Five new buses that were delivered to the city in March sit idle in the city yard while officials and the manufacturer argue about whether the buses are safe.
The transit department has refused to put the buses on the street, saying that a stability problem causes the rear of the buses to lose traction when changing lanes or turning corners.
The manufacturer, Bus Industries of America Inc., says the buses are safe and that any handling problems can be corrected with stabilizer bars, which the company is willing to provide. The company also says it is willing to accept liability for any claims that are made against the city as a result of a problem with the buses.
But Ray Schmidt, city transit manager, was ready last week to ask the City Council to send the buses back. He withdrew his request because the company asked for one more meeting in an attempt to resolve the problems.
Schmidt said the meeting will be held early next year, but he said he could not see any remedy other than the company's replacing the buses or returning the city's money. The city has already paid for four of the five buses.
He said the matter may wind up in court. In a report to the City Council last week, he said: "Better a contract legal dispute now for 'unacceptable' buses than a bodily-injury lawsuit later, especially with this known handling problem."
Donald K. Sheardown, Bus Industries' president, said he believes the matter can be resolved without legal action.
"Everyone there is pretty reasonable," he said. "I think when the City Council sees the evidence it will conclude that the buses are safe."
The contract for the five 30-foot buses is the first between the city and Bus Industries of Oriskany, N.Y. In November, 1984, the city sent out requests for bids for the five buses and Bus Industries was the low bidder at $703,432.
Because the city had no previous dealings with the company, it sent a team of officials to visit the firm's plant. Transit officials also tested buses made by the firm that were operating in Norwalk.
Torrance officials were happy with what they saw and awarded the contract to Bus Industries in December. The Orion model buses were delivered in March and passed initial test drives.
The city paid for four of the five buses at that time, but held back payment on the fifth in case problems developed.
A garage department supervisor drove one of the buses a longer distance and at a higher rate of speed than previous test runs.
The test showed that the back of the bus whipped severely during lane changes at speeds over 35 m.p.h., Schmidt said.
The city notified the company, which said it knew of no problems with the buses, and said Norwalk's satisfaction proved the buses were structurally sound.
(The County of San Diego ordered seven of the same buses and experienced some initial handling problems with them, according to William Lorenz, manager of the county's transit system. However, he said, the stabilizer bars were put in some of the buses and there are now no problems. San Diego's buses were received in February and put into service in March.)
Torrance officials then discovered that the company had made a design change in the 1985 model of the bus--the model Torrance received--moving the bulkhead and rear suspension slightly forward from the position on the 1984 model. The city attributed the stability problems to that change.
In June, the company offerred to have the buses tested by an independent agency that serves the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under guidelines established by the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration.
The only standard test available, however, was one designed for 35-foot-long buses. Some modifications were made on the test and one of the new Torrance buses was put through it.
No Safety Defects
The test indicated that there was some movement in the steering wheel and traction loss on double lane changes, but it concluded that there were no safety defects in the bus.
The test also showed that the addition of shock absorbers with sway bars and a reduction in the air pressure in the tires improved the handling of the bus.
Bus Industries said it would be willing to provide front and rear stabilizer bars and take legal responsibility for any claims made against the city relating to problems with the buses.
"We put it through those tests and the safety board has concluded there are no safety defects," Sheardown said. "We are a responsible manufacturer in that we will continue to be responsible for the life of those vehicles. We have notified our insurance carriers and made them aware of the city's concerns, and they have no problem with that."
Schmidt, however, maintains that the improvements to the buses were only "superficial fixes" that did not resolve the problem. He also said it would be difficult to protect the city from liability in a bus accident because determining whether the fault lay with the driver or vehicle would be difficult.
"It is staff's further judgment that after the lapse of this much time . . . that if a 'fix' has not been established to date, that one is not forthcoming in the immediate future," Schmidt said.
He further contends that the city inspected and approved 1984 models, while 1985 buses were delivered. He said specifications require that the buses be "suitable" for transit service and be a "proven design with a proven record of reliability." The five buses are neither, Schmidt said.