Operation prevails over harsh winters with teamwork
Community Transportation LLC
Established in 2003, Jaffrey, N.H.-based Community Transportation LLC, which transports 1,800 special-needs students and regular-education students to school, has received 100 percent on every annual state inspection conducted by the New Hampshire Department of Safety. With a fleet of 20 Thomas Built Saf-T Liner C2s, 10 Thomas Minotours and nine Dodge minivans, that is no easy feat.
Joel Weissman, owner of Community Transportation, credits much of this success to his shop, which is staffed by one technician who performs preventive maintenance on the vehicles. He also relies on his dealer, W.C. Cressey and Sons, which not only offers maintenance training for Weissman’s employee, but also performs the heavy maintenance jobs should a major problem occur. The dealer is two hours away from the shop, and the staff is always willing to help Weissman and his staff whenever there is a problem.
“I think any bus company should have a relationship with its dealers because the dealers know the equipment better than anyone,” he explains.
Weissman also notes that without his drivers, his maintenance program would not be very effective.
“Our maintenance department has a good working relationship with our drivers, with drivers taking an active role in keeping their vehicles in top condition,” he says.
When something seems amiss with a bus, drivers immediately inform him and his technician to make sure everything is functioning properly.
“Our drivers are the greatest strength to the maintenance program,” Weissman says. “They treat the buses like their own vehicles, they clean the buses, they make sure that everything is working properly, and they fill out all the work order forms.”
But even with all the driver help, it doesn’t counter the biggest challenge facing the maintenance department: heavy winters. “We’re in the southwest corner of New Hampshire, and the winters are hard on equipment,” he says.
During these rough winters, he notes that potholes are spread throughout the road, which can cause major damage to vehicles if they are not handled properly. However, Weissman says that his drivers are very skilled at defensive driving in rough weather conditions, which eliminates potential maintenance issues.
It also helps that the operation runs a considerably new fleet, with vehicles ranging from 2004 model year to 2009 model year, which Weissman purchased when the company took over a contract in one of the area school districts.
“Preventive maintenance is first of all making sure we have good equipment,” he says. In order for the buses to meet Community Transportation’s specifications, the company spent more money per vehicle on equipment that eases maintenance issues, such as heavier accessories and better tires. Not only have the new vehicles reduced maintenance issues, but they’ve also reduced fuel costs by $34,000.
Community Transportation’s school buses contain Webasto heaters to preheat the buses, reducing strain on the engine while cutting emissions. Additionally, there is a no-idling policy that each driver must follow.
— ASHLEY WILLIS
Fleet: 30 school buses, 6 other vehicles
Total shop staff: 1
Number of bus bays: 1
Annual mileage: 550,000
Students transported: 1,800
Schools served: 2
Techs’ priorities are preventive maintenance, cost-savings
Croswell-Lexington Community Schools
Being the only technicians in a three-bay shop that services 31 school buses and five other vehicles for a 168-square mile district, Rob Butler and Joe Galbraith, technicians for Croswell-Lexington Community Schools (CLCS) in Croswell, Mich., run a pretty aggressive preventive maintenance schedule.
To make sure everything is running smoothly, the pair performs a state police inspection on all the vehicles in the fleet. A dry preventive maintenance (PM) is run every 2,000 miles, Butler explains, which includes a grease job, adjusting the brakes and a 170-point state police inspection. Every 4,000 to 6,000 miles, a wet PM is performed on the vehicles, which consists of all the dry PM requirements, plus an oil change. Thanks to this aggressive schedule, Butler and Galbraith have received 100 percent on state inspections for nine of 10 years.
Both technicians are ASE certified, with Butler having four ASE certifications and Galbraith having his ASE master’s in school bus repair. They receive their training through factory seminars.
Drivers are key to keeping the PM program running effectively as well. In fact, some of the drivers are actually family members of the technicians. Because they are so close, there is an open-door policy between the drivers and the technicians, so if there is a problem, Butler and Galbraith can immediately respond before the situation gets worse.
Part of what makes this team so successful is the great lengths they go through to make sure they get their equipment at bargain prices, never forgetting that quality is always the goal. In order to reduce maintenance costs, they joined a group buying program with other technicians in surrounding school districts to purchase equipment for their buses, in which they price-shopped with vendors to determine the best prices so they could receive “the best bang for their buck.”
Butler notes that by purchasing new electronic engines and cutting down on idling time, the operation’s fuel costs have decreased and the buses are now averaging 8.5 miles per gallon.
Additionally, the technicians are self-reliant, never depending on outside vendors to perform any service on their vehicles.
The technicians use a laptop that contains all their engine diagnostics software, Butler explains. “We have three different engines here: International, Caterpillar and Cummins,” he says. “Our laptop with up-to-date engine and transmission software is our main tool.”
