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SamTrans Director of Bus Maintenance Dave Harbour explains what it takes to be a SamTrans bus. We talk about buying new buses and retiring the old, Wi-Fi implementation, the future of SamTrans’ electrified fleet and what it takes to keep over 300 buses in working order.


LIEBERMAN: Welcome to Wheel Talk.

EISENHART: A show where we dive into the inner workings of Caltrain, SamTrans, and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority. We’re your friendly neighborhood public servants and hosts Alex Eisenhart.

LIEBERMAN: And Dan Lieberman, join us as we take a wonky ride for the world transportation and the work we do to keep you moving.

EISENHART: Well, here we are, episode six.


EISENHART: We always act like it’s so exciting, but it is exciting.

LIEBERMAN: I think it’s exciting.

EISENHART: I’m just thrilled that we’re still here.

LIEBERMAN: Yeah, I keep expecting them to fire us for this.

EISENHART: Well, not fire though. It’s sort of strange, like, “Oh, we are we still here.” Is that we’re getting cancelled.

LIEBERMAN: That is true. I guess there’s not really a ratings cut off for public transit themed podcasts.

EISENHART: No, we’re just going to keep doing this.

LIEBERMAN: But if there was, we’d be doing great at it. We’re like the Seinfeld of public transit podcasts.

EISENHART: Yeah, so we have been talking a lot about new trains and how to manage the older trains that we’ve got. With two episodes of that, we thought we’d shift it over and have the same conversation, except with buses this time.

LIEBERMAN: Our buses need some love, too.

EISENHART: Yeah, exactly. So, before we get into that, we’re going to kick it off with our funny interesting noteworthy tweets that we happen to pick up in the Twitter verse. Dan.

LIEBERMAN: Alright, well, this one’s from @ikhare “I am standing in the Caltrain station writing this tweet because I don’t want to look a psychopath, not on their phone.”

EISENHART: That’s like a human brain thing because when you’re seeing a whole bunch of people around you doing the same thing, I think subconsciously, just we’re like, “Oh, okay, I guess that’s what I have to be doing.” I think that’s real. I don’t know science, but I feel like I heard that from someone and I think it’s real.

LIEBERMAN: Personally, I start doing close up magic in this experience, just like I’m a rebel, I was singing opera.

EISENHART: You’re much better at improv than I am. Because it’s like, what do you do in a situation where everyone’s doing the same thing? Or what would you be doing on the platform when– Most people are just tired. I don’t know. I don’t want to make assumptions.

LIEBERMAN: I think it really depends on how desperate for attention you are and well, I’m me, so yeah. I am and have always been me, but I do feel you on this one. The official line protocol at this point is to stare at your phone and shuffle forward and it is. When you’re not it’s just a little weird.

EISENHART: And the staring at your phone just like everyone else keeps you from doing the only other more obvious thing, which is not staring at your phone and just looking around at people. But then you have that awkward situation of when someone looks up from their phone and just stares at you like, “Why are you staring at me bro?”

LIEBERMAN:  I have an amazing ability to when glancing around make someone look up right then and wonder what is wrong with me for staring at them?

EISENHART: Yeah, I think that’s just inherent.

LIEBERMAN: Yeah, there’s that. Everyone’s got that.

EISENHART: There’s a reason why you and I are on a podcast. No one has to look at us. You just need to listen to our obnoxious voices. Okay, the next one comes from @Liz– How did you say it pronounce this, Bagot?

LIEBERMAN: I feel that’s Bagot.

EISENHART: Bagot, B-A-G-O-T. However you pronounce it, hey Liz, who says, “I’d have a lot more followers if I hate Tweeted about San Francisco, but I just saw someone holding a burrito up to their ear like it was a phone on Caltrain. Don’t tell me that’s not an endearing SF moment.

LIEBERMAN: Are we sure this wasn’t a Get Smart scenario now that was a burrito phone? Or maybe just a burrito shaped phone case because that actually be a brilliant phone case. If it was just the foil, and it was rolled down about three quarters way through the phone.

EISENHART: I feel like Chipotle just heard this and paid their rent.

LIEBERMAN: Let’s get a piece of that Chipotle. I’m getting free guac for the rest of my life.

EISENHART: I don’t know. Is endearing the right word for that though?

LIEBERMAN: That does feel a San Francisco moment. San Francisco is filled with those San Francisco moments, when you get a real one. One that doesn’t involve being priced out of the neighborhood, I think that’s really pretty lovely. That’s a lot less endearing.

EISENHART: Yeah, and I guess it doesn’t fully go into detail as to whether or not the person’s joking or if they’re truly just talking to themselves into their burrito for a long time. Yeah, that’s a nice catch.

LIEBERMAN: I’ve had a lot of long heart to hearts with burritos over the years, so I’m not going to knock that at all.

EISENHART: No, as long as they’re not having a really loud burrito phone conversation on Caltrain, it’s endearing, but if it’s loud and obnoxious then…

LIEBERMAN: Regardless of what kind of phone you’re using, keep it down.

EISENHART: Yeah, exactly.

LIEBERMAN: One more from @I_M_DavidF, “This guy on Caltrain is blocking the stairs to the upper galley with his scooter pretending to sleep. Taking manspreading to a new level.” It’s every piece of it. It’s a Greek tragedy.

EISENHART: And it’s not even something as simple as sitting in a seat and just literally spreading your legs. You’re blocking an emergency exit route for someone.

LIEBERMAN: That too. Cribbing a scooter into a stairwell seems like much more work than not doing that.

