Burned bus had previous problems | AspenTimes.com

Burned bus had previous problems

A Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus that burned while no passengers were on board Dec. 14 had a problem with its brakes one week before. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)

A Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus that went up in flames Dec. 14 caught fire one week before but passed a mechanical inspection and was placed back in service.RFTA has since taken a bus of the same make and model out of service and notified the manufacturer it may sue.Bus number 326 was off duty the night of Dec. 7 when a driver thought there was a problem with the brakes “grabbing,” according to RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship. The driver stopped the bus and investigated, then proceeded to Carbondale after finding nothing.In Carbondale, flames broke out at the rear axle. The driver put out the fire with an extinguisher and called the maintenance department. A tire was changed and the brake system was examined, Blankenship said. When no problems were found in that and subsequent inspections by RFTA, the bus was allowed back in service.One week later, after hauling passengers around in the morning, another driver experienced a suspected problem with the brakes while delivering the empty bus to Carbondale. He pulled into the park-and-ride lot at Aspen Junction, where a fire broke out in the rear axle area and then spread to the passenger compartment. The bus was gutted.

The motor and possibly some tires can be salvaged from the bus. Otherwise it’s a total loss. It cost $455,000 new and was valued at up to $186,000.RFTA is still assessing what went wrong, but a problem with the brake system or automatic traction control system is suspected, Blankenship said.With the benefit of hindsight, he said, bus 326 probably shouldn’t have been placed back in service after the problem was experienced on Dec. 7.”Knowing what we know now, we probably would have red-tagged it and given it a more thorough inspection,” Blankenship said.He noted that the suspected problems with the brakes occurred on days when the bus, including the undercarriage, was thoroughly washed at RFTA’s facility. There is a chance that getting the undercarriage wet at a time when temperatures were colder than normal might have exposed a problem with the mechanical equipment, Blankenship said.RFTA is trying to get an independent assessment of the bus through the Colorado State Patrol or National Transportation Safety Board, but neither agency has indicated a willingness to help.

Meanwhile, RFTA is filing a notice with the bus manufacturer, Neoplan, of the possibility of a lawsuit.”We think there might be some type of product liability associated with the braking system on these vehicles,” Blankenship said. “We are filing this notice of claim and indicating to Neoplan that they should put their insurance company on notice as well.”The notice comes at a time when Neoplan is filing for bankruptcy. The company may be within one month of dissolving, Blankenship said.”We wanted to make sure we did that before they liquidated all of their assets,” he said.The bus that burned was a 2002 articulated model. At 65 feet, it is longer than most buses and it has distinctive accordion-like material in the middle where it is extended. The bus has special equipment – like the automatic traction control system, which is integrated with the brakes – to help prevent it from jack-knifing on icy streets.

RFTA has two other buses of that year and model in its fleet. One bus has passed repeated inspections before and after Dec. 14 and has never experienced problems with its braking system. It remains in service hauling passengers around the Roaring Fork Valley.Another bus of that model “has a history of brake problems,” Blankenship said. That bus was pulled out of service after the Dec. 14 incident and will remain out indefinitely, he said.The agency may seek compensation for that bus from Neoplan if it cannot return to service, he said.Blankenship maintained that RFTA buses are safe and that procedures have been adjusted to ensure passenger safety. Drivers have been told to report any problems they detect with brakes and have them checked immediately. If need be, passengers can be transferred to another bus if a problem is detected and needs further investigation, he said.”It serves as a real warning to everybody in the organization that problems can occur,” he said of the bus fire.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com