The district’s fleet of buses ranges in age from ’99 to ’09 model years. In the interest of “going green,” Galbraith says, they installed 17 catalytic converters in buses in 2008 to reduce emissions thanks to a local grant that circled through four districts in the area.
The duo’s efforts are not lost on Transportation and Operations Director Michael Hinojosa, who came to the district two years ago.
“I inherited them, which was probably the best inheritance I ever had,” he says. “With me being their direct supervisor, I’m not there all the time looking over them, and they’re able to run their shop the way they see fit. They do a great job.”
— ASHLEY WILLIS
Fleet: 31 school buses, 5 other vehicles
Total shop staff: 2
Number of bus bays: 3
Annual mileage: 360,000
Students transported: 1,400
Schools served: 5
Shop focuses on efficiency, driver support
Mid-Placer Public Schools Transportation Agency
Mid-Placer Public Schools Transportation Agency (MPSTA) has received a satisfactory rating on state fleet inspections every year with the exception of one since its inception in 1979. Martin Ward, CEO, says this impressive performance is due to the operation’s preventive maintenance program.
MPSTA’s mix of Type I and Type II buses are inspected every 45 days or every 3,000 miles to meet California’s safety inspection requirement. Beyond that, Ward says customized service intervals were developed for the buses. Oil in the larger buses, for instance, is changed every 8,000 miles (up from a 3,000-mile interval).
“We extended it based on our oil analysis program,” Ward says. “Oil sampling gives you an idea of the condition of the oil, but right now we’re focusing on how the lubrication package is holding up. As long as we have adequate reserves, we’ll extend our drain intervals, which saves oil and reduces the time spent on oil changes.”
To further increase efficiency and lower costs, MPSTA’s shop is utilizing Ron Turley Associates’ fleet management software to track vehicle costs. “We winnowed our vendor list to focus on those with short delivery times, allowing us to purchase on an as-needed bases, thus reducing inventory counts and carrying costs,” Ward adds.
Personal computers have also been set up in the shop to help the technicians track and plan maintenance tasks, and MPSTA has invested in a roll-around unit for diagnostics work.
Ward believes that the staff is the shop’s greatest strength. The technicians receive the bulk of their training by working on the job, but MPSTA also sends the techs to classes hosted by such vendors as Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems and NAPA Auto Parts.
“We’re looking into training on computer-controlled fuel systems,” Ward adds. “Engines have become electronically controlled, so to properly diagnose problems we need help. It’s a matter of keeping up with current technology.”
Keeping up with technology is a challenge for the operation. As a second example, Ward cites California Air Resources Board requirements that mandate equipping more of the fleet’s buses with diesel particulate filters. The passive filters that the operation has been using for years are no longer available, and the new filters have an active system that will require installing $30,000 infrastructure onsite for regeneration purposes. “We want to provide clean air for the children, but how we will fund the infrastructure is a concern for us,” Ward explains.
Another of the MPSTA shop’s assets is the good rapport between the technicians and the agency’s school bus drivers. The technicians practice an open-door policy and are quick to address drivers’ concerns regarding their buses.
“The technicians have supported the training department by teaching new drivers about the buses and their components,” Ward says. “They raise the bus on a lift and show drivers where the components are, what they look like and how they function. This helps the drivers communicate with the shop when there is a problem with the buses.”
The technicians have also created training tools for the drivers, including a bus seat mounted to a plywood base for instruction on how to use safety vests, safety harnesses and car seats, and a portable wheelchair station for training on wheelchair securement. They have also supplied bus parts that are used in the classroom portion of driver training.
— KELLY ROHER
Fleet: 60 school buses, 2 other vehicles
Total shop staff: 7
Number of bus bays: 5
Annual mileage: 1.2 million
Students transported: 1,800
Area of service: 1,120 sq. miles
Schools served: 34
Shop passes many tests
Naperville Community Unit School District 203
For evidence that the Naperville Community Unit School District’s bus maintenance team is at the top of its game, Fleet Maintenance Manager Tom Pelletier points to spare buses.
Two years ago, the fleet of about 130 school buses had only two spare units to work with — and one of them was going out on a half route — so there was little room for error. But the shop crew kept the operation running smoothly through the school year.
“That says something about the technicians in the garage and our maintenance program, when you only have two spares,” Pelletier says.
The team’s maintenance work also proved itself on a winter morning a few years ago when the temperature sank to an uncommon low of minus 12. Early that morning, Naperville’s superintendent told Pelletier that other districts in the region were calling and saying that their buses wouldn’t start.
But even though Naperville doesn’t have electrical outlets to plug its fleet engine block heaters into, the buses all started on time for their routes, with only a few having to be jump-started.
“We were practically the only school district in the northern half of the state in school that day,” Pelletier says.