EISENHART: Right, exactly. We have luggage cars, we have biker… There are places that you can put that that are not going to keep a ton of people from actually getting to or from a seat.

LIEBERMAN: Yeah, so guy that David saw, cut that out.

EISENHART: I think it’s stuff like this that separates the men from the boys. I think maybe boy spreading is probably a better term for this because–

LIEBERMAN: Wow, you just cancelled the whole thing right.

EISENHART: I mean, I don’t want to go against an entire league of hash tags and Tweets and whatnot, but it’s whether or not someone washes their hands after leaving the bathroom. I realized it’s the men’s room, but if you don’t wash your hands by the time you’re a full-fledged adult or even a teenager, you’ve– no.

LIEBERMAN: I think you’ve really hit it. I could just imagine next time you see it, you just lean in, “Hey you sport, would you mind moving over? You’re taking up the whole seat.” Oh man, that would sting. Do that to a 40-year-old man and just watch him shrivel up.

EISENHART: It’s aggravating. Actually, I do think that both common etiquette on a train and common bathroom etiquette are indications of whether or not you are a mature adult.

LIEBERMAN:  There you go.

EISENHART: That’s my theory.

LIEBERMAN: You’ve been put on notice, people. If he’s speaking to you, you know it.

EISENHART: We’re going to continue speaking to you as we jump into this month’s topic. In this episode, we take a look at the life cycle of a SamTrans bus. The agency is currently phasing new buses into the fleet and retiring those that have reached the end of their lifespan.

LIEBERMAN: We’ll be speaking with director of bus maintenance Dave Harbour about what happens to a retired bus and how we get our new vehicles ready for the road.

LIEBERMAN: And we’re back. We’re joined by director of bus maintenance Dave Harbour. Thanks for joining us, Dave.

HARBOUR: Good morning.

LIEBERMAN: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, how you came here to SamTrans?

HARBOUR: Well, it’s a long road, but real quickly, I’m originally from a small town in Northern California. From there, I went to the military, US Coast Guard. In the US Coast Guard I spent 11 years active duty and 14 reserve. During that time, in my reserve time, I was actually an aircraft maintenance person or mechanic, and then I was into aircraft maintenance supervision. Lo and behold, I ended up into bus maintenance supervision, which again, leads me here to director of bus maintenance. That’s the story in a nutshell.

EISENHART: Why do you do it? What makes you passionate about this?

HARBOUR: I think it’s always just being a maintenance person at heart. It’s a fascination. It’s one of those drives to fix things and I think it’s gone from picking up the tool bag or toolbox or the tools, and going into the next realm of managing people in those situations and making improvements there and helping people.

EISENHART: Awesome. We’re here to talk with you about the life cycle of SamTrans bus. This is definitely relevant right now in the agency’s history because over the past couple years have been quite a few buses that have been retired. Can you give maybe just some sense of, A, how many buses do we have in our fleet? A general number, but then also in the last few years about how many we’ve had to turn over just because they have hit the end of our life cycle with us?

HARBOUR: Sure, sure. So, our total fleet size big bus, big transit bus is 312 buses. We also have a contingency fleet of 70 minivans and paratransit type vehicles to cutaways. In the past two years has been pretty busy. We actually received our first two battery electric buses. In 2017, we also did a replacement of 50 diesel buses, and most recently, we’re still in the works of swapping out our 2002 year 60 foot articulated buses. Out of 55 buses, we have about 40 of those in service right now.

EISENHART: Okay, so what dictates when a bus is to be retired? Is it just how old it is? Is it number of miles? Is there are some laws around this?

HARBOUR: No, there’s a couple of factors. One is, some of the funding streams that have a requirement on the useful life for years of service. The minimum there for a transit bus is 12 years. They also give a mileage criteria of 500,000 miles. That’s when the federal government says, “Okay, these buses have performed their useful life.” Each property or each agency varies on how many life miles they have at the end of that 12 years or how many they put on each year. Here at SamTrans, we have an exceptional maintenance program. The longevity of the buses, actually, it was extended. At the end of 12 years, our buses are still in pretty good shape.

EISENHART: Wow, that really says something about the ingenuity of our maintenance operations, I would imagine.

LIEBERMAN: Well, I believe we have the national champions for airbrake maintenance, am I correct? Was out of the bus rodeo last year?

HARBOUR: It was at the last appt. I think it was the year before last year, after their break.

LIEBERMAN: Literally, were not just tooting our own horn, we have award winning maintenance staff. There’s the World Series of bus maintenance. We’re taking that home.

EISENHART: Although, technically, I do think that when we hit the horn, we are indeed tooting our own horn on border buses.

LIEBERMAN: Fair enough, but that’s not what I’m doing this moment. Something I’ve always wondered, what happens to our buses after they’re retired? Is there a market for these things? or are they sent to live in a big farm upstate?

HARBOUR: No, once we deem that that they have been, basically or fulfill their useful life, we send them to auction. We have a contracted auction service that picks up the buses and they put them on the block. Actually, our buses typically get top dollar for used bus just because of the condition they’re in.

EISENHART: Wow. What do they normally go for?

HARBOUR: It varies. It varies on what brand of bus, the size of the bus, but anywhere from $3,000. I know it doesn’t sound a whole lot, to upwards of $5,000.

EISENHART: For a bus?

LIEBERMAN: If anyone’s looking to have an all bus demolition derby, that’s actually not that expensive. That’s the thought. In case there’s any tech millionaires listening to the show. It’s just a thought, it’s a thought.

EISENHART: Who normally buys these buses?

LIEBERMAN: Chris Longa.

