Basics for Keeping Buses in Service

Posted on July 2, 2009 by LCT Staff - Also by this author

While providing proper maintenance is important, keeping up with all the moving parts, from the scheduled services to the costs can be a challenge.

“[Operators] are trying to do the maintenance they need to provide a safe piece of equipment, but it’s like anything else; you do tend to potentially push off until next week what needs to be done today,” says Paul Conover, product support manager of Daimler Buses North America.

Cutting Costs — Not Corners

Operators and manufacturers agree that adhering to a preventive maintenance (PM) schedule is crucial, because it can significantly reduce the potential for down time. This guide, they emphasized, enables an operator to limit risk, downtime, and customer dissatisfaction.

“The true cost of not doing your maintenance isn’t really until you have a downed coach,” Conover points out. The operator may have saved a couple hundred dollars on a particular item, but then a coach that goes down with passengers onboard will cost much more.

“That downed coach issue has now cost you in excess of $5,000 to $10,000 dollars, because you have to recover the coach, put people on a different coach, and refund money,” Conover adds.

Another operator added, “Fix it right the first time, and don’t try to cut corners to save costs, because it costs you in the long run. It’s always expensive, and re-works are always expensive. You’re not saving any money by [going with] a used part, instead of buying a high-quality part.”

On the upside, Conover notes that he has many customers that follow the schedule closely, and they tend to experience significantly fewer downtime issues and bring in more revenue.

While it is inevitable that vehicles wear down and parts eventually need to be replaced, if every coach carrier was extremely diligent in following the PM schedule, “it would almost put my side of the business out of business,” Conover says. “The coaches wouldn’t run maintenance-free, but they would be [extremely] high-performing vehicles.”

Overall, operators have stressed that to be a cost-effective fleet manager, you need to watch the numbers closely. Except for fuel and the occasional part price, if an operator spots rising costs, the maintenance program needs to be re-examined. “If you start to see a repetitive cost going in, then something’s wrong. You’re using the wrong part, or the vehicle could be too old; it could be time to get rid of it. You always have to look at your numbers.”

Leasing Maintenance

One alternative to running an in-house maintenance facility that still enables carriers to keep their buses safe and performing well is buying a maintenance or service agreement that allows the manufacturer to provide the preventive maintenance. Some smaller operators are considering having a third party take over their maintenance program because in-house maintenance staff costs are expensive, and they aren’t able to provide the training or the staff to take care of it, Conover says.

Daimler Buses North America is piloting a preventive maintenance program designed to fill this need for smaller and larger coach operators.

“One customer currently has the service, and three of their coaches are [a part of] this program,” Conover says. “And we have another customer we’re working with under a similar concept: We’re doing all the preventive maintenance work through one of our factory service centers.”

The pilot program began in June 2008. The manufacturer is starting the first round of PM schedules. Mechanics are fine-tuning the procedures as they work with three in-service customers, and plan to take on five more operators soon. After the benchmarking process, the company will expand the service.

“I think in general, any time you can work into a lease where you’re going to buy a maintenance or service agreement that allows the manufacturer to provide the preventive maintenance for the vehicle, it’s truly in the best interest for everybody,” Conover says.

Sticking To The Schedule

Jack Wigley, president, All Aboard America of Mesz, Ariz., which has a 90-motorcoach fleet that includes Prevosts, Van Hools, and MCIs, says his company uses its manufacturer’s PM schedule. We [base it on] time, not mileage, so we do it quarterly. And PMs cascade; there’s A service, B service, C service; you do an A, then you do an AB, then an ABC, and those are every 90 days, and they’re each done at 5,000-mile intervals.”

Like many others, Wigley advises against skimping on the basics. In particular, he recommends paying extra attention to the condition of the windows and taking care of safety maintenance every 90 days. “You have to be sensitive to time as well as miles… with today’s lubricants, a lot of times you can extend the oil change cycle, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can decrease your normal, regular maintenance and inspection service intervals. However, you may not drop your oil filters as often, as quickly,” he says.

Training And Other Tools

When asked what’s most integral to keeping his coaches on the road, Wigley says it’s a combination of keeping a well-equipped shop and professional people.

All Aboard America regularly sends each of its mechanics twice a year to classroom training that covers various topics, including engine, braking systems, and transmissions offered by vendors and vehicle manufacturer schools.

“Your future’s based on your safety, and a lot of your safety is based upon the competency of your mechanics, and your maintenance facilities,” Wigley adds.

Tailor-made software is another useful tool. Operators that spoke with LCT recommended Distinctive Vehicle Systems as one software option that helps streamline maintenance operations. One carrier, who operates out of five locations and has 25-30 maintenance workers on staff depending on the workload, said the software enables them to easily consolidate operations.

Investing in computerized diagnostic equipment also was highly recommended to avoid paying for a shop to do it. Operators said that means standardizing your fleet with one kind of engine and transmission across the board, so only one set of diagnostic software is needed.

“You can’t be paying someone else to come in and hook up a computer to your bus and tell you what’s wrong with it,” one operator says. “And you can’t tell what’s wrong with them anymore without a computer. You have to have a laptop. It used to be a mechanic came to work in the morning and found a grease rag and a hammer, and went to work. Now he makes sure his laptop is charged up. It’s a different world. “

SIDEBAR: Green Tips

Many operators find that the practices they have adopted to be greener are also boosting the quality of their preventive maintenance. Here are some suggestions:

  • “Use synthetic oil. You save more than 50%. It costs three times as much, but you run it six times as long. Plus you don’t have disposal costs. I’ve been doing it as a fleet manager for 15 years.”
  • “Keep tires properly inflated.”
  • “Set idle shutdown times. Newer vehicles have computerized idle shutdown times. We set ours at 5 minutes.”

SIDEBAR: Check-In Checklist

With the heat of summer bearing down on your vehicles, many aspects need extra attention. Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motor Coach Industries (MCI) recommends that for summer maintenance, a complete vehicle inspection is performed on the cooling system, HVAC System, chassis, and electrical system.

Here’s a brief checklist for performing critical maintenance steps

  • Ensure that cable connections are clean and free of corrosion.
  • Check the alternator belt. It shouldn’t be glazed or shiny. Be sure the belt tension meets the standard noted in the OEM’s maintenance manual.
  • Check belt alignment. Most alignments can be checked by using a straight edge. Refer to your maintenance manual for the proper method for the particular belt.
  • Check anti-freeze concentration. It generally should be a 50/50 mixture of anti-freeze and distilled water. (Confirm this with your local engine manufacturer, as mixture content can vary from one region to another.)
  • Look for any signs of refrigerant leaks. Oily areas in the HVAC system and dirt build-up are signs of possible leaks.
  • Check the oil level and color in the A/C compressor. The oil should be clear. Dark oil may indicate contamination and acid buildup, which will reduce your compressor’s life.
  • Test the batteries. Load test batteries to a ½ cold cranking amp rating on the batteries for 15 seconds. Batteries should not drop below 9.6v.
  • Ensure tires are in good shape. Hotter temperatures make the rubber softer and weak spots may be more prone to fail. Check the tread depth, side walls, and tire pressures.

For more information, visit MCI’s recent spring and summer maintenance preparedness Webinar at

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