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Best of BSD: Data Drives Vehicle Reliability for Metro Transit

Best of BSD: Data Drives Vehicle Reliability for Metro Transit
April 13, 2023 Jerry Vallely
Members of the Metro Quality Assurance team pose in front of a bus

Most vehicle owners know they should change the oil in their car every 3,000 miles. But what about the brakes, the alternator, or the serpentine belt? Every piece of your vehicle has a useful lifespan, and keeping up with that maintenance can drastically improve your car’s performance and longevity. The same is true for Metro Transit vehicles. 

The Quality Assurance (QA) team at Metro Transit oversees the purchase of new MetroBus buses and Metro Call-A-Ride vans—as well as creating product specifications and maintenance protocols to ensure each vehicle meets our high expectations on reliability. “Anything that touches a revenue vehicle, we are responsible for,” says Geoff Kehr, Director of Quality Assurance and Training. 

A National Model

The team’s Reliability-Centered Maintenance (RCM) Program has become a national model since it was first implemented in the early 2000s. The program focuses on using quality parts and performing preemptive maintenance to reduce bus breakdowns, streamline repairs, and improve on-time performance for our customers. Transit officials from as far away as Calgary, Alberta in Canada have come to St. Louis to learn about the program. 

For many years before implementing RCM, Bi-State Development handled its bus maintenance the same way other transit agencies did—run vehicles until they break, and then fix what’s broken. This way of doing things created a high frequency of “road calls,” where a mechanic was dispatched to make roadside repairs while buses were in service, resulting in inefficient use of resources and manpower, and delays for passengers. It also meant the entire bus needed to be overhauled at mid-life. 

By anticipating the wear-and-tear and preemptively replacing parts before they break, the RCM Program greatly reduced the number of road calls and other mechanical failures. “We found within the first few months of implementing something, we started to make massive gains,” says Geoff. “We’ve had not one, but two vehicles that have reached over a million miles, without any major work being done to them. And we’ve driven the distance between road calls to the one of the best in the nation.” 

This approach saves money too. The team focuses on purchasing high-quality parts, which they know through real-world testing will last longer than other, less expensive options. “You already have to spend the money (on parts),” says Matt Partington, Product Analyst. “Where you’re saving is, you are dictating when that part is going to be replaced versus the part dictating that.” Fewer roadside breakdowns mean mechanics can focus more on scheduled repairs, which minimizes the number of vehicles out of service on any given day. 

A Busload of Data

When it comes to maintaining a fleet of more than 300 MetroBus and Call-A-Ride vehicles, the most powerful tool isn’t a socket wrench or a screwdriver—it’s data. Each vehicle records trip and performance data on a device commonly known as a “black box.” 

The Quality Assurance team tracks the data and looks for patterns that provide clues to a particular part’s longevity. Adding it all up since the start of the RCM Program, the team has more than a quarter billion (yes, billion with a “b”) miles worth of data to back up its decisions. “We were able to predict injector failures one week before they happened, just by looking at raw data,” says Bret Klein, Manager of Product Development. 

The results are wide-ranging. Using this data, the team has implemented changes that reduced emissions and increased gas mileage, streamlined repairs, and improved safety and comfort for both passengers and operators. The time between road calls has increased, and roadside repairs are an exception instead of the norm. 

That data even revealed differences in the timing of repairs based on where the buses operate. For example, the team knows door motors tend to wear out faster on buses in Missouri than in Illinois. A part like that has less to do with bus mileage and more to do with frequency of use. In this case, the doors open more often in Missouri than in Illinois. 

The Future of the Fleet

Two decades worth of data helps inform what the MetroBus fleet will look like for the next 20 years and beyond. The QA team uses what they have learned to work directly with manufacturers before a new bus rolls off the line and into service, to ensure every part meets Metro Transit standards. For each new bus, the team knows exactly which parts will need to be replaced and when, and how much it will cost.  

The QA team is looking to further harness the computing power of modern buses to better predict all sorts of repairs. By using the data to set “trigger points” in the onboard computer, buses may eventually be able to self-report the need for a new part—creating its own work order and even purchasing its own parts. Automating these administrative tasks means mechanics can be freed up to make the actual repairs. 

Even the way Metro now buys new buses helps toward the goal of maximizing maintenance efficiency. Instead of buying dozens, even hundreds, of buses at a time, the team makes smaller purchases of 15-25 buses each year. When one hundred new buses hit the road at the same time, all one hundred buses will be due for repairs at the same time too. But staggering smaller purchases helps spread out that workload. It also allows the QA team to continue fine-tuning its standards with each purchase. 

From the first mile to the last, Reliability-Centered Maintenance helps keep your ride running smoothly.