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Shock and Awe: The Little Hybrid Engine That Couldn't 

Wednesday, Jan 8 2014
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Blake Ritterman emerged from a deep sleep and peered out the window of the 1993 Ford Econoline van as it chugged down the road. The drummer for the San Francisco band Posole was greeted with a typical San Francisco scene: a Muni bus driving alongside.

Spotting a Muni bus in this town is a bit like pulling a rabbit out of a rabbit hutch; some 1,000 coaches slowly haul San Franciscans around a city in which one is never more than two blocks from a transit stop. Ritterman, however, spotted this Muni bus cruising across Wyoming, somewhere between Rock Springs and Rawlins. His snapshot of coach No. 8706 gallivanting through The Cowboy State went viral, traversing the Internet with a speed never before attained by a Muni vehicle.

Truly, this was a magic bus.

And yet, as details emerged regarding this and other Muni coaches wending their way toward the Bay Area from the New Flyer factory in Minnesota, it became clear they were magical in a way no one outside Muni's inner sanctum could conceive of.

The musician's photograph hit the Internet in mid-October. But the $38.3 million contract authorizing the creation of the $700,000-a-pop hybrid buses wouldn't be voted on by the Board of Supervisors until two weeks later. These funds wouldn't be released for longer still. And yet, there it was: Coach No. 8706, assembled, bedecked in Muni colors, and even blessed with a vehicle number. A convoy of 50 such Muni buses surreptitiously rumbled our way late last year. (In a development equal parts ominous and humiliating, five conked out en route.)

By the time the board unanimously greenlit their mere existence on Oct. 29, scores of these buses were already squirreled away at a warehouse in Alameda. A majority of the city's supervisors tell SF Weekly they had no clue this was the case. "Well, that's fascinating," says irked Board President David Chiu. "This is information that should have been disclosed to us. Boy, I'd kind of like to see this in writing."

But that would require a conjurer's touch. Muni boss Ed Reiskin and transit director John Haley confirm the acquisition of these 50 buses was predicated on a mere handshake. Bus manufacturer New Flyer, they claim, offered to crank out a platoon of hybrids to Muni's specs, while assuming all the risks if the board saw fit to spurn the pending contract.

Asked to produce the paperwork verifying this, Reiskin and Haley claim none exists.

But that's just the beginning of a particularly strange and harrowing journey. Further deconstructing the inner workings of these buses and the deal that landed them, peculiarities emerge one after the other, like rabbits out of a rabbit hutch.

Even before our era of smartphone-induced catatonia, the very last thing on the minds of most transit patrons was transit.

So, few passengers riding a Muni vehicle likely give much thought to the complex systems enabling their trip. You are, all but certainly, unaware of the fiercely contested competition Muni launched in 2013 to determine which company's hybrid propulsion system would grace the interior of your ride. And, as your hybrid bus struggles to surmount O'Shaughnessy, you would never think of a far-off tank — powered by eerily similar hybrid components manufactured by the very same multinational defense conglomerate — patrolling less hospitable terrain.

San Francisco, counterintuitively, came late to the hybrid transit game. But we've made up for lost time by racing into a spectacular glut of system failures.

Muni obtained its first 86 spiffy hybrid coaches starting in 2007; these were manufactured by the now-defunct company Orion and, like the New Flyer buses spotted meandering through Wyoming, powered with hybrid drives from British munitions titan BAE Systems.

In many ways, a bus is merely the vessel for the hybrid drive, as a bottle is for wine. These components are the most expensive on board and the element that renders a hybrid a hybrid. Bus companies come and go. But, in San Francisco, hybrid drives stay.

Regardless of how poorly they perform.

The city's initial batch of BAE-powered hybrid buses compounded a steep cost with a predilection to break down at rates far exceeding Muni's much older — and cheaper — non-hybrid vehicles. San Franciscans have for years been left soaking in the rain and/or crammed into substitute diesel buses while crippled hybrids are continually towed to the shop. (And kept there).

Other transit agencies — and their beleaguered riders — have been locked in this grating pas-de-deux since the 1990s. Some have had their fill: New York City last year took the extraordinary step of drafting plans to disembowel up to 389 of its failure-prone BAE-powered hybrids and replace the tetchy systems with diesel engines.

Haley, San Francisco's top transit official, describes Muni's first six years of coping with BAE hybrid systems as "an embarrassment." And yet, the hastily consummated handshake deal he helped engineer delivered the city 50 more BAE-equipped hybrids. Per federal regulations, these are Muni's obligation to nurse along for a dozen more years.

