Bus Operation 101: Shop Orientation

Presented as part of ABA’s BISC & BusMARC 2021 Virtual Safety & Maintenance Series

This January, the American Bus Association hosted a new edition of their ongