Caution signal from Washington may slow design of better buses

Buses with craked frames have been pulled off the streets in Los Angeles and New York at a time when support in Congress for mass transit is showing signs of severe stress.

The two situations are related, in the view of many transit analysts. When Congress failed in its closing days to enact a major new mass transit authorization bill, it sent a signal of uncertainty to American bus manufacturers about the future of their market. Mass transit funds are authorized under existing law through 1983. The proposed legislation called for greater sums of money and would have extended the program through 1985.

The unpredictability of federal transit funding in recent years is one reason the US transit vehicle industry has been declining and turning out deficient buses. some analysts maintain.

At the same timE, mass transit operators are not optimistic about any substantial increase in federal support under a Reagan administration and a more conservative Congress. a transportation task force reportedly has recommended to President-elect Reagan that federal mass transit spending be cut.

"The signs are fairly ominous.Public transporation will probably not be very high on the priority list of the new administration or the new Congress," asserts Alan Kiepper, general manager of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.

The faulty buses in Los Angeles and New York were made by Grumman-Flxible Corporation, one of only two US-owned bus manufacturers. The other is General Motors Corp- ration. Grumman has promised to repair its buses.

However, the craked frames are not an isolated incident. Last summer, several cities found that the "advance design buses," put into service in 1978 by both Grumman and General Motors, had unreliable air-conditioning systems. the problem was compounded by the fact that the windows on these buses were sealed shut.

Houston, frustrated with the performance of its fleet of advance-design buses , is pulling out of retirement buses that are 20 years old. The less-comfortable, older buses have windows that open and the Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority expects them to be more reliable.

Why such problems with modern buses? Noting that the market in the United States for new buses is relatively small, and subject to wide swings in orders depending on the availability of federal funds, Walter Addison of the Houston Transit authority reasons, "We're getting the proportionate amount of technical attention from the bus manufacturers."

Executives interviewed by phone at both Grumman and General Motors offer no excuses for the Technical problems with the advance design buses. But both see ways buses can be improved in the future.

"The watchword is stability. This industry responds to a long lead time, and we need stability in procurement processes and the amount of [federal] funding that will be available," says Wayne Aron, a vice-president at Grumman.

The federal government requires that when transit operators use federal funds to buy new buses, they accept the lowest bid, with an allowance for some price adjustments for certain features. This encourages manufacturers to keep their prices as low as possible -- sometimes at the expense of innovations in design and engineering, asserts Edward Stokel of General Motors' Truck and Coach Division. He believes transit operators should be allowed to buy the bus they want without restraint from federal procurement policy.

Mr. Stokel also suggests that a larger US market for buses, which would require an increase in federal funding, could encourage more research and development in bus technology. Transit operators will purchase about 4,000 new buses in 1981, Stokel predicts, while General Motors and Grumman have the capacity to produce over 7,500 vehicles.

Mr. Kiepper in Atlanta believes the basic problem is that US bus manufacturers, partly at the urging of the federal government, have developed vehicles that are too elaborate. "We went through a period of designing buses to be all things to all people." He is particularly critical of equipping all new buses with wheelchair lifts.

Modern buses incorporate a number of design changes developed during the 1970 s that have made them quieter, safer, and more comfortable. But some transit officials feel reliability has suffered.

Kiepper suggests that bus manufacturers should concentrate on making the "most costeffective vehicle possible," and emulate the "no frills" type of bus developed by European manufacturers.

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