Muni mechanics at crossroads over old, new technology

It’s a fact of San Francisco life — buses break down.

When they do, they roll to one of The City’s bus yards for maintenance. Inside these shops across San Francisco, mechanics put wits and tools to work in repairing Muni’s fleet.

But the toolbox used by mechanics of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is changing, and now the fleet — and its repair crews — are at a crossroads.

Of Muni’s more than 800-bus fleet, 142 are outfitted with technology of the future: Crews quickly diagnose stalled buses by using laptops, and computers alert repair yards, in real time, to the slightest hiccup in any engine of this newer fleet.

The other 600 or so of Muni’s buses are spinning in the past. Though some can use new technology in a limited fashion, most can only be diagnosed the old fashioned way: with the eyes of a trained mechanic.

To take a peek under the hood at two contrasting repair styles, the SFMTA recently led the San Francisco Examiner on a tour of the John M. Woods Motor Coach Center, known as “Woods Division,” in the Dogpatch neighborhood.

Those giving the tour are excited to show off the new tools.

“I started in ’87, and this new stuff is just so cool,” said Tom Curran, SFMTA’s chief mechanical officer.

Curran, Director of Transit John Haley and Woods Division Superintendent Louis Guzzo led the Examiner first through “running repair,” where the repair needs of buses are evaluated.

In a small office nearby sat Assistant Shop Supervisor David Ghiselin. A map of The City glowed on his computer screen, populated by circles representing each of the buses Woods Division oversees.

“You want to find the bus, a coach?” he asked. “I want to find 8611, there it is.”

The other circles disappeared, leaving only Bus 8611, its circle blue — meaning it’s in good working condition. He clicks the bus, and a virtual bus “dashboard” pops up.

The program is called New Flyer Connect, and it only works with buses the SFMTA purchased from manufacturer New Flyer. Woods Division (and the rest of the SFMTA) still houses many older buses built by manufacturers Orion and NeoPlan.

The older buses will be phased out, Haley said, and the New Flyers may comprise all of Muni’s bus fleet by 2018.

For now, only Woods and Flynn divisions use New Flyer Connect.

Ghiselin demonstrated why this could speed up Muni’s service dramatically. After a slight connection hiccup, the virtual “dash” on his computer came to life, and meters showed the New Flyer buses’ speed, RPM, battery, oil pressure, oil temperature, brake, and even its accelerator and clutch.
“There’s 112 buses that we have on this system right now” at Woods Division, Guzzo said. “It’s like OnStar on steroids.”

When the older Orion and NeoPlan buses experience problems on the road, Haley said, mechanics need to diagnose a bus by popping open the hood — or worse, taking it back to the yard for inspection.

The new system prioritizes preventative maintenance. Pointing to his map, Ghiselin said, “If I see a defect, I can call and take it out of service.”
There are other benefits, too. “Now you can plan better,” Haley said. As the system diagnoses problems, Haley said, repair crews can know beforehand what parts they need to load up their trucks with.

The system, however, still requires human expertise to make sense of it all. Ghiselin checks the bus alerts against a spreadsheet next to his keyboard, detailing the number of times a defect has occurred on a bus. There he determines if the problem is serious enough to require intervention.


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Assistant shop supervisor David Ghiselin demonstrates New Flyer Connect. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)

If a bus pulls in with a defect, it goes to Running Repair, Guzzo said. To see that in action, we walk past buses that are splayed open like a patient on an operating table. Tires are stacked in rows nearby.

Guzzo leads us to a New Flyer, and automotive mechanic Michael Delos Reyes shows us how he uses tech tools to diagnose a bus.

Reyes pulls down a cabinet-like door behind the driver’s seat. Glowing and blinking electronics peer out, and he plugs a laptop into a socket. “This is all the info for all four corners of the coach,” he said. The system, called E-Stroke, scrolls data about the brakes and axles on his screen.
He pushes up his glasses, smiling as he walks us through an analysis. This bus had an “overstroke” on the brakes, he said, but it isn’t a concern and could’ve been a faulty reading.

“If there were 150 readings, I’d go ‘oh man,’” he said. Luckily, there’s only one.

Reyes is young and tech-savvy, Guzzo said. But not all mechanics take to tech so easily. He assured the Examiner there’s more than enough work to do that doesn’t involve computers. Some of them work in the heavy duty department, where major repairs take place.

“Those type of guys, let’s say they want to change brakes all day,” Guzzo said. “We’re fine with that.”

But ultimately, “All the advancements make the job a little easier, and it helps reliability and helps the citizens of San Francisco get where they need to go.”

Still, the SFMTA’s ability to use those tech advancements for its buses are years away, Haley said. Until then, SFMTA will need mechanics with new skills, and the old.

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