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RTD Shuffles Deck : Two-Level Buses Will Be Phased Out and Those Flexible ‘Articulated’ Models May Be Silenced

Times Urban Affairs Writer

For the big double-deck buses that have been rumbling along Los Angeles-area streets and freeways since the mid-1970s, the end of the road is in sight.

Twelve years of maintenance headaches--and a few windshields shattered by low-hanging branches--have convinced transit officials that these liabilities outweigh the advantage of the vehicles’ high passenger capacity. No new double-deckers will be ordered, according to present plans, and the 22 now in the Southern California Rapid Transit District’s 2,775-vehicle fleet will be dropped as they wear out.

“They just weren’t built for Los Angeles,” said a transit official. “They’re a loser.”

RTD officials are also debating whether to phase out another group of oversize vehicles: the double-bodied “articulated” buses--the ones that flex in the middle. The “artics” have had problems with maneuverability and reliability and their long-term survival is uncertain.

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Later this year, the RTD will introduce 90 new vehicles into the fleet for use on long-distance commuter runs, and all 90 will be conventional single-level, non-flexing buses.

The first double-deckers went into service in 1974 under a federal program to see how high-capacity buses would work. Since then, they have been used mainly on the San Bernardino Freeway busway, serving commuters between the Diamond Bar-Rowland Heights and Azusa-Glendora areas and downtown Los Angeles.

The RTD says the first two have just about reached the end of the line. The other 20 have logged five years of hard use, mixed with a lot of shop time, and will remain in service until they wear out, the RTD says. The normal life span of the buses is about 12 years.

The tall, West German-built buses with the big dark glass windows are not Los Angeles’ first double-deckers, however. For 25 years until the mid-1940s, double-deckers with open-air upper seats were a familiar sight on Wilshire Boulevard, making riding more of an excursion than a commute.

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District officials like the modern double-deckers, built by Neoplan, because they carry 82 passengers, nearly twice as many as a normal bus. And most passengers find them comfortable, although they’re not well-suited for stop-and-start bus runs because negotiating the stairway between levels is tricky.

The transit district has had trouble with the $225,000 buses from the start. The main problem has been obtaining replacement parts from the West German supplier. Until recent improvements were made in the supply system, four or five buses were usually sidelined for maintenance.

Some of the routes they have traveled in Los Angeles also have been hazardous for the big buses.

One wayward vehicle, recalled Rich Davis, the RTD’s director of equipment maintenance, damaged part of the roof at the El Monte Station on the San Bernardino Freeway busway. And the curbside trees in the downtown area have been a chronic headache. Several buses have tangled with tough overhanging branches, shattering their windshields.

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“The windshields are curved and cost $10,000,” Davis said. “It’s amazing how the bus drivers seem to find the trees.

“There are also certain freeways the buses can’t use because the bridges are too low,” Davis said. “That could be embarrassing. (Hitting one) would ruin our day.”

The RTD is less certain about what to do with the articulated buses. The district is running 40 of the vehicles on the heavily patronized route linking downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood and Century City, but doubts have been raised about whether they’ll be replaced when they run out of steam. Other cities, such as San Diego and Seattle, have had good results with articulated buses, but RTD officials are not totally satisfied with their efficiency and dependability.

Assembled in Texas with West German parts, the AMG/MAN buses have been operating in Los Angeles since the late 1970s and early ‘80s.

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The biggest problems, an RTD official says, are mechanical failures that have sometimes put as many as 40% of the buses out of service, and certain “blind spots” that make the buses prone to accidents.

“When you turn, the rear end doesn’t quite trail the way a regular bus does,” says Robert Korach, the RTD’s assistant general manager. “The rear ends on most of our ‘artics’ are banged up from turning sharp corners and hitting cars. One even hit a bus shelter on Wilshire Boulevard.”

An RTD report in 1984 recommended against ordering any more articulated buses until further studies were done. Then last month, Korach said in an updated report that the buses still were having road problems at a much higher rate than standard buses.

Noting that this was “not a very impressive record,” he nevertheless recommended the inclusion of 30 new articulated buses--with tapered rear ends and American-made engines--in the RTD’s five-year plan.

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“Still, they remain a big question mark,” he admits.

The articulated buses were purchased for about $177,000 each at a time when standard 45-passenger buses cost about $140,000.

The 90 new long-distance commuter buses, which carry 50 passengers, will cost about $195,000 each. These buses, designed for high-speed freeway travel, have many of the characteristics of cross-country buses, including a single door and comfortable reclining seats.

They are engineered for rugged 18-to-24-hour-a-day service and will be used on long routes serving such points as the South Bay, Long Beach, Disneyland and San Bernardino.

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An additional 125 to 150 standard buses, including 30 that will run on methanol, will be ordered later this year for use in mid-1987, replacing older buses now in the fleet.

While the order for the new commuter buses has not yet been placed, the RTD is ready, if necessary, to pay for the buses with its own money, including fare-box revenues and state and county transit funds. Such an outlay of locally generated funds would be a striking departure for the district, which since the early 1970s has depended on federal assistance for about 80% of its bus purchases.

RTD officials say the change is necessary because federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration money is drying up and probably will be harder to come by in future years.


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