HARBOUR: No, actually, that’s a good question. We don’t really track after the sale. There’s some disclosures we put with it as far as the bus is sold as it is of course. There’s also some California Resources Board regulatory disclaimers that we have to provide with the buses as far as engineers and this and that.  I don’t know after.

LIEBERMAN: There are collectors, Chris Longa, we mentioned earlier works for us here at SamTrans and has his own stash of classic buses. I imagine there’s people who are collecting them. I barely have enough storage to keep my wife’s clothes, so how one stores a few spare buses is something else entirely.

EISENHART: You could use the bus to store her extra clothes.

LIEBERMAN: Actually, that’s I thought. $3000 isn’t much. That beats my rent. I’m just going to buy a new bus every month to live in.

EISENHART: What cost more? A storage unit or just having a bus parked somewhere on the side of the road?

LIEBERMAN: The questions I want to ask in the California Housing Crisis? How do we pay for all these replacement buses? I mean, I assume we’re not buying it three grand?

HARBOUR: No, no. As far as a new bus, there’s a lot of factors that go into the price of a bus and usually it starts with a base bus price and that starts with what size–

EISENHART: That’s beautiful alliteration, by the way, a base bus price.

HARBOUR: Base bus price, yeah. That’s depending on the manufacturer, depending on the size of the bus, and the base amenities, and then from there, it’s very customized, and it takes a long time to go through the customization and they need some standardization. Back to your point as far as who pays for these, typically agencies, they are provided federal funding, state local funding, tax revenue. Also, now in the battery electric or zero emissions, there’s multiple battery electric options, I’m sorry, zero emissions options, but for the zero emission buses, there’s also special grants that are helping to offset the costs of the new technology.

EISENHART: When purchasing a bus based on the different funding sources, it sounds like it’s different depending on if it’s a diesel or hybrid versus zero emission or battery electric? What’s the general process for purchasing a bus? Obviously, you’re like, “Okay, we got 10 buses that are going to expire in whatever year. Now, what do we do?” Do you put out an RFP? Or how does it work? Where do you start?

HARBOUR: There’s a couple different options. An RFP is your typical option if you’re going to go it alone or if you’re going to host a consortium, which you can gather other agencies and make a group purchase.

EISENHART: I should say RFP stands for Request For a Purchase, correct?

HARBOUR: Procurement, yeah.

EISENHART: Procurement? Procure?

HARBOUR: Yes, it’s proposal. Request For Proposal.

EISENHART: Okay, got it, got it.

LIEBERMAN: Real talk where we explain every acronym that comes along.

HARBOUR: If you’re going to do the purchase within your own agency, RFP like I said. Or you can create a consortium through an RFP and gather more agencies together to maybe get some purchasing power or also, you’re looking for just an opportunity for smaller agencies.

EISENHART: That’s something if we know that Muni Austin needs to buy busses, we might go in with them on some larger deal. Is that an example of others working together to get a better price?

HARBOUR: Not Muni, specifically, but there are agencies in the bay area that we have gone in with into consortiums in the past, and SamTrans. There’s another option, too, which we call a piggyback option where maybe a larger state goes out and they do a blanket RFP, and they say, “We’re going to buy so many buses.” There’s provisions to where even though we’re not in that state, if they have a piggyback provision, we can use their contract and their pricing. That typically cuts out a lot of time on their procurement and locally. We still have to go into a contract between us and the bus manufacturer, but it cuts out all the upfront procurement work.

EISENHART: I imagine that also saves money, talk about a bulk order, buying on behalf of an entire state.

HARBOUR: Yes. Actually, as a good example would be the new flyers that we’re putting into service right now. For the base bus price, it was actually able to get pretty good pricing because again, it was a very large order through another state.

EISENHART: You mentioned new flyer, I’m wondering, roughly, how many different companies do you have to choose from? How many of the manufacturer buses that are designed for public transit use? Are we exclusive to a couple of brands? Do you shop around? What determines which brands we go with?

HARBOUR: I’ve been here at the district for almost three years now. The fleet that we have now is pretty standardized as far as the bus manufacturer, but typically there’s between six and seven transit bus or large bus providers. At least from the maintenance point of view, standardization is good. It’s also for the supply chain. It’s good. Well, there’s a couple factors when I’m looking into purchasing a bus or a certain type or certain manufacturer. Really, one target I’m looking at is what’s going to be the safest, most reliable bus in that 12 year lifecycle.

Also, the cost savings has a lot to do with it and the support from the manufacturer because it does differ a little bit. I mean, their standard rules and guidelines regulations and contractual language.

LIEBERMAN: Out of curiosity are those all American companies? Are these buses made here in the States?

HARBOUR: The buses that we purchase are made in the states. There are some manufacturers that have operations that are in Canada. They split between Canada and the United States, but we do have a by-America commitment or clause or regulation that we have to follow.

LIEBERMAN: I would assume the federal funds are attached to that?


LIEBERMAN: What do what do our buses have to do specifically here at SamTrans? What’s unique to San Mateo County? What do our buses have to do that isn’t necessarily industry standard? I know we’ve got a lot of hills out here and I imagine that is getting a 60 foot vehicle up Santa Bruno mountain is not something that I think anything can do?

HARBOUR: There are a couple things that we have to look into as far as the topography as you mentioned. Also, just the roadways. When we look at this in a bus purchase, we look at, the bus size, how many passengers they can carry, and the overall utility of the bus. How the versatility also. We take a look at that. Is this transmission and engine type going to be made to push the gross vehicle weight rating up this incline that we need to? I know that we have several roadways that have pretty large dips or gutters in the road? That was one thing we had to consider as far as forward and rear overhang.