He attributes the success to a top-notch preventive maintenance (PM) program, procedures for testing and repairing the bus’ charging systems, and vehicle specifications and oil viscosity chosen carefully for the area and its climate.
The summer before that frigid morning, Naperville had changed its engine oil down to 10W-30, which allowed the engines to crank faster in the cold. “It’s still a heavy-duty oil, but it’s good to about 30 below,” Pelletier notes.
In spec’ing buses, Pelletier opts for three batteries. “In winter, battery capacity goes down, so the third battery helps when it gets cold,” he says.
As part of the Naperville shop’s electrical program, the technicians keep a close eye on the batteries. “We check out batteries. Don’t just jump it and let it go. Bring it back in — let’s see what caused it,” Pelletier says.
Alternators are replaced only after checking the batteries. “The alternator is not designed to charge the battery,” Pelletier notes.
For its PM program, Naperville has a 93-point inspection sheet. Every line item has to be initialed by a technician. The PMs are done at certain mileage or time intervals. Typically, the buses come in twice a year. One of the key goals is to make sure that all of the components will last until the next PM.
“If the brakes aren’t going to last six months, we’ll replace them,” Pelletier says. This reduces breakdowns and service calls.
One way the Naperville shop keeps costs down is by constantly testing products to see what will work the best and last the longest, from tires to batteries to video camera systems. About three years ago, the operation began putting LEDs on its buses and has since seen a drastic reduction in the number of problems that come up with clearance lights.
In Illinois, school buses undergo twice-annual state inspections that are scheduled and can be prepared for. But “the real test,” Pelletier says, is every two or three years when the state inspectors show up for surprise visits and go through every bus in the fleet. In the nine years Pelletier has been with Naperville, there have been three of those unexpected inspections, and, he says, “They left all three times without red-tagging any of our units.”
— THOMAS MCMAHON
Fleet: 136 school buses, 30 other vehicles
Total shop staff: 6
Number of bus bays: 4
Annual mileage: 1,210,000
Students transported: 13,000
Schools served: 28
An outstanding one-man show
Revier Transportation LLC
Although transporting Plains Public Schools students on five daily routes and maintaining the school buses and coaches they ride is his main focus, Larry Revier also performs heavy equipment repair for logging rigs and over-the-road trucks if they happen to break down in the area. And with his water truck, he helps fight the wildfires that tend to break out during the summer in the timbered areas surrounding Plains. When firefighting equipment breaks down on the line, Revier is also the man to fix it.
Revier got his start in maintenance working for a heavy truck shop in 1979. After 15 years there, he headed to Alaska’s North Slope for a stint working on heavy drill equipment rigs. When he returned to Montana, he purchased a school transportation business from another operator, and Revier Transportation LLC has been in operation ever since.
Revier is the only mechanic on staff, making repairs as they come up and servicing all the buses every 3,000 miles. “Once a month or so, I have a different bus in here and I do a complete go-through, inspection in and out, and look at the driver’s complaint list of what is wrong,” he says.
Because his shop is in a somewhat isolated and rural area, Revier says getting parts can be a challenge. “You can’t just go out to a regular dealer,” he says. “Everything has to be shipped to you, and sometimes it’s the wrong part, which can delay repairs,” he explains.
A long-time member and current board vendor representative at the Montana Association for Pupil Transportation and president of the Montana School Bus Contractors Association, Revier feels that his involvement with these organizations helps him keep abreast of industry trends and share knowledge with colleagues.
“Larry is the person on the boards that watches the money, not because it is his job, but because he is naturally fiscally responsible,” says Maxine Mougeot, pupil transportation director at the state’s Office of Public Instruction. When expenses arise, Revier says he likes to look for ways to reduce the cost to the association, for instance sharing the cost of a conference speaker with another nearby organization.
His financial philosophy is instrumental to his own operation as well. “He is a great business man who is fair, consistent, sensible and efficient. He drives the bus, maintains the bus, stocks parts for repairs, and he shops for deals when he purchases parts or buses,” Mougeot says.
“You shop around, of course, when you’re buying fuel, tires — your larger ticketed items,” Revier says. “It seems to be worth a call to at least two to three different people before you go ahead and purchase something.”
The key to a successful maintenance operation, Revier says, is staying on top of repairs to avoid the necessity for major overhauls and scheduling those major repairs for the summer months to keep routes running without interruption. “I’m on top of everything that comes in and goes out,” he says. “It’s my pride and my name on the buses, and I like to have everything clean, painted and shined up.”
— CLAIRE ATKINSON
Fleet: 10 school buses, 2 charter coaches
Total shop staff: 1
Number of bus bays: 2
Annual mileage: 52,560
Students transported: Approx. 200
Schools served: 1