New hybrid buses experience jerking, smoldering heaters

The MTA’s shiny new buses have hit some bumps in the road.

The newest hybrids have caught on fire, bottomed out and jerked into motion since they hit city streets, according to riders, bus drivers and mechanics.

The MTA’s order of 850 Orion “Next Generation” buses started trickling into service last year, and will eventually make up 20 percent of the city’s fleet. The sleek buses cost about $540,000 and are under warrantee.

The hybrid buses are quiet, more fuel-efficient and feature low floors that speed boarding, NYC Transit spokesman Charles Seaton said. But Orion has needed to correct several problems with the fleet:

Heaters Defects
Electrical problems in the hybrid heating system has caused some buses to literally go up in flames. At least two buses caught fire earlier this year, including one in Staten Island that the driver had just parked at the Ferry Terminal, according to reports. The fires caused no injuries, but drivers were shocked.

“Flames were shooting out of the bus,” said a driver who witnessed the Staten Island fire. “The whole front door was melted.”

In April, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a recall of 800 Orion buses because the heaters could short circuit and catch fire. Seaton said that fuses were removed earlier this year to prevent problems until Orion finished fixing the heaters.

The hybrids accelerate powerfully, and drivers say they have seen passengers fall over and slide out of their seats.

“I couldn’t let go of the pole for a second,” said John Lorey, 45, a Staten Island bus rider who recently gave up his seat for a child struggling to stand.

The hybrids have abrupt pickup and hitting the gas can cause them to lurch into action, transit officials said. The customer accident rate on MTA buses was 15 percent higher last September compared to September 2008, according to agency figures.

Transit officials believe the injuries were partially related to the hybrids, and the buses were all outfitted with a system to smooth the acceleration in October. Injuries are expected to decrease, officials said.

Suspension Problems
The design of the hybrid bus shocks can cause them to fatigue, occasionally making the buses lean or bottom out, drivers and mechanics said.

“It’s like a balloon losing its air. The bus would fall to the left or the right,” one mechanic said.

Seaton said Orion is working on a new shock system to help improve its lifespan and the company readjusted some buses to prevent the bottoming out. The vehicles will still be cheaper to keep up than older models and will continue to be used, he said.

“The low-floor design provides us with significant maintenance savings.” Seaton said.

Orion Next Generation Hybrid Bus
-    $500 million contract for 850 buses
-    30 percent more fuel efficient and releasing 90 percent less particulate than diesel buses
-    Hit the roads first in Staten Island, now operate throughout the city
-    MTA slapped Orion with $1.6 million in damages after it fell behind in delivering buses


Tags: nyc transit , mta , bus

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