We work closely maintenance. When I’m inspecting the bus, I’m very close with the transportation department. They’re my customers. I have to make sure that we provide them with a product that can get them through the day and move people safely and reliably.

LIEBERMAN: Why do we go with new flyer for this last purchase?

HARBOUR: New flyer, there’s only two big bus manufacturers right now that build 60 foot articulated buses. A side by side comparison, and when I do the analysis, new flyer came up is again, the benefit to us in our needs or the 12 year lifecycle.

LIEBERMAN: In case anyone’s wondering, an articulated bus is one that has the accordion feature in the middle. Bendy boys or have the insider turn for them. I just want to keep people updated. Where else are new flyers used? I assume they’re pretty common if there’s only two articulated manufacturers?

HARBOUR: Oh yeah, they’re used throughout the United States and I would say probably in North America, they’re probably the prevalent 60 foot articulated bus used.

LIEBERMAN: When we get those Tweets coming at us from Montana saying they just saw a SamTrans bus there, it’s probably just another new flyer? Because that’s happened at least twice lately.

HARBOUR: Yeah. Very astute for whoever’s making that call.

LIEBERMAN: Bus fans, man, they’re out there. They’re paying attention.

EISENHART: In looking at new buses and saying goodbye to some of the old ones, how much has bus technology changed over the course of about the last 15 years when we got our articulated buses that are not recently been retired?

HARBOUR: I’ve been in this industry coming from the aviation industry for about 15 years.

EISENHART: Our buses don’t fly.

HARBOUR: They don’t.

EISENHART: But there’s got to be some overlap in maintenance.

LIEBERMAN: Thankfully, you’re not being forcibly retired after that 15-year window. I’m glad there’s still some life left in you we can squeeze.

HARBOUR: Yeah, well, it was a transition. I mean, I know my bus maintenance folks had to say, “Hey, Dave, you can pull over if it breaks down, it’s not going to fall out of the sky.” I had to turn the volume down. No, it’s a good question because I think the biggest change has been in the aesthetics of the bus for one. I mean, the exterior aesthetics, but also the engine as far as clean diesel, CNG. It’s been the power plants in mostly moving towards clean air.

LIEBERMAN: Go back and tell us what CNG means?

HARBOUR: I’m sorry, compressed natural gas.

LIEBERMAN: Thank you.

HARBOUR: Yes, how the diesel hybrid, which has a hybrid system. It’s a generator set running a battery pack for electric motor. Now, you have the zero emission buses, which are battery electric and or hydrogen fuel cell. Probably, the biggest changes or our most frequent changes have been in some of the amenities. One, being the CCTV or the video systems that are on the buses for safety and security. Let me see, some of the seating. Again, it’s been one of those comfort and convenience types. Those change very frequently. Those are some of the biggest changes.

LIEBERMAN: How about as far as amenities for disabled passengers? When we made our last purchase, there was a lot of discussion and I believe it was the coupod technology. How is that changing?

HARBOUR: Well, it’s changed one, it offers the passenger a lot more options as far as movement within the vehicle, how the securement is actually applied to the device that they use. Also, it gives a different experience between the operator and the passenger in that there’s not a lot of reach over that’s eliminated. It’s just a better overall system. I don’t know why that wasn’t– It seems pretty simple the changes that have been made, but very significant.

LIEBERMAN: Live technology. I seem to recall when I first started riding SamTrans middle school, I remember it seemed to take a lot longer than it’s taking now.

HARBOUR: Oh, yeah, yes. For a maintenance point of view, so the buses that I mentioned earlier, the articulated buses that we’re replacing our last, what we call high floor buses that have a lift. All the buses now have a ramp. It’s considered a low for bus with a ramp. Maintenance wise, it’s so much easier to take care of.


HARBOUR: Yes, much easier. Also, the convenience of the passenger needing the lift. I’ve never had to use one as far as the need, but I could see where it’d be maybe a little bit daunting being on the lift bring it up to the floor height.

LIEBERMAN: You’re just dangling out there in something that looked– I remember back in the day thinking like, “That’s scary. It just doesn’t–“

HARBOUR: They’re very robust. They’re very robust, but again, it’s one of those things you’re being lifted versus the ramp now where–

LIEBERMAN: It’s just a lot more organic.

HARBOUR: Right, it’s a very simple concept, but it took a lot of engineering the get there to make the low floor bus.

EISENHART: Now, looking at our new articulated buses specifically, what are some of those key amenities? You mentioned the low floor and even the difference in seating. I mean, there are thinner seats looking at them. When I sat on them, I thought they were a lot more comfortable maybe just because they were newer seats. What are some of the other benefits that people can experience on the new articulated buses versus the older ones?

HARBOUR: Well, the seating like you mentioned, it’s much more ergonomic. We’ve gone with different types of materials, so it can be wiped clean versus the cloth material. They are modular, so if we need to change some of the parts out and pop them out, pop them back in as far as the cushions go. Also, you’ve noticed you mentioned that they were thinner looking. That’s a weight savings, which it calculates into over a 12 year life cycle. Again, I couldn’t give you a measure, but some type of fuel savings, or [inaudible 00:26:04] You’d be surprised. I think on a 40 foot bus between two seats we were looking at, there was 700 pound difference in the overall seating. It adds up.

LIEBERMAN: That’s real.

EISENHART: But these also have luggage racks too, right?

HARBOUR: They do. We’re looking at retrofitting a portion of them without luggage racks. I think because we need the extra seating space, we’re going to do that for the current FCX that way. It doesn’t seem the luggage racks are fully utilized on that specific one.

