SuperBus Touted as Future Transit Hero

Times Staff Writer

SuperBus, which debuted in Orange County last summer, so far has won high marks from riders, bus drivers and Orange County Transit District officials.

The experimental vehicle, which could have leaped off the cover of an old Popular Mechanics magazine, is a long, slicked-up truck and trailer rig that carries commuters from Fullerton to downtown Los Angeles.

Based on early evidence, the manufacturer and some transit officials said it holds promise for significantly reducing transit-operating costs. And riders praise it for comfort.

What is most unusual about the vehicle is that the driver rides in a truck cab up front, while the passengers are towed behind in a specially designed, 46-foot trailer. Intercoms and closed-circuit television link the two. A vehicle of that size is best suited for long runs. For shorter, purely urban routes, smaller versions are available.

Like an airliner

To the uninitiated, this may sound a little too much like a cattle car. But with its high ceiling, brightly upholstered reclining seats, overhead baggage racks and individual reading lights, the inside of the SuperBus looks more like a wide-body airliner than a transit bus.

While it is illegal for people to ride in some trailers, the California Highway Patrol said SuperBus is within the law because of its heavy-duty coupling and its communications system between passengers and driver.

Officials of the Orange County Transit District, which is operating two of the vehicles, said it is safe and has been built to comply with all state and federal transit equipment standards. Executives of San Jose-based SuperBus Inc. said reinforced side paneling makes the trailer sturdier than a regular bus.

Company officials said they have reduced the threat of jackknifing by paying careful attention to the main cause of such truck accidents--improperly balanced braking systems. And future SuperBuses, according to its Buena Park inventor, Joe Fitzgerald, will have a high-tech computerized braking system that the CHP and federal transportation safety officials told The Times could all but eliminate jackknifing.

Nonetheless, at this point, safety remains a concern with some passengers and transit officials.

"I worry about it," said Ellie McKirnan, a Santa Ana legal secretary who rides the SuperBus on its 27-mile run. "You hear about trucks jackknifing all the time."

Because only a few SuperBuses have been built, none have been required to go through the federal Department of Transportation safety tests that most conventional buses are subject to. That is one reason the Southern California Rapid Transit District's assistant general manager of transportation, Robert Korach, said he canceled an in-service test of the SuperBus two years ago, shortly after he arrived at the RTD.

"This has never been crash-tested," Korach said. "We're not saying it's unsafe. But we couldn't accept it (without more safety tests)."

Time will tell if the new vehicle can get beyond the transit curiosity stage.

But since August, when SuperBus began its three-year tryout, it has generally won praise.

"It's much better . . . more comfortable and a smoother ride" than a conventional bus, said Lori Erdmann, an Arco employee who takes the SuperBus everyday. "Everyone is sad if it doesn't show up."

Diaun Burns of Anaheim, another regular rider, said: "I like to sleep. You don't get the exhaust (fumes) or the engine noise (of a regular bus)."

A passenger survey by the Orange County Transit District during a one-week demonstration in 1985 showed that 94% of the riders found it more comfortable than a regular bus.

Drivers Like It

Three Orange County SuperBus drivers interviewed by The Times gave it high marks, although they said that operating it on freeways and maneuvering on crowded downtown streets require special care. "I love it," driver Gale Torino said. "It's different from driving a regular bus, and we all like change."

Orange County transit officials also like what they are seeing. With 58 seats, SuperBus carries more passengers than the standard 47-seat bus, and ridership has increased about 20% on the SuperBus runs.

At about $200,000 per SuperBus, it is priced higher than a regular bus, but on a per-seat basis, it compares favorably.

At the same time, the conventional diesel trucks towing the vehicle use less fuel than a bus, are more dependable, and operating costs are running about half the fleet average, Orange County Transit officials say.

In addition, commercial truck parts are available at competitive prices, meaning transit districts could avoid having to maintain large inventories of high-priced, specialized bus parts that can only be obtained from the bus manufacturer. That alone could mean a savings of millions of dollars for agencies like the RTD, which maintains a massive bus parts inventory.

"We're pleased. Very pleased," said Efren V. Medellin, Orange County Transit's manager of the SuperBus project. The transit district, which is leasing the SuperBuses on a trial basis, is considering purchasing a number of them for express runs and some heavily traveled regular routes.

One major unresolved operational problem, however, is collecting fares.

On the Fullerton-to-Los Angeles run, fares are collected by the driver standing at the trailer door as riders board or depart at the one stop in Fullerton. But on routes with several stops, driver collections would be inefficient.

SuperBus inventor Fitzgerald, a businessman who, among other things, developed and manufactures plastic wind deflectors for large semitrailers, said the answer lies in a new generation of high-tech electronic fare-collection systems now being developed. "The technology is here to solve the problem," he said.

Transit officials across the country are watching the experiment closely.

"It's a novel approach worth testing," said John Schiavone, director of technology for the Washington-based American Public Transit Assn. "It makes sense, especially for (freeway) commuters . . . and the beauty of it is you don't have to keep the whole bus down when the truck is in for maintenance. You just put another tractor on it."

Although the RTD's Korach remains skeptical of the SuperBus concept, one of his subordinates, maintenance director Rich Davis, is attracted by the promised savings. "I think it's got some potential to be very cost-effective," said Davis, who is under pressure from the RTD board to cut operating costs and improve maintenance.

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