Bus fires spur recall

MTA pulled 200 vehicles off streets in July because of brake shoe defect

August 10, 2008|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Reporter

Two Maryland Transit Administration buses have caught on fire in recent months because of a defect in their brakes, forcing the agency to pull about 200 vehicles off the streets in July for inspections.

MTA Administrator Paul J. Wiedefeld said the "public was never in danger" from the fires - one of which occurred in a bus that was carrying passengers. He acknowledged that the MTA's decision to pull buses off the streets for inspection had forced the cancellation of some runs last month but said the agency's service is now back to normal.

Wiedefeld said that even at the height of the problems, the MTA had to cancel only about 15 of its roughly 500 bus pullouts each day.

Jawauna Greene, an MTA spokeswoman, said the first of the related fires occurred June 4 as a North American Bus Industries bus assigned to the No. 8 Route was being towed back to the Northwest Division after its operator reported the brakes were "dragging."

"That one was a total loss," she said.

Greene said that while the cause of that fire was under investigation, a second bus manufactured by the same company caught fire July 2. In that case, an MTA operator on the No. 15 Route heard a pop and spotted smoke in the rear of an occupied bus on Dogwood Road near Lord Baltimore Drive, Greene said. She said the driver got the passengers off the bus without injuries.

Greene said that fire, in which the bus was damaged but not destroyed, and the previous one were found to have been caused by a defect in the vehicle's rear brake shoe.

The fires prompted the agency to pull about 200 North American Bus Industries buses off the street, roughly 50 of which were found to have defective brakes similar to the ones that burned.

The agency did not announce the fires or the inspections when they occurred. The Sun learned of the incidents from an anonymous caller whose account was confirmed by the MTA last week.

The bus brake checkups are the second mass inspection of MTA vehicles this year. This spring, the agency pulled its 53-car light rail fleet off the tracks for inspections after a wheel on one car was found to be cracked. The safety precautions led to weeks of crowded trains and long waits.

Greene said the inspections after the two fires showed that the MTA had learned lessons from a spate of incidents in 2001-2002 in which wheels came off buses on the streets. A later report blamed MTA management for failing to investigate the matter fully until 10 such incidents had occurred.

"We took the proactive steps," Greene said.

The MTA's effort to fix the affected buses has been complicated by the fact that the manufacturer of the brake parts has gone out of business, Greene said. She said some of the same parts have also been installed on the MTA's 219 New Flyer buses but have not been linked to fires on those buses.

About 50 North American Bus Industries vehicles - out of a total fleet of 669 - remain off the streets until scarce replacement brake discs can be obtained from vendors.

"These brake parts are in high demand nationwide," Greene said. "We've been working around the clock to get these parts on."

Wiedefeld said the MTA has had eight bus fires so far this year. He added that in recent years totals have ranged from three in 2005 to 12 in 2004. He said the numbers are not out of line for an agency that does 386,000 bus pullouts - in which a vehicle leaves its depot - each year.

"Fires are rare, but they do happen in the transit industry," he said. He said the MTA would do all it could to recoup its costs from the vendor of the faulty brake parts.

Before the two fires linked to the brake defect, the most recent bus blaze occurred May 30 near the Patapsco light rail station. Greene said that in that instance, an empty bus was being towed to the Northwest Division when it caught fire.

The cause of that fire was an undetected flat in the inside tire of a pair, she said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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