EISENHART: You’re going to inform more at the airport.

HARBOUR: But on the ECR, the luggage racks, what was actually the reason for that is we’re thinking shorter trips, groceries, and stuff like that.

EISENHART: Aah right, right and some of these have Wi-Fi, too.

HARBOUR: They are. So, the FCX right now are the first Wi-Fi buses, active Wi-Fi bus as we have in our fleet. All of the 55, 60 foot articulated buses, new flyers are going to be Wi-Fi activated. We’re going to activate the Wi Fi, hopefully in the next two, three months. There was some back end stuff as far as the configuration software that we had to get squared away. We’ll be rolling out passenger Wi-Fi and on map fleet starting with, and then I’m working also on with executive management on possibly the entire fleet over a period of time. That hasn’t been determined yet, but there are some other benefits other than passenger Wi-Fi for having cellular capabilities on board and real time advantages as far as some of the real time app, and stuff that.

EISENHART: Yeah, I know that’s something a lot of our customers have been asking for, so hopefully that can come together. What about for the operator of the bus? These buses drive differently? Are they easier to train on? I was fascinated looking at how articulated buses make tight turns. I don’t even know if they have better turning radiuses. I mean, I’ve never driven a bus so I don’t know.

HARBOUR: Typically, they mimic a 40 foot bus because of the joint in the middle. The actual turning joint in the middle. As far as drivability with the current buses, 60 foot articulated buses that we are swapping out right now or replacing. Again, you’re going from a high floor bus to a low floor bus. For the operator, you don’t have that lift anymore, you have a ramp. There’s increased visibility, and that’s some of the other details that we go into when we inspect the buses. What types of mirror, mirror locations. When I step back and I look at the bus when we finally get it and I go, “Wow, that was a lot of work that went into that.” Because I can tell you about each little decal on there. The background color, the placement, everything. It’s a lot of work and it really takes a team to build a bus.

LIEBERMAN: The things that always strikes me is the operator seats are made by Recaro, which is the same that make feed the child seats that I have for my kids. It just strikes me as particularly odd because it’s like, here’s a 40-year-old, 5-year-old who’s driving a bus. I just think that’s–


LIEBERMAN: What do we do with a new bus before it hits the road? How do we do it? Just kick the tires and put it out there? Or is there a maintenance cycle it’s got to go through boards ready to get into service?

HARBOUR: Oh, yeah, receiving the bus is just the beginning of the journey, really. We receive a bus from the manufacturer. Usually, there is an acceptance team from the bus manufacturer along with an acceptance team from bus maintenance. We do recycle some of the electronics gear from our old buses being radios, some of the other electronics equipment. But the in service and acceptance process and putting in the equipment can take anywhere– The first bus usually takes the longest of course. That could take a couple months. After that, it rolls pretty quick. For right now on our new flyer buses, I would say from the time it’s delivered, we’ll receive it, to the time it’s ready for service is probably the best case scenario three weeks.

LIEBERMAN: Something I can’t believe or never thought before. Do they just drive them over here or they shipped in? I mean, it’s a bus so it’s not like it fits in a shipping container, easily. How do they get from there to here know that?

HARBOUR: The new flyers they drove from Minnesota, and that’s the reason why somebody in Montana said, “Hey, we see one of your busses.”

LIEBERMAN: That make sense. I just love the idea of a 50 bus convoy. It gets like, “We got to get to San Mateo by Christmas.” Our mechanics presumably during that opening period get a chance to get familiar with a new bus. How about our drivers?

HARBOUR: Yes. On the maintenance team, back up a little bit here. During the acceptance process and previous to that, we typically are provided and purchase extra training from the bus manufacturer. That will be maintenance training and also operator training. In bus manufacturer will send out a trainer, we have our own training departments. We have our trainers for both maintenance and operations or transportation and will attend these core classes and become SMEs. Then from there, we’ll figure out for the transportation side, there’s obvious familiarization there with new equipment how things work, driving. Again, learn the new equipment in the bus, get the new bus smell. For the maintenance side, it’s really learning how, “Hey, once this bus is manufactured, we get the bus in a service. Bus manufacturer leaves how do we repair this? How do we maintain reliability? What are our service intervals going to be? What types of new fluids might we need? What types of new tools?”

Also, too, as part a part of the bus procurement and the in service of the bus and the training is that we may need special training aids. Our new flyer buses and I keep going back to that bus because there are a lot of new things there where the disc brakes. I purchased a disc brake module as a training aid because we’ve always had drum brakes. Also, there was some special tooling that needed to be purchased for the drum brakes. We’re ready to hit the ground running when we do need to make a repair.

LIEBERMAN: I want to go back to something that you said. Different fluids? How many fluids go inside a bus?

HARBOUR: Well, we have your oils, your engine oil, your transmission fluids, your coolant. Those are the typical fluids that go into a diesel bus.

LIEBERMAN: All right. Are there major differences in how different buses handled particularly over that 15 year time period? If you’re regarding when they’re soon to be retired articulations and a new one, would you really be able to tell the difference?

HARBOUR: Yeah, I think it would because, again, high floor versus a low floor. That’s the biggest difference there. Again, for as far as reference, for mirrors, for where you’re sitting up higher versus down lower in the bus. That transition would be much bigger than if you were to go from a low floor to another low floor.

EISENHART: Can you talk about the difference in maintenance needs over the course of these new buses, lifespans? You mentioned that low floor is much easier to maintain than high floor? Why?

