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Wild Trolley Rides : Herky-Jerky Buses That Masquerade as Streetcars Are a Hit With Riders


WHITTIER — Whittier's buses look like San Francisco cable cars. But they ride like a buggy with bad springs, and shake, rattle and roll like a San Francisco earthquake.

Since the five-trolley fleet arrived amid much fanfare last summer, the vehicles have been plagued by problems and hit with an unsatisfactory safety report from the California Highway Patrol.

But Whittier resident Lorraine Leon waves off the problems and the jolting, jerky ride. To 67-year-old Leon, the best thing about the vehicles--which are really diesel-powered buses in disguise--is that they remind her of the real streetcars she rode as a child.

"They are a joy to ride," she said one recent sunny afternoon as she took the bus home from the senior center. "Just remember to hold on!"

Ridership on the Whittier Transit System has never been higher. An average of 23,000 students, businessmen, senior citizens and shoppers use the system each month, traversing two 19-mile routes through the city's residential and commercial districts.

The passengers get where they are going, but it hasn't all been a spin in the park. First the wheelchair lifts didn't work. Then faulty alternators caused the vehicles to break down weekly.

The $160,000 vehicles were eventually repaired by the manufacturer, Transportation Director Nancy Mendez said, but not before several periods of missed service and inconvenience to the riders.

Then in June, the CHP said basic mechanical repairs, such as fixing a bent wheel rim or replacing a bald tire, were not being made.

The report also cited problems with the maintenance reporting system and noted that drivers were slow to complete daily reports on the mechanical health of the vehicles.

"One thing we cannot tolerate is getting CHP violations," Mayor Bob Henderson said after the report was submitted to the City Council. "That is a huge safety concern."

Whittier has a three-year, $1.4-million maintenance agreement with Long Beach-based transit operator ATE/Ryder, which provides bus drivers and is supposed to take care of all maintenance on the vehicles.

At the time of the CHP inspection, three of the 11 drivers provided by ATE/Ryder weren't enrolled in a Department of Motor Vehicles program that monitors driving records. Participation in the program is required by state law, according to CHP officials.

"Obviously there needs to be some improvement," Mendez said.

The three drivers are now enrolled in the monitoring program, said ATE/Ryder General Manager Eric Slater, and the company has added one full-time maintenance manager to ensure that repairs are made quickly.

"I think finally we are at the point where we can say the buses are working well," Slater said. "There were some bugs in the vehicles themselves, and the manufacturer has taken care of those."

Mendez agreed that the buses have had fewer breakdowns recently.

A second CHP inspection, which is required every 13 months, is scheduled at the end of the summer, Mendez said.

Last month, council members reviewed a no-nonsense one-year progress report that detailed problems the system has had so far. They warned that they will be keeping close tabs on the transit system in the coming year. "One would certainly hope that there would be no problems since (the buses) are brand new," Henderson said.

Edward de la Pena, who has been driving the trolley-buses since they came to Whittier, said that the vehicles are simply going through a process every new car goes through but that it is taking a little longer.

Before the trolleys came to town, De La Pena drove the utilitarian white commuter vans that had been used in the city since 1985.

"We're just all starting to adjust (to the buses), is all," De la Pena said as he pulled up at the 1930s-era Crystal Room on Philadelphia Street where the trolley car looked right at home.

To some riders, though, the most pressing problem with the buses is the bare mahogany seats. "The chairs are as hard as rocks," Leon said.

De la Pena agreed.

"Everyone thinks they are fun, like a ride at Disneyland," he said. "But can't they just put cushions on the seats?"

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