But that's a situation for future San Franciscans to cope with. In the here and now, everyone stands to gain: Obliviousness aside, the supervisors can still crow about bestowing shiny new hybrid buses upon the city; Muni gets to crow, too, while plugging its crumbling fleet with those 50 new vehicles; New Flyer sells San Francisco a batch of pricey buses; and BAE can further research and develop a hybrid system with potential applications far more lucrative than merely toting San Franciscans hither and yon.

All parties obviously benefit, save one: San Franciscans. Muni's riders, the agency's raison d'être, are left to file aboard vehicles powered by the same company responsible for years of "embarrassment."

San Francisco is a city with lofty goals regarding clean power. It opts to entrust those goals to entities it'd be challenging to describe as clean.

BAE Systems has amassed billions by arming the free-spending military forces of the world. Like fellow defense giants Boeing and Northrup Grumman, it branched into the municipal transit market, and benefited from the resultant bonanza of federal cash. But the real money remains in supplying nuclear subs, fighter jets, and other weapons of war to the highest bidder.

At first blush, this hardly seems to jibe with San Francisco values. In this city, departments are forbidden, by municipal ordinance, from even contracting with companies that profited from the antebellum slave trade.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, however, has repeatedly tapped BAE to craft the systems powering the hybrid buses generating low counts of particulate matter and high counts of self-congratulatory press releases.

It's not that no one is complaining about BAE; the rancor within Muni has been considerable. The gripes weren't ethically based, however, but of a more pedestrian nature. As in: Muni's would-be riders are forced to become pedestrians when the hybrid buses habitually fail.

BAE produces a "series" hybrid system, meaning that, like Christmas lights, if one battery dies it may paralyze the entire mechanism. And batteries die. A lot.

The loss of just one of the nearly four dozen batteries atop the BAE-powered Orion hybrid buses can knock the vehicle out of commission, forcing passengers to off-board and requiring a tow to a maintenance facility. An awkward and cumbersome ritual ensues, with mechanics skittering about on top of the bus, peeling open the "clamshell" containing the batteries, and removing and replacing the defective item.

And, if another battery goes out on the very same bus the very next day, it all happens again.

Especially in the system's early years in San Francisco, the high-maintenance hybrids consumed batteries by the pallet-full. Muni workers described the vast stacks of material coming out of and going into the costly buses as resembling the endless warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Batteries, cooling systems, resolvers, even hulking traction motors blew out. "They were our newest buses and our worst performers," concedes Haley.

Statistics obtained from Muni reinforce the transit director's glum admission. For years, the BAE-powered hybrids failed to crack 4,000 miles between in-service breakdowns — a mark routinely bested by diesel vehicles roughly twice as old and half the cost of the hybrids.

Haley, however, claims a "get-well" program for the "battery packs and components that were failing" has led to happier times of late.

That appears to be so, but it's still hardly a call for revelry. The latest numbers reveal 6-year-old BAE-powered Orion buses breaking down every 4,300 or so miles — an improvement, but still far worse than the aging diesel buses long serving as the backbone of the fleet (and forced into additional service due to the erratic hybrids). Muni's 40-foot diesels — now 11 to 13 years old — fail every 5,229 miles.

Distance between failures only scratches the surface, however. A bus moldering in the shop isn't "failing" — but it also isn't serving transit riders. Internal Muni "bus hold" lists obtained by SF Weekly reveal that, even in recent months, there are mornings in which more than a quarter of the BAE-powered Orions are held out of service.

Lamentations regarding BAE hybrid systems, meanwhile, are hardly limited to San Francisco. Online forums for North American public-transit maintenance workers quickly devolve into virtual support groups, as gearheads bemoan the litany of battery iterations and software modifications foisted upon them as BAE continually undertakes R&D on its system — none of which, the mechanics grouse, has rendered the hybrids competitive with older, cheaper buses. Interviews with Muni personnel over the past several years have revealed identical concerns.

So, by 2012, Muni was ready to kick the tires on a new hybrid power system, manufactured by someone else.

In a novel step, it arranged for a "split order" of 62 buses, pitting two hybrid systems against one other. To any Muni rider, the New Flyer buses would appear identical. But the wine in these bottles would be different: 39 of the coaches were outfitted with the latest BAE hybrid system, while 23 were powered by a hybrid system from Allison, an American company formerly under the aegis of General Motors.

Multiple attendees recount meetings in which Muni managers, controllers, and engineers piously stated the agency's next round of hybrid-purchasing would be based on cold, hard analysis of the respective buses' performance on the streets of San Francisco. Criteria for this competition, obtained by SF Weekly, came out to four solid pages.

And yet, the handshake deal arranged by Muni's upper management circumvented this pledge. The 50 buses crossing the country en route to clandestine depositories and retroactive approval were all BAE-equipped machines.

Meet the new bus. Same as the old bus.

In 2013, New York City's transit agency crafted a succinct epitaph for its nearly two-decade relationship with BAE-powered hybrid buses: You're fired.

