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MTA Pulls 120 Buses Out of Service

Transit: Vehicles powered by natural gas are sidelined after the gas tank in one ruptures during refueling, causing an explosion.

August 27, 1996|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles transit officials pulled 120 natural-gas-powered buses off the streets after a gas tank ruptured in one of the vehicles last week, increasing delays for some riders Monday.

Replacements were found for all but 38 of the vehicles as Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials scrambled to keep disruptions to a minimum. The low-polluting buses represent about 6% of the MTA fleet.

The action came after a gas tank in a compressed natural gas bus ruptured last week during refueling at a Sun Valley bus yard. The cause of the explosion has not been determined. No passengers were on the bus and no employee was injured. The blast ripped a hole in the floor and shattered the windows of the bus, which was barely a year old.

Transit officials predicted that it will be four to six weeks before service is back to normal. Longer delays were reported mostly in the Westside and San Fernando Valley. At most, riders waited 30 minutes longer than usual for a bus, officials reported. "We know that some of our customers will be inconvenienced," transit chief Joseph E. Drew said Monday. "But we decided that we should keep these buses out of service pending additional tests to make sure that they are absolutely safe."

Service could vary day to day, depending on the MTA's ability to borrow buses from other transit agencies and keep older replacement buses in running condition, officials said. The agency reported that it had received only seven complaints about service on its customer hotline by late Monday.

Because it has not been determined what caused the explosion, Drew said he ordered the buses be kept off the street for testing.

"We've operated our fleet something approaching 5 million miles and never experienced anything significant like this, and we don't know of it occurring anywhere else in the country," Drew said.

The MTA recently ordered 250 more of the natural-gas buses, which would give Los Angeles more of the buses than any other city in the nation.

An additional 60 of the buses--loaned to Atlanta for the Olympics straight from the factory--are now arriving in Los Angeles. Many of those buses suffered minor damage, mostly scrapes, an MTA official said, noting that repairs will be paid for from insurance taken out by the Atlanta Olympic committee.

The natural-gas buses sell for $300,000 each--about $50,000 more than diesel buses.

The MTA has alerted other transit agencies across the nation about the problem. Drew has brought in a panel of experts to inspect the fleet of buses. He said the manufacturer, Neoplan, will install a protective shield between the gas tanks and the chassis as a safety precaution. One theory was that a rock or road debris may have struck the tank.

"I've been flying all my life, and there are some unexplained events," said Drew, a former Army chopper pilot. "I'm hoping this is not one."

Drew's action followed an appeal by the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1277, which represents bus mechanics. In a letter to Drew the day after the explosion, Neil H. Silver said it was lucky that no one was injured.

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