Inspections halt 14 buses

The Minnesota State Highway Patrol, the agency that is responsible for inspecting Palmer Buses at TCU, visited the bus garage last week, on the heels of a three-day inspection. (Wade Young Photo)
Minnesota’s annual bus inspection program, under which each school bus is reviewed more rigorously than regular vehicles, stopped at the TCU District  on October 15 to 17, and 14 buses were taken out of service for various violations. John Stivers, manager of the local Palmer Bus Services that owns the buses and vans and is contracted by TCU, said some violations were minor deficiencies (seat conditions, fans, light bulbs) to major faults (rust holes in the occupant compartment or leaking brake fluid). 
Typically, a normal bus fleet can expect five to ten percent of its vehicles to fail an inspection. For the 52 units that service the TCU District, that number would be three to five vehicles. At the TCU inspection, 14 vehicles were pulled from the roads, which equates to 26 percent.
“I’m not happy with the results. I have no-one to blame but myself,” Stivers said. “We have an aging fleet, and we sent some spare buses that weren’t being used through the state patrol to see if they needed repairs or if it would be cost effective to buy a new ones.” 
On the inspection, each school bus begins with 100 total points. As defects are discovered during the inspection, points are deducted in accordance to state standards. Something like a crack in a seat is a two-point deduction. However, brakes leaking brake fluid or inoperable emergency brakes are automatic 25-point deductions. 
  At the end of the inspection, a school bus with less than 80 points is deemed unsafe for the transportation of school children. This school bus is immediately prohibited from transporting school children until the defects are corrected and taken out of order. 
Any vehicle with 80 points or more, is allowed to transport students, but bus authorities have 14 days to make the repairs.
Of the 14 buses at the TCU inspection, eight were taken out of service for body conditions (inadequate pipes/ clamps, interior floor soft/ heaving, and six for mechanical issues, (defective horn, or emergency door buzzer) Stivers said. 
“There were some issues and out of service things I had expected going into it,” Stivers said.
Minnesota State Patrol Pupil Transportation Safety Director, Lieutenant Brian Reu said that 14 buses out of the 52 units that Palmer Bus uses for TCU was higher than he would like to see.
“It raises a red flag for us,” he said. “It will also put them on a watch list where we will come back at unscheduled times to reinspect. This inspection was scheduled, so they knew we were coming.”
Unsafe buses no longer being used
Of the 14 buses at the inspection that the state patrol inspectors immediately took off the road, only three were used to transport TCU students on a daily basis, Stivers said. 
“Some of the buses weren’t being used,” Stivers said.
As of presstime, two of those vehicles are already at a body shop, and one is being repaired.
Stivers added that some of the buses that were inspected were spare buses that came from other school districts who weren’t able meet the inspection deadline. 
The rules that inspectors use are stringent. Stivers said there are hundreds of different items and systems that are inspected on every vehicle. Both Reu and Stivers agreed that having a zero-point inspection is almost unheard of. 
“It’s pretty rare to have no violations,” Reu said. “You can have a bus with all of its lights working, then the second you drive into the garage, one burns out.”
Stivers said the Palmer Bus Co. transports 1,300 TCU students daily. From June 2012 to June 2013, the buses covered 600,000 miles on highways, county and dirt roads. Its contract with the TCU District is in its second year and will be up for renewal in July, 2014.
Stivers said drivers do daily pre-trip inspections, checking all the systems before they take the vehicle on the road. After the trip, they also do a post-trip inspection. 
Stivers said he, along with an assistant, do mechanical work daily on the buses. He added that they are also in the process of hiring another fulltime mechanic.
TCU Superintendent Teri Preisler said Palmer officials have told her that some of the older units that are used for TCU will be replaced, and that some of the other buses have already been repaired.