After running a LiquidSpring-equipped bus on a comparative test route for almost four years, New Mexico’s North Central Regional Transit District (NCRTD) is continuing to see satisfying results.
NCRTD is a rural New Mexico transit agency which services an area of 10,079 square miles, including the counties of Los Alamos, Taos, Rio Arriba, and Santa Fe, eight native Pueblos and the Jicarilla Apache Nation. One route even extends through San Juan County.
A “SMART” Suspension
LiquidSpring’s proprietary CLASS Suspension System product is tailored for shuttle buses, ambulances, RVs, and military vehicles.
It is a “smart” suspension system, so it features an on-board processor which automatically adjusts the suspension based on the terrain its traveling over. The system keeps the ride soft and smooth over rough roads, then automatically stiffens on sharp turns, cornering, and emergency maneuvers.
“So much engineering and science goes into the final product — a more reliable suspension with softer, riding and better handling,” Carl Harr, director of sales and marketing at LiquidSpring, said. “The reduction in vibration induced to the chassis translates to less maintenance, and thus more reliability over time. And ultimately that means less fatigue and better health for drivers and passengers.”
Drivers can adjust ride modes, alter suspension heights, and respond to system issues via an interactive driver interface.
Delilah Garcia, transit operations director of NCRTD, met with Dean Bartolone and Travis Ward, national bus sales representative for LiquidSpring, in 2017 at Transit Bus Summit held in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Garcia attended a 15-minute slide show presentation and a 10 minute one-on-one session. Garcia indicated to Ward that she would like further information about the LiquidSpring product.
A few months later, Ward brought the company’s demo bus to Espanola, New Mexico. Garcia put him in touch with David Funck Sr., NCRTD fleet and facilities maintenance manager.
When Ward made contact with Funck, Funck said, “I was not expecting you, but Delilah just informed me that you were here. The last thing I needed today was another salesman.” Ward replied, “Well I am here with my bus, so let’s go for a short ride and you will see the difference.” Funck said that on the very first right-hand turn of their drive, the bus did not sway or lean at all. From that and the smooth ride that followed, he said he knew that this suspension system was dramatically different than any he had ever worked with.
Having self-financed the relationship with LiquidSpring until that point in 2018, NCRTD subsequently ordered six news buses and retrofitted each with the LiquidSpring suspension, now utilizing Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) 5310, 5311, and 5339 grant dollars administered by the New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT).
“The NMDOT saw the benefits that NCRTD were realizing with the system,” Ward said. “They saw that their current bus suspensions were not meeting required lifetime lengths, and wanted to go about improving their fleets immediately.”
Since that time, Funck has ensured that every new applicable bus delivered to NCRTD has been equipped with LiquidSpring.
After becoming a LiquidSpring customer in 2017, and self-financing the suspension system on one of its buses, NCRTD officials wanted hard data to help justify further upgrading the fleet.
In 2018, Funck installed a LiquidSpring suspension system on one of NCRTD’s new buses. From there, LiquidSpring and NCRTD embarked on a comparative study using the “SMART” suspension. Since late 2018, NCRTD has run a bus with the LiquidSpring system on the same route as a (nearly identical) bus using the agency’s previous suspension system.
“One bus starts in the morning at the north end of town, and the other starts at the south end of town, and they chase each other on a circular route all day,” Funck said. “It’s two buses running the same route on the same roads, with the same pot-holes, and so on.”
The buses were both brand new when the study started, to ensure this as a long-term test.
“Initially, I did not want to make any hard statements until we get more empirical data three to five years out,” Funck said. “Based on our preliminary findings, I would not be surprised to find up to a 60 percent decrease in ride vibration over time.”
Due to COVID and staffing shortages, NCRTD needed to modify the test slightly – rather than two buses running the same route, the agency is now alternating the buses on the route while monitoring each vehicle’s mileage. This should ensure that the test maintains its consistency.
The buses not equipped with LiquidSpring require more maintenance thus far, Funck said, due to required routine tightening of screws, nuts, and bolts. It is only a nominal cost, but worth noting because the LiquidSpring system has had no failures or required maintenance since the agency’s trial began.
“From a maintenance perspective – and not counting routine maintenance like oil changes – the LiquidSpring vehicle is costing roughly 5 cents per mile, while the other suspension is costing about 8 cents per mile,” Funck said. “Each bus has nearly 95,000 miles, and the LiquidSpring vehicle is costing us about 3 cents less per mile.”
Driver and Technician Reactions
Funck said that some drivers who have used the suspension system have approached him about being “favorably” placed on a route using one of the LiquidSpring-equipped vehicles, citing the vehicle’s smooth ride and enhanced maneuverability.
“On routes like the one from Chama to Farmington, drivers like the system because it rides better and, on windier days, there is little to no rocking,” he said. “In the end, driver fatigue is less because the drivers don’t have to fight the bus in a windstorm — because the bus suspension is helping them keep straight and low.”
Funck said that drivers really recognize the LiquidSpring difference, and that more than one driver will practically beg to use that bus if given a choice.
“When we put LiquidSpring on a bus, it drives more like a passenger car,” Ward added. “The driver now feels like they have complete control of the vehicle and it’s going where they point it.”
More than anything, Funck said, the suspension represents an enhancement for driver and passenger safety, comfort, and overall happiness at NCRTD.
“The main thing our passengers will take away after riding on a bus is the quality and smoothness of that ride,” Funck said. “With this system, they are seeing that the quality is noticeably improved. That alone has made it worthwhile for NCRTD to put its best effort into improving ride quality for everyone who rides our buses.”
Funck said that the LiquidSpring test will continue for another 18 to 24 months, and both buses should end with 120,000 to 150,000 miles each.
“We’re very excited that the project is going to exceed the course that we anticipated,” Funck said, “and right now it’s looking like a great testimony for the LiquidSpring system.”