Zero-degree temperatures have the uncanny ability to keep many Americans indoors where it’s warm and cozy. But in some parts of the country, Alaska for instance, this convenience isn’t always an option. Laidlaw Education Services of Fairbanks, Alaska, keeps going despite the cold.
The Fairbanks branch of Laidlaw launched in 1995 with the acquisition of Mayflower Contract Services. The company has a fleet of 156 buses, mostly Blue Bird TC/2000s or rear-engine Internationals. About 43 of the buses are dedicated to transporting special-needs students. In all, approximately 5,500 students are transported daily to 30 schools in a district that encompasses 7,361 square miles, roughly the size of Rhode Island, Delaware and Connecticut combined.
Setting up camp in an area where close to 60 percent of the roads are unpaved created immediate challenges for the operation. Not only do drivers contend with temperatures that go up to 95 degrees and drop to 60 below, they also deal with hilly areas that have seven- to eight-percent inclines. Add snow and ice to this formula and it’s easy to imagine the trials of navigating buses through such adverse climates and terrain.
The heat is off
Although Alaska has an average of 75 inches of snowfall each year, more than 15 inches have fallen at once. At press time, it was 20 degrees, and the region was behind in snowfall.
There have been no below-zero temperatures as yet, but Edward Graff, branch manager at Laidlaw, is vigilant.
Graff and some of his drivers have identified advantages to frigid temperatures. “We like it when it’s cold,” he says, explaining that the ground is sticky and the buses, especially when they are warmed up, grip the roads better.
Laidlaw uses Onspot’s automatic tire chains to handle the icy roads. Similar to Rud Chain’s Rotogrip automatic snow chain system, Onspot’s chains fasten to the bus’ suspension and allow traction enhancement for both forward and reverse movement of the bus, all at the flip of a dashboard switch. The driver never leaves the cockpit to activate these chain systems.
The automatic chains are used in conjunction with hard irons, however. These chains — used for the outer dual tires — require the driver to exit the bus to install them. The combined traction is ideal for stops and starts, especially on slick roads and routes in the Alaskan mountains where there is more snow.
Laidlaw requires early check-ins on days when a storm is imminent or if hazardous road conditions exist. Drivers are brought in 20 minutes early to install their chains.
The Alaska branch employs 11 mechanics: nine at the Fairbanks terminal and two at Moose Creek.
District ordinances require all buses to be stored indoors at a minimum of 45 degrees. Laidlaw buses are stored in two heated barns that use oil furnaces to keep the equipment, as well as the personnel, warm.
The two bus barns total 75,000 square feet. The Moose Creek terminal is 21,000 square feet while the Fairbanks terminal is 54,000 square feet.
Keeping the buses warm cuts down on maintenance problems and makes for an easier start on cold mornings.
Safe and warm
When spec’ing buses, Alaskan transportation operations must include what is commonly known as the Alaskan package. The Alaskan package is essentially a heating and insulation combination that includes an auxiliary heating system made by Espar and insulation throughout the body of the bus.
The Espar heating system is a backup heater that runs independently from the rest of the bus. The system runs on diesel fuel at approximately three-quarters of a gallon per hour and can be angled to blow heat at step wells to keep the steps dry. Espar puts extra heat into the bus at about 250,000 Btu.