A burnt connector between the pole and a “shoe,” which connects to power lines. The poles connecting Muni coaches to power lines have spontaneously ignited. (Courtesy photo)

Two Muni buses catch fire, nearly 300 others inspected

Two Muni buses spontaneously caught fire last week, leading The City’s transportation agency to pull nearly 300 buses off the streets for inspection.

No one was injured in the incidents, according to the SFMTA, and all riders were evacuated quickly and safely by two “experienced” Muni operators: Melvin Williams and Shawndalina Crawford.

The San Francisco Examiner learned of the fires from a memo sent by John Haley, director of transit operations at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to SFMTA staff.

“Dear Colleague,” it reads, “This week we experienced two fires on our trolley fleet.”

The fires ignited at the tops of two electric buses, Haley wrote, as a pole connecting to overhead wires overheated, and 600 volts of electricity burned a metal connector at the top of the pole.

Speaking to the Examiner, Haley said the fires were limited to trolley coaches, which are electric buses running on wires. One incident was Dec. 8 on Ocean Avenue near City College of San Francisco. The other fire was Dec. 10, at Union and Mason Streets.

“The connector of the pole is what burned through,” he said. Haley had a burned connector pole in his pocket, just to help recount what went wrong on the bus to anyone who may need an explanation.

Haley pulled 298 buses into “divisions” (what SFMTA calls its repair yards) for inspection. The buses which caught fire, he said, were nearly 15 years old, and are a similar configuration to many buses in the Muni fleet.

“We’re doing a two-step inspection process, and repair to replace the connectors,” he said. Engineers visually inspected trolley coach poles, he said, and even sniffed for the smell of burnt connectors.

Ultimately, he said, they found about 45 buses in need of repair. His staff drastically reconfigured their repair workload, and repaired necessary coaches at Flynn, Kirkland and Woods divisions as not to delay commutes during the week.

After all that effort, SFMTA fell short “12 runs,” Haley said, out of the total 300 buses taken off the streets for inspection.

In the short term, repair work will keep the buses safe, Haley said, but a true solution to the aging fleet won’t come soon.

“These coaches are ready to be replaced,” he said, “but given the delivery schedule (of new buses), most will remain in service for another two years.”

Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved a resolution by Supervisor Scott Wiener to approve SFMTA’s purchase of nearly 265 new buses from New Flyer for $244 million, in a contract that totals $412 million.

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