It All Begins with Maintenance

The Bi-State Development Agency/Metro in St. Louis had been experiencing three decades of ridership decline when things were “bad” said Chief Operating Officer Ray Friem. “Third-World-Bogot bad. You couldn’t pay people to ride.” And when it comes to providing a service, he said, “It has to start in maintenance; your product is your cornerstone.”

Metro provides transportation to the St. Louis Metropolitan region, including St. Louis and St. Charles counties in Missouri, and Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties in Illinois. It covers about 3,600 square miles.

During a recent Metro maintenance facilities tour Complete Coach Works invited “Mass Transit” to, Chief Mechanical Officer Carl Thiessen said his division is responsible for all buildings, trains and all vehicles on wheels — revenue and non-revenue — including buses, vans, bikes and wheelbarrows.

The fleet consists of 370 diesel buses with an average age of 9 years, 120 paratransit vans with an average age of 3.5 years and 87 light rail vehicles with an average age of 15 years.

With multiple facility locations, the old objective was to create some competition between the facilities because competition was thought to be good, would keep everyone at the top of their game. One of the first things Friem did when he came on board in 2000 was to stop the competition and change it to one team adding that if someone was going to get shot, he was going to stand up and take the shot.

With Friem’s plans to completely redesign fleet maintenance procedure, Thiessen said he wasn’t received with a warm welcome. “We did what he wanted, thought it wouldn’t work and hoped he would get fired.”

Friem said, “I didn’t tell them to lower their budget. I asked them what I was buying.”

Creating a Plan

A redesign to fleet maintenance and moving to preventative maintenance meant controlling operating costs, managing life-cycle costs and reducing customer complaints. Thiessen said with the old ways, they had a capital problem. They had to have 15 years, 300,000 miles for the expected life of a bus. “The way we used to do maintenance, a bus was shot at 10 years.”

As part of the new maintenance plan, standard procedures were developed and set intervals for a maintenance plan were established. Today, each bus goes through a bi-weekly driver pre-trip inspection, 6,000-mile oil changes, 10,000-mile inspections, planned minor maintenance at 50,000-mile intervals and planned major maintenance every 100,000 miles.

With the inspection program checklist, they are spending a majority of their work between the 200,000 and 600,000 miles instead of at the end of the vehicle’s life.

A New Process

Each month an 18-month report for the vehicles is delivered, along with a 30-, 60- and 90-day outlooks. The reports list buses that are going to be worked on, what all is going to be done. And as Friem said, there’s no not doing them. The storeroom is expected to have those part kits set up, ready and waiting. And, with the regular updates, he said, “Ask any one of these guys what’s the status of this bus and they all know; everyone has the information.”

The kits are assembled in the storeroom on palettes and sent to the maintenance facility. For common work orders, some vendors are required to provide a specified number of kits each month.

The new maintenance plan has helped Metro Transit better control capital costs. While there used to be peaks and valleys of expenditures, they now have a more consistent plan, which is much easier to budget for.

Metro has also significantly reduced its operating costs. Fifteen years ago, before the plan was implemented, they operated at $.85 per mile while now, it is down to $.45 per mile.

The preventative maintenance program has reduced the cost per mile to maintain a bus, coming in at about $.13 per mile over 800,000 miles.

The new process with its planned maintenance and the continually updated reports of what’s going to be needed has afforded Metro to reduce its parts inventory. In 1999 there was about $6 million in parts on hand and in 2011 it was down to about $2.5 million.

With an improvement in system reliability, the agency has seenimproved customer satisfaction with a tremendous drop in customer complaints. The bus mean distance between failures has jumped from less than 5,000 miles in 2000 to nearly 25,000 in 2012.

And, the customers and the drivers can’t tell the difference between the old buses and the new buses because of the quality. On a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being new, Thiessen said the condition of his fleet — except for the buses they’re getting rid of in a year or so — is a 4. “Every year we want to get rid of about 1/15th of our fleet, about 27 buses.”

With the way they do maintenance today, Thiessen said, “We don’t participate in the busmaintenance roadeo because that’s all about diagnostics; our folks don’t do that anymore.”

Friem talked about what this means for the system. “There are about 53 less employees than in 2000 [in the maintenance department]. In 2006 a new rail line opened and we had to hire.” He said, “The efficiencies allowed a reduced staff, and we opened another rail line in St. Louis. Efficiencies paid for it.”

He stressed, “What can this mean to an agency? That’s what it meant for us.”

What they did for bus maintenance, they did for facility maintenance. And they did some of the same up a layer. “Everyone gets a score,” Friem said. “Maintenance operations, scheduling, we’re all equally responsible for on-time performance.”

The Next Level

The Smart Bus Project is taking maintenance to the component level. The information is stored on the bus and every night while fueling, the information is wirelessly sent over the network onto the servers. That information is used to direct maintenance activities.

Such things as how many times the starter button is hit is recorded and it’s forecasted out to when it will need to be replaced. If it’s found that it typically is hit X times by 11K and at that time it fails, they’re replaced at 10K, before there’s a failure.

“Any electrical component on the bus, we can monitor it,” Friem stated. “There’s so much data — data overload — going right to the server.

“We’re picking what we want and then adding to it,” he explained. “Something acts weird, we’re looking for what else happened at that time. Anything weird, it will be set up with a code. When ‘this’ happens, you’ll have to change ‘that.’”

Thiessen added, “We’re using data to do triage; we’re seeing what was going on in the vehicle that we didn’t know enough to see.”

Friem said, “We want to be a partner to Navistar, Voith, Allison, Cummins, Thermo King; they can go in and get their information out, but not the others. “ He continued, “They can also pay to see their bus in real-time — information they can’t get anywhere else.

“They can see how long components will last and all of the conditions around it.”

One of their partners is Complete Coach Works. CCW Regional Sales Manager Jay Raber says he’s very excited that St. Louis is trying out the Maxxforce engine because it’s his customer. “We were looking for the best property to try this on in regard to record-keeping quality.”

The multiplex system could have been put on a selection of vehicles, but Friem said they opted to put it on all of them so they could monitor everything and get more accurate data.

To start Friem said they will have to make some assumptions with historical data and update as they continue to refine the system.

“Warranty means a lot, but for our purpose, having to exercise warranty is the worst thing you have to do,” Friem said. “You don’t want 16 people sitting on a bus.

“It was a conscious decision for us to be something else.”