delivered to the district have delayed placing them in service.
Rich Davis, RTD director of maintenance, denied that the maintenance problems found by CHP inspectors were related to pressure to keep buses on the street. "You don't compromise safety" to meet bus schedules, Davis said.
But he said that for the first time in at least seven years, maintenance problems have caused the transit agency to cancel some scheduled bus runs. In the past, runs have been canceled because of driver shortages and other problems, but not for lack of road-ready buses, he said.
The cancellations occurred on three weekdays between May 8 and May 12 when the RTD was short 19 buses in meeting its quota of 2,012 vehicles fit for service. Routes were juggled so that no riders were left without transportation, Davis said, although there were some delays. Since then, he said, the RTD "missed the rollout" one more time, but he has patched together a series of temporary improvements to correct the situation.
However, Davis told The Times earlier this month that he was "running out of buses."
The RTD has 2,672 buses, supposedly enough to keep 20% in reserve for maintenance while the others are in use.
The inspection failure at the Carson division was the second at that facility in two years. The Pomona division had passed its inspections in recent years.
Davis said he is planning to take disciplinary action against managers at the Carson facility for letting the bus with the broken axle bolt leave the yard. And managers at both facilities "pretty much (have) kissed any chance of a raise out the window," he said.
In a separate matter, the RTD board Thursday rejected the pleas of a group of downtown property owners and authorized the sale of $200 million in bonds to help pay for the Metro Rail subway. The bonds, which will not actually be marketed until pending legal challenges are resolved, are to be repaid by a special 20-year tax on about 2,000 properties near the downtown and MacArthur Park stations.