HARBOUR: I wouldn’t say that a low floor is much easier to maintain than a high floor. The one thing that you don’t have that’s maintenance intensive is the lift on a high floor versus the ramp on a low floor. As far as the propulsion systems, they’re typically set up the same. They may be a newer version model, or maybe we decided that a different brand transmission it would be better over the 12 year useful life cycle. Maintenance wise, for the most part, it’s a baseline standard, and then we get into the specialty training of, “Hey, this new brand.” And so on, so forth. If we do a full on swap out for the disc brakes, again, we’ve never had him in the fleet before. There’s definitely a steeper learning curve there, so we throw a little bit more resources as far as training and familiarization and those type of issues or items.

EISENHART: When you purchase these buses, are there elements that you get to customize? Do you get to pick what transmission goes in there or it’s more standardized?

HARBOUR: No. Well, currently there’s three major manufacturers. It all depends. It goes back to the procurement like we talked about before the RFP or the piggyback option. If you’re doing your own RFP, you can spec a certain type of characteristic or certain type of need. Also, if you’re piggybacking there may be a clause in there that gives you multiple choices of the transmission. Again, on a maintenance side, we’re looking at more analysis on durability, reliability, cost of maintenance, and ownership, and also supply chain. That’s what we’re looking at there as far as that option. It’s actually pretty surprising how many options we had seen colors there. I learned early on, don’t give too many options to some of the decision makers. Narrow down to three, otherwise you may never get any answer.

LIEBERMAN: All right, I have an important question on this front. Why are so many bus seat designs wild with crazy colors and a lot of confetti and stuff on them? That bus seat design is a wild place for expression. We don’t go that crazy with it, but I’ve certainly seen some wild stuff out there. Why is that so normal?

HARBOUR: Because they had too many options.

LIEBERMAN: Someone’s like, “I need six colors in this and I won’t take any less.”

HARBOUR: There are so many options and depends on the bus manufacturer. I’m sorry, not best manufacturer, but the seat manufacturer. There are multiple seat manufacturers that may source out a similar seat or the fabric manufacturers. It just runs the gamut. You can get this seat framed color, and then you can go into the cushion cover. What type of cushion? How thick you want the cushions, if you want cushions at all, but you have to take consideration a couple things. We were talking about seating is that how easy is it to clean? When there are graffiti issues, how easy is it to either one, mitigate or eliminate that or to repair it? There’s all these things that come in with experience. We look back at that and say, “Hey, we have this issue, we need to try to mitigate it.”

EISENHART: I want to shift a little bit from the more traditional buses that we’ve used to the introduction of new battery electric buses. Can you provide just a bit of background on our gradual shift into adopting electric buses into the fleet and why?

HARBOUR: The reason why is, the need for cleaner air overall. The California Resources Board had approved and it was late in 2018 for what’s called the intubated clean transit rule. What that rule is, is that all transit agencies, large or small, would be 100% zero emission by the year 2040. There’s a lot of provisions leading up to that day, but that’s the ultimate rules accomplishment. That is the reason why. Again, that’s a state of California mandate. As far as the zero emission buses, they have developed fairly quickly in the last five to six years. Prior to that, it seemed like there were more demo projects. You had some fuel cell, hydrogen fuel cell. You did have some battery electric buses, and there’s been some smaller fleet in Southern California that have run battery electronic trolleys for more than 25 years, but not a full size transit bus. The technology’s really just moved forward very quickly. Because there’s more exposure and more of these buses are being purchased, the reliability and the feedback experience and data are making it a better product.

EISENHART: Where are we at in terms of our new electric fleet? How many do we currently operate? Do you have any sense of the timeliness as to when we’re going to be getting more? Who we buying it from?

HARBOUR: Let me back up a little bit. We actually had a purchase for 10 battery electric buses, 40 foot battery, electric buses. The order was split because we had some other orders coming in. So, we received our first two of 10 in December of 2018. The remaining eight will be going online at the factory next month in February. We should receive those sometime at the end of March through the middle of April. We’ll receive those, and then we’ll go through the in service acceptance process we spoke about earlier.

LIEBERMAN: Remind me, are those coming from city of industry? Or are they the ones in South Carolina?

HARBOUR: City of industry and the manufacturer is Proterra. The first two buses as to be expected new technology, we’ve gone through some learning hurdles and we continue to work with a manufacturer, and also other agencies that have purchased the same brand of bus to learn. Again, I do see that a battery electric buses over the past five to six years have made a lot of improvements on the propulsion side. That was always the guess is that, “Hey, are these buses going to be able to mimic the same type of service that a diesel bus or a compressed natural Gas, CNG bus can provide?” Some of the main concerns were how long is it going to take to charge these buses? What’s the range or the capacity of the batteries? How much is it going to cost to charge these buses? What is the cost of the infrastructure to charge them? Again, as more and more of these projects are deployed, not only in California, but throughout the nation, it’s helped to develop the overall battery electric industry and hydrogen fuel cell.

LIEBERMAN: I’m wondering some of the differences between the performance of traditional buses versus battery electric. You mentioned some of the charging and fueling. What are we looking at in terms of the differences in costs and infrastructure necessary?

