Interestingly, the most frequently cited maintenance challenges include issues with both old and new buses.

Interestingly, the most frequently cited maintenance challenges include issues with both old and new buses.

Keeping school buses in top shape, which is so essential to the safe transportation of students, is a tough job that has become more complex as bus and engine technology have evolved.

In our 2016 Maintenance Survey, we asked transportation and shop managers what they see as the biggest challenge for maintenance in the coming year (that question is addressed in this editorial — see the rest of the survey results here). Sorting through the responses, there are six common issues that rise to the fore: staffing, aging buses, emission systems, technological changes, funding, and electrical diagnostics. Interestingly, the most frequently cited challenges include issues with both old and new buses.

For the older side of the fleet, many survey respondents pointed to the increased cost of repairs to keep the buses running and passing inspections. Rust is one of the common issues tied to the aging buses. There’s also the challenge of finding parts for the oldest buses and engines.

For the newer side of the fleet, one of the key challenges for shops is keeping up with changes in technology, such as the computer and software systems involved in servicing the buses.

Also, many survey respondents noted the difficulty in maintaining emission systems in newer buses. One technician described the issue thus: “Now that our 2010 and newer ones are getting more miles on them, just keeping up with the breakdowns on the emission side of them and learning how to diagnose and repair them.”

Another of the most commonly cited challenges is diagnosing and dealing with electrical issues. On that front, see maintenance expert Brad Barker’s feature “How to Cut Repair Costs with Proper Electrical Diagnosis.”

Staffing is another key challenge for many school bus shops. As we’ve been reporting, there has been an increased degree of school bus driver shortage across the nation in the past couple of years, and this often has a ripple effect on the maintenance program. We heard from some survey respondents that their technicians are getting pulled away from their duties in the shop to cover school bus routes.

One shop foreman said that his staff is hard pressed to get enough time to work on the buses. “Technicians are asked to drive too often, due to driver shortage,” he said.

The staffing issue also applies more directly to the shop. Some survey participants said that their top challenge is recruiting maintenance staff — “finding qualified technicians for the disparate compensation school districts offer,” as one fleet manager put it.

In some cases, shops are in need of new recruits to replace older technicians who are retiring. Losing those maintenance veterans’ years of experience adds another dimension to the challenge.

Here are more comments from survey respondents that give additional insight on the key challenges in school bus maintenance:

• “Keeping an aging fleet up to DOT standards and dealing with a one-mechanic operation.”
• “Keeping drivers so maintenance does not have to drive.”
• “Attracting qualified technicians and retaining them once we have them.”
• “Rough roads tearing up bodies and suspension.”
• “Keeping the cost down as the fleet ages.”
• “Keeping up with the emissions and technology changes.”
• “Having enough time to do the job right.”
• “Trying to keep the buses running when it’s -20 out.”
• “Maintaining level of service with shrinking funding.”

We hope that this maintenance-focused March issue of SBF helps you in dealing with some of your own top challenges in the shop.