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

Wednesday, Jan 8 2014
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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.

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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