Study details MTA woes

Buses average breakdown every 976 miles of service

Peer agencies more reliable

Report details problems with maintenance, safety

April 21, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Buses operated by the Maryland Transit Administration are less reliable and more prone to breakdowns than buses in comparable transit agencies, a consultant hired by the agency has found.

MTA buses break down in the middle of a run once every 976 miles - largely due to poor maintenance and management. Buses in eight peer agencies average 2,700 miles between breakdowns, according to a Booz Allen Hamilton report commissioned by the MTA for $220,000.

The 1 1/2 -inch thick report notes years of neglect in the MTA's maintenance department, from out-of-stock parts to a widespread disregard for safety policies, as contributing to the poor repair record. And it recommends sweeping changes, many of which are under way.

"The maintenance problems identified in that report are of a historic nature," said state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. "They go back to many, many years of people not having a positive atmosphere to work in, not being held accountable and not having positive incentives."

Two weeks ago, Flanagan replaced almost the entire leadership team at the MTA, with the exception of the administrator. Even the No. 2 MTA official, who had been on the job for only three months, was asked to leave. The agency, which carries 232,000 bus riders daily, is close to hiring a director of safety and head of bus maintenance to address the longstanding problems.

"We know we've got a lot of room for improvement at the MTA," Flanagan said.

According to the Booz Allen report, obtained by The Sun through a Freedom of Information Act request, "Accountability for fulfilling safety functions and for following safety rules and procedures is absent at all levels. ... There is ample evidence that pre-trip (and post-trip) inspections are not working and require a major overhaul."

Bus drivers are supposed to inspect their vehicles before each run and fill out a pre-inspection report noting problems. But some drivers are known to fill out a week's worth of reports in advance, all saying "No trouble found," according to the Booz Allen analysis.

When a bus breaks down, employees must rely on their experience to determine the problem. Field supervisors, radio dispatchers and bus drivers do not have a checklist of what to do in the event of a mechanical problem. Also, there are no detailed instructions for preventive maintenance, while other large transit agencies have thorough checklists.

According to the analysis, at the MTA's four bus yards, parts often are out of stock and employees are forced to cannibalize old buses for spares. And maintenance supervisors and yard superintendents are not involved in the selection of new parts, leading to instances in which inadequate parts have been ordered.

"They used to keep things stocked up, [but] maybe about five years ago, they stopped keeping certain products in stock," said Deoleous Bridges, head of the local drivers and mechanics union. "So when a bus needs a part, they have to order it and wait for it to come in."

He said the MTA is not conducting major inspections on buses as often as it used to, but he denies the report's assertion that some drivers fill out a week's worth of inspection reports in advance. "You don't know what bus you're going to have and what kind of problems it has. You can't fill them out a week in advance. That's a fallacy," Bridges said.

He pointed out that MTA buses are old - the fleet average is 9 years old. But the buses are no older than those at the eight peer agencies the MTA was measured against. In Boston, the average bus is 10 years old but goes 5,800 miles between breakdowns, almost six times farther than MTA buses.

As the MTA puts 100 new buses on the streets this year and 125 more next year, breakdowns should be less common, officials said.

Maintenance supervisors often are overworked and underpaid, the report said, harming morale and creating a "crisis management situation." Supervisors said their take-home pay was up to 30 percent less than their employees. One supervisor reported working 81 days straight because of low staffing.

The report also noted that the MTA likely loses hundreds of thousands of dollars per year by not recovering money for faulty products under warranty. Mechanics estimated the MTA recovers between 10 percent and 50 percent of what it could recover under warranties.

One apparent problem is that maintenance supervisors are supposed to e-mail reports about any work covered by warranty to the quality assurance office. "However," the report said, "not all of the maintenance supervisors have [or use] e-mail."

The MTA expects some improvement with a new maintenance, parts and warranty tracking system called MAXIMO that will soon replace a 20-year-old program. MTA Administrator Robert Smith, who started last summer, said the agency will be well positioned to trace problems to root causes.

"When the wheels were falling off the buses, there was no forensics. We were unable to find out where the problem was," said Smith, the only top official to survive last week's house-cleaning. "With the new people in place, the new procedures and the new system to help us manage better, we'll know where the breakdowns are."

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