HARBOUR: Well, I probably have to say costs are one of the biggest factors. Typically, a 40 foot battery electric bus as of right now would be about another 35% to 45% over a– and this is base bus price over a diesel. That’s one of the considerations that when we’re doing the evaluations and the analysis to make sure that we have a one for one crossover. If we have a bus that needs to go– Well, the Proterra buses, we expected to get about 150 miles on a full charge. Again, there’s a lot of factors that go into that. Topography and actually drivers habits is one of the biggest. A bat or a diesel bus would go 300 miles on a full tank of gas. There’s obviously a difference there. What we have to do is look into the details and the alignment of how many rents do we have that are over 150 miles and see how we need to adjust from there. That’s part of the analysis that we’ve been working on and we continue to work on. Again, as we learn more about the bus performance, maybe we’re going to get 160 miles. Hopefully, we’re going to see some of those gains through- the technology is going to be limited to what it is. Maybe we can get some of those gains out of the driver performance, the driver habits driving the bus.

LIEBERMAN: How about just the on the road performance? If you got out of a 40 foot diesel bus hopped right into a 40 foot electric, would you be able to feel the difference?

HARBOUR: You would, you would. In our fleet we have different size buses, 40 foot, 60 foot, 29 foot. You’re going to feel the difference between those buses even if they’re diesel, then we have diesel hybrid. Now, you have battery electric. They all have a little bit different characteristic. In the battery electric, you’ll have regenerative braking. We have something in the diesel buses through the retarder system in the transmission that it’s like the feel of regenerative braking, but it doesn’t give the advantages like regenerative braking does to putting some of the power back into the system. As far as driving the bus and the operator, where they sit and stuff, very, very similar. The layout as far as the cockpit, if you will, maybe a little bit different and some of the controls may be different. They’ll see actually on a fuel gauge just how much more electricity you have left.

LIEBERMAN: They’re quieter, too, right?

HARBOUR: They are. They’re not silent, so they have their own noises, but they are quieter. It’s hard to explain.

LIEBERMAN: They have more of a sci-fi sound to them I find, as opposed to like a bus which is very traditional and something that feels familiar.

HARBOUR: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.

LIEBERMAN: My favorite feature, of course, is the back window, which we have getting in. None of our other buses have an open back window in my understanding because of some diesel filtration system that’s necessary. At least that’s what I’ve been told. He’s looking at me like someone just made that up to get me to stop talking.

HARBOUR: No, it’s partially true. You’ll have the exhaust system that runs up typically on one of the sides of the rear of the bus. But really what precludes us in our diesel buses from putting a window back there is our air conditioning system. That’s where the air conditioning pack is at.

LIEBERMAN: I see. Now, you can finally if you want to do your reboot of the graduate, you can do it, but you have to use one of our electrics to do it. Finally, in terms of differences, how about inspections and cleaning the behind the scenes stuff? What’s different about dealing with an electric versus a diesel bus?

HARBOUR: We’re still learning. Intervals are a little bit different. We don’t have as many moving parts. We don’t have the engine, we don’t the transmission, we don’t have all the pulleys and belts. But we have the switch off for inverters and the electronic or electrical components that go along with the battery, electric buses. Battery monitoring, stuff like that. That’s pretty much the propulsion side. To believe and under the impression again, as we learn more and more that there’s going to be less maintenance on the propulsion system on the battery of electric buses. I think probably a little bit of a give and a take is that with a diesel bus, you have one fueling station for all the buses in a yard. Whereas now we’ll have to have multiple chargers in that infrastructure. That will take maintenance. So, it’s a shift. Again, we there is no good example out there of anybody building to scale yet for an entire fleet, but for the smaller deployments like ours, we won’t realize what the challenges will be until we get up to scale.

LIEBERMAN: I do when I’m driving around and occasionally, you see a SamTrans bus fueling up in a gas station because it’s just such a weird look. I ran into that one night at Half Moon Bay and I’m like, “Something doesn’t fit here. Did someone steal one of our buses?” But it happens.

EISENHART: It sounds like there’s a lot of lessons that we don’t even know we need to learn about battery electric buses because the technology is still relatively so new. Do you have any insight yet as to changes to the type of maintenance or preventative maintenance for a battery electric bus aside from at least what you just mentioned, which is that there might be less maintenance on the vehicle itself?

HARBOUR: Specifically, again, we’re still learning. There’s going to be and it’s mostly on the propulsion system. Everything else is typical of a bus, the brake systems, we’ll have to look at that. Depending on the bus manufacturer like our Proterra buses, they have a fiber glass shell. It’s a very thick fiber glass shell, unlike where we would have one of our current diesel buses that have a steel shell and some type of frame, there might be some different inspections that we would either have to do or not have to do. Again, we’re learning about those areas, but in other of these subsystems and stuff, the lights, the brakes, the steering, suspension, those will all be very similar.

EISENHART: You said that it was more expensive because it’s a newer technology just for the base bus price to purchase these new electric buses. What about the cost of maintaining them? Do we have any sense of the difference between those? Maybe would help to distinguish between the cost of maintaining the buses versus the cost of building new infrastructure to maintain the buses.

HARBOUR: Well, it’s pretty two different categories there as far as the infrastructure goes. The infrastructure here is far more complex with the battery electric buses. Again, nobody’s built a scale. So, there are a lot of big questions out there. One thing that we are assuming is this, it’s going to be very expensive for the infrastructure. As far as the bus side goes and the savings there, we’re just looking at less moving parts, less maintenance, less fluids. Again, once there are no 12-year-life cycles out there to gauge what might be an issue. We’re going to have to learn. We’re still in the very early stages of what might happen. We don’t know. The good thing about the transit industry is that we network often. There’s a lot of different committees here in California, the CTA committee. They have the maintenance committee itself off the CTA. We have frequent meetings and there’s a list of contacts. We can always pick up the phone and say, “Hey, I know you have this type of bus, you have this type of sub assembly, what do you think?” Or you may have an issue and you’re saying, “Hey, I have this issue, have you ever encountered this before?” We work very closely together. I really appreciate that about this industry.

