Muni trolley fires expose aging fleet

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority officials are scrambling to repair dozens of aging buses after two fires last week caused by faulty connections with overhead electrical wires.

The fires, which occurred in the connector linking the electric buses to overhead wires, happened on Tuesday and Thursday last week, one on Ocean Avenue in front of City College and the second at Union and Mason streets, according to John Haley, director of transit for the SFMTA.

In both cases, the drivers noticed the problem and got passengers off safely, Haley said.

The fires both occurred in 15-year-old trolley coaches with an average of around 500,000 miles on them, Haley said.

Following the first fire, which occurred in a 60-foot long bus, the agency pulled all 33 such coaches and began inspecting and repairing the overhead connectors. All of the 60-foot buses were back in service within four days, Haley said.

Officials had already launched a similar inspection and repair process on the approximately 160 40-foot buses that use a similar connector system when the second fire broke out on a smaller bus on Thursday, Haley said.

As of this morning, the agency had repaired all but about 65 buses, and was working to return the rest to service as quickly as possible.

Efforts have been hampered, however, by a lack of parts and materials, since the bus model the city uses is not very common and the manufacturer is no longer in business.

The agency has brought in other kinds of buses, including diesels and diesel hybrids, to fill in the gaps while the repairs are completed.

While there were some gaps in service on Monday and Tuesday, Haley said today there should be no missing runs.

Haley said:

“I’m hoping from a passenger standpoint it should be seamless, except they might be seeing a bus instead of a trolley coach on some routes.”

Ultimately, the problematic buses need to be replaced. Haley said:

“They’re past their useful life.”

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved the $244.6 million purchase of 265 buses from New Flyer of America Inc., as part of a contract totaling $412.2 million. However, the delivery of those buses and others previously ordered will take several years, Haley said.