The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating the safety of the county’s Ride On bus fleet after six bus fires in the past three years, the federal agency said this week.
The county employees union has filed a grievance with the county to keep the buses out of service until the defects are identified and repaired. The union claimed the county violated its collective bargaining agreement by failing to enforce safety and health obligations, WAMU radio reported.
The federal investigation involves the International 3200 model buses manufactured between 2007 and 2010.
The county purchased 50 of the buses in 2007 at about $175,000 each, Fox 5 reported. “About two dozen” remained in service as of February, Fox 5 reported.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994 Municipal and County Government Employees Organization have been pushing for a federal investigation. UFCW Local 1994 said in a news release on Monday that union officials representing Ride On operators and mechanics recently had a telephone call with the NHTSA investigator leading the inquiry.
“I am aware of a fair number of issues on these buses,” the release quotes NHTSA investigator Richard Willard as saying during the call. “And it’s my opinion that these buses are driven on a harsher duty cycle than they were built for.”
A NHTSA spokesman could not confirm Willard’s call with union officials, saying it is the agency’s policy not to comment on ongoing investigations.
“We want to know why Ride On did not formally report problems to NHTSA on its own,” union president Gino Renne said in the release. “That should be standard procedure. The County Executive’s office should step up to lead and pull these buses from service. Quit playing Russian roulette with the safety of our bus operators and the riding public.”
A county spokeswoman told The Gazette the county’s Department of Transportation did in fact report the problem.
In February, The Washington Examiner’s “Capital Land” blog reported the NHTSA was “talking with Montgomery County officials” about the fires, but was not yet formally investigating the model of buses involved.
Fox 5 reported in February that Ride On planned to replace all of the International 3200 model buses within 18 months. That replacement schedule is now within the next six months, the county spokeswoman told The Gazette.
“That’s not soon enough,” bus operator and union leader Nelvin Ransome said in the union news release. “We’ve seen six fires aboard these buses in the past three years. The fleet is aging and the possibilities are still too great we’ll see more incidents in the next six months.”
While the buses involved have bodies built by Champion Bus, Inc., the investigation focuses on Navistar International Corporation, which built the chassis, NHTSA said.
“We have looked at a number of fires occurring on Montgomery County Ride On Buses,” the NHTSA statement said. “In all of the cases, the buses were Champion buses. In three of the cases, the Champion buses were built on International 3200 chassis. In a fourth case a fire occurred on a bus built on a GM 5500 chassis. The fires that occurred on the International chassis seem to have some similarities and may involve a defect. We opened an investigation on these vehicles. The fire that occurred on the GM chassis appears to have been maintenance related and so we have not opened an investigation on the issue.”
Navistar provided the following statement in an email: "No documentation has yet been provided about the questions they intend to ask. Navistar will, of course, cooperate fully with NHTSA. To Navistar’s knowledge, the multiple failures Montgomery County has experienced appear to be isolated to Montgomery County. Navistar has participated in the investigation of the incidents in Montgomery County where our bus chassis were involved and most have resulted in inconclusive findings."
A summary of the federal investigation says three of the fires “originated in the area of the transmission.” An inspection revealed that the parking brake could be “unintentionally applied for an extended period of time while the vehicle is in motion,” which may cause a fire, the summary says.
Click the PDF above to read the summary.
Click here and enter "PE12008" as the “NHTSA Action No.” to read documents related to the investigation.
It’s not entirely clear which of the six incidents the investigation is targeting.
The following is a timeline of the six fires, based on media reports:
- 2009: Exact date and details unknown.
- Sept. 8, 2010: In the 8400 block of Colesville Road, in Silver Spring. It involved a stuck brake shoe, David Dise, director of the county’s Department of General Services, told The Examiner.
- Dec. 30, 2010: WTOP captured video of a bus on fire on Marinelli Road near the White Flint Metro station in North Bethesda. The Examiner reported a pinched brake line was the cause.
- Dec. 27, 2011: Goldsboro Road and Massachusetts Avenue near Glen Echo. The fire, at the front of the bus near its engine, appeared to have been caused by water leaking into the bus' electrical system, Dise told The Examiner.
- : Oak Leaf Drive and Columbia Pike in White Oak. The , a fire spokesman told
- March 20: Georgia Avenue near the Glenmont Metro station. The fires started in the engine compartment, NBC4 reported.
No one was injured in any of the fires.