EISENHART: Do we yet know how long these new buses will last? Or is it a different question of how long the entire bus will last versus when you have to change out the battery?

HARBOUR: That’s a good question. Again, this is new technology, and we’re looking at developing new standards. What is the standard for–? You take a battery composition, so you have single cells that make up a battery pack, an overall battery pack, right? What is the acceptable retention of that one cell for how much energy it retains? Right now it’s 70% of any single cell. That’s a warranty provision they put out there. When are we likely to see that? We don’t really know. Again, we have to wait for that 12 year lifecycle, and then extended to see when we can start seeing trends. It’s a good question. I think we can assume that if we were to– It falls back on, the these buses are transit buses and they’re federally funded and they’ve gone through what we call Altoona Testing, and that qualifies them to be purchased with federal funds. In the Altoona Testing and being qualify for federal funds, is they have to be maintained at 12 year useful life benchmark and or the 500 miles.

EISENHART: 500,000?

HARBOUR: 500,000, I’m sorry, yes. Good catch. They have to maintain that as far as the way they’re built. We don’t know, like our diesel buses, we can extend those out. We just don’t know beyond that because nobody’s there yet. Then we’d have to look at apples to oranges, “Okay, this agency, at the end of its life cycle has run 700,000 miles and this other one’s only run 400,000 miles.” We’re learning.

LIEBERMAN: Out of curiosity, what is Altoona Testing?

HARBOUR: That’s it’s a good complicated question, but basically every bus that wants to meet the requirements for federal funding goes to what’s called the Altoona Testing. It’s in Pennsylvania and it’s basically the–

LIEBERMAN: Just like Cape Canaveral of buses?

HARBOUR: Yeah, you’d see where cars go through and they do the bump test, they do a drop test. They go through everything. They try to basically, I wouldn’t say destroy the bus, but they want to simulate all the real life conditions, and then push it a little bit to make sure that the bus with stands all that. Obviously, main focus is on safety, reliability. They’ll also, too, during their testing, they will come out with some data as far as range. Of course, you can look at that and go, “Okay, under those conditions, those aren’t my conditions.” It’s very extensive and typically a full test could take six months at one bus and they come out of it with discrepancies and it’s kind of a, “These areas fail. These areas pass, or they all pass.” They certify it through Altoona and they say, “Okay, this bus is good to go or you need to make these corrections.”

EISENHART: Can you talk about what kinds of modifications are currently in the works or will need to be made to our bus bases in order to accommodate the new electric fleet?

HARBOUR: In order to accommodate the full fleet, there’s a lot of infrastructure changes, major infrastructure changes.

EISENHART: We should probably clarify that our current bus bases are located– we have North Base and South Base, right? Can you talk a little bit about them?

HARBOUR: Yeah, North base is located in South San Francisco, just north of SFO and South base is located here in San Carlos.

EISENHART: Right next to the San Carlos airport, actually.

HARBOUR: Yeah, right next to the airport. Yeah. These bases, of course have house maintained and serviced diesel buses for basically their whole existence. Of course, the diesel hybrids are still diesel buses. The infrastructure changes again, are very complicated, they’re very vast. What we are assuming at this point from the analysis that we’ve done, it can be very expensive. We not only will it change a lot of things, but it will also change procedures. We’ve looked into the workflow of servicing the buses, how that’s going to work. I’ve worked with the director of facilities on that, and we’re taking a look to see how ergonomically, we may have to make changes to personnel even down to that level. We have to look into who’s going to be able to maintain these charges? Because they’re going to have high voltage going to them something we don’t currently have right now. It’s very, very complicated and planning is the key. You really have to plan as best as you can with what knowledge you have today. Again, knock on your neighbor’s door, the agencies who have gone a little bit further than you. Soak up their experience and share yours.

LIEBERMAN: One more question I have incorporating both parts of your career path. If you had to, could you turn a bus into an airplane?

HARBOUR: I like it, like an airbus?

LIEBERMAN: Yeah, there you go.

EISENHART: Yeah, the other airbus.

LIEBERMAN: How much work would that take? Out of curiosity. Is it a weekend project you’ve been working on?

HARBOUR: No. There are a lot of similarities in the transition, especially coming from maintenance. You know what I mean? I would say the attention to detail obviously isn’t the same. The regulatory oversight is not the same. Although I am surprised at how much regulatory we have. It has a little bit of something to do with we’re in California. There’s little bit more regulatory oversight and for good reasons. Or these good benefits. I don’t know. You mentioned earlier about people having fascinations with buses. I don’t find myself having the same fascination with buses as I do with airplanes. I would walk across the ramp underneath the 747 wing ago, “How does this thing get in the air?” I knew how it got up there, but still just was like there’s magic.

LIEBERMAN: You heard it here, folks, buses are not airplanes. These are the hot takes that we’re bringing into the public transit world.

EISENHART: Well, we may not have airplanes for you to maintain, but we’re lucky to have you underneath the belly of our buses. Dave, thank you so much for being on our show.

HARBOUR: I appreciate it. I appreciate it. Thank you.

LIEBERMAN: Well, this episode has reached the end of its life cycle. Think we can sell it for a few grand?

EISENHART: I’d settle for a retweet. Hit us up at SamTrans with the #wheeltalk. If there’s something you want to learn about Caltrain, SamTrans or the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, let us know.

LIEBERMAN: Thanks for listening and we’ll see you on the next episode of Wheel Talk.


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