The NYMTA quietly ceased purchasing hybrids in 2010, before last year announcing plans to not only halt this figurative bus but shift it into reverse. Perhaps as many as one-quarter of New York City's hybrid buses now stand to be recast into diesel vehicles in the near future.

Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the agency, chalked up the move to rampant traction motor failures, compounding the costly headache of "all of the hybrid components [requiring] continuous replacement." This is a gripe that could just as easily have hailed from San Francisco.

Even before New York City soured on BAE Systems, transit officials in Toronto were jolted when five-year batteries failed en masse after only 18 months. James Greer, the director of maintenance for Ottawa's OC Transpo, tells SF Weekly his agency is "still assessing" whether to convert its 177 BAE-equipped hybrids to diesel buses when the hybrid components wear out.

With the handshake deal, though, San Francisco has doubled down on BAE. Its cavalier arrangement allowed this to happen with a maximum of speed — and a minimum of analysis.

Shortly after New Flyer last year delivered the split order of 62 hybrid buses to San Francisco, equipped with BAE and Allison propulsion systems for the express purpose of determining which was superior, Haley says the bus manufacturer approached him with a cunning plan. Due to a "hole in their production line," he says, New Flyer offered to produce more buses for Muni, posthaste — all of which would eventually carry BAE hybrid drives. When reminded of this city's labyrinthine approval process for large contracts, both Haley and Reiskin say New Flyer officials proposed to rapidly assemble and ship 50 of the $700,000 vehicles with no guarantee of payment — and a total assumption of all risk and liability should the city reject a future contract.

Numerous calls to New Flyer officials have not been returned — for this and other stories. Both Reiskin and Haley reacted with incredulity when asked for any paperwork outlining this arrangement, which both men took pains to explain was "not a deal."

Asked how prevalent this type of not-a-deal is, Reiskin says he didn't know and couldn't speculate on New Flyer's motivations for offering the no-risk deal or for why it went exclusively with BAE. Haley affirms he never asked why the bus company would feel compelled to make such an offer — the likes of which he couldn't recall in his 30-plus year transit career. But "I didn't get into that with them."

Haley further admits Muni's decision to request BAE propulsion systems over Allison in these 50 buses was not based on a lick of analysis.

The BAE system runs about $45,000 less per bus than an Allison system — but until Muni's BAE vs. Allison competition is actually undertaken, Haley concedes there's no way to know if BAE's initial discount will be offset by greater parts and maintenance costs.

Asked if it's possible that Muni just went to extraordinary lengths to rush-order 50 buses its own field-testing might subsequently reveal to be the inferior vehicles, Haley again concedes that, yes, it is.

All of this, he claims, was disclosed to both Federal Transportation Administration authorities and the Board of Supervisors. Numerous calls to myriad FTA officials haven't been returned. But the text of Haley's most recent presentation to the feds merely notes the new buses, built to Muni's specs and subsidized with $28.5 million in federal grants, were slated to begin arriving in November.

They actually arrived in October. The intriguing arrangement allowing for this was not elucidated in writing.

One can pore over the 78-page legislative packet provided to members of the Board of Supervisors and be similarly blindsided upon learning that, at the time of the vote to fund, manufacture, and transport these 50 buses the 1,900 miles from Minnesota, they were already stashed across the bay. (Haley did, however, tell the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee on Oct. 23 that New Flyer has "begun the production of some of the buses and some of them are on their way to the Bay Area."). SF Weekly contacted every supervisor; only Scott Wiener and London Breed recalled being notified of this arrangement beforehand. Neither thought to ask for any paperwork regarding the matter — Muni officials claim there's none to be had — and both stand by their votes. Breed, however, admits "this definitely doesn't look good."

Her colleagues, having been left in the dark, are decidedly less sanguine. "Muni is kind of a rogue agency," says Supervisor Malia Cohen. "They just do what they want to do." Supervisor John Avalos calls the not-a-deal "very funky. For them to have a situation where the actual vehicles are parked across the bay waiting for us to vote on them makes me feel the wool was pulled over my eyes. What's the point of even having a legislative branch of government?"

None of the supervisors — not one — knew about the internal BAE vs. Allison competition that Muni short-circuited, even though they'd unanimously greenlit that "split" bus purchase, too. That detail was within the legislative packet. But the supervisors are deluged with legislative packets.

Certainly, no one appears to have read this one.

Asked to justify this latest purchase, Muni officials ballyhooed the "quiet operation" of BAE-equipped hybrids. In doing so, they — knowingly or unknowingly — regurgitated one of the company's talking points.

For a tank.

BAE boilerplate lavishes praise upon its hybrid vehicles' "low acoustic signature and quiet ride." San Franciscans living along well-traversed bus routes will likely be thankful. Denizens of rougher locales, unable to hear the approach of stealthy BAE hybrid tanks equipped with "man-accessible turrets" and the "Commander's Independent Weapon System" will be less so.

In fact, many of the pitches BAE uses to flog hybrid tanks are remarkably similar to those used to extol hybrid buses. While the military is relatively unconcerned with its emissions standards and carbon footprint, increased fuel efficiency — allowing increased vehicle range — is an obvious plus. So is the maximum torque electric motors deliver at low speeds, providing lumbering vehicles with rapid acceleration and increased agility and maneuverability. As is the regenerative braking ability, which saves on maintenance and increases overall efficiency. And don't forget the "embedded diagnostics/prognostics" allowing mechanics to speedily bird-dog fixes.

In August, BAE trumpeted a successful round of testing of its hybrid Ground Combat Vehicle system. In October, it received a $688 million Army contract for its Paladin Integrated Management system (PIM) of self-propelled howitzers. Both, like a Muni bus, feature a 600-volt power system.

BAE has spent decades refining and developing hybrid systems in municipal vehicles largely funded by government transit dollars. Without being allowed to pop the hood on BAE's sensitive military prototypes, it's uncertain how much of the electromechanical DNA from transit systems has found its way up the chain to weapons systems.

You're not going to believe this, but SF Weekly was not granted such access. Interview requests for BAE personnel working across a variety of civilian and military departments went unfulfilled. Shelby Cohen, a BAE communications manager, declined to speak with us, writing that the hybrid systems within transit vehicles "are entirely different than the hybrid system aboard the PIM" howitzer.

In other words, a series-hybrid system utilizing lithium batteries and a 600-volt power output to operate a vehicle weighing several dozen tons is "entirely different" than a series-hybrid system utilizing lithium batteries and a 600-volt power output to operate a vehicle weighing several dozen tons.

New York City transit officials, meanwhile, inform SF Weekly that a former BAE hybrid bus revamped into a diesel vehicle has proven to be 98 percent as fuel efficient as a hybrid in test conditions. Whether San Francisco's costly dalliance in hybrid technology has provided this city with truly greener transit remains a vexing question.

As does our role in subsidizing a testing ground for hybrid systems powering war machines.

On Monday, June 17, Mayor Ed Lee and a coterie of city politicos gaily boarded a sleek New Flyer hybrid for a ceremonial, 2.5-mile jaunt to City Hall. Yet an event meant to inaugurate a new era of San Francisco hybrid transit all too closely resembled the old: The bus immediately conked out. Lee et al. were forced to glumly off-board.

Unlike legions of city commuters stranded by Muni's pricey hybrid acquisitions, however, Lee's party was blessed with a backup bus to instantly whisk them on their merry way.

To an outside observer, the two hybrids would be interchangeable. Yet the wine in these identical bottles wasn't the same vintage. Among Muni personnel and city insiders, it could hardly have escaped notice the vehicle that failed Lee was powered by an Allison hybrid drive — and the coach that came to his rescue was powered by BAE.

Muni personnel tell SF Weekly this Allison bus had a long and well-known history of failing to start — the precise defect that manifested itself that day — tracking back to its March 2013 arrival in San Francisco. It was bizarre that this famously problematic bus was tapped to carry any passengers, let alone the mayor — let alone even leave the bus yard.

Its failure was utterly predictable. And yet, it was selected to serve as the centerpiece for a high-profile media spectacle.

Mission accomplished.

Following the incident — a disgrace for Allison — coach No. 8601 was left to languish in Muni purgatory. Days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months. The defective vehicle went unrepaired, becoming an embarrassing cause célèbre and a lingering black eye for Allison within Muni.

Muni's official explanation for the bus's chronic inability to start was a defective "rear exit door mechanism." But that should hardly necessitate months of conspicuous idleness. In fact, the real problem was purportedly far deeper, and more nefarious, than a mere faulty door.

Allison, SF Weekly is told, was fed incorrect parameters by New Flyer to program into this bus's onboard software.

If so, it's hard to see how any of this reflects poorly on Allison. But, by the time coach No. 8601 was finally placed into service in August, Muni's not-a-deal to obtain 50 more BAE hybrids had long since been set into motion.

By September, the supporting documentation and operation manuals for those buses were shipped to Muni. One month later, along came the buses themselves.

And there was much rejoicing: The city and its transit agency can beam at the gorgeous and expensive coaches New Flyer expediently provided, while BAE continues to perfect its hybrid drives. The future is more equivocal, however, for the riders on those impressively quiet hybrids — who'd never know or think to ask about the inner workings of these buses or how they arrived in San Francisco.

Muni, it turns out, has no magic to speak of.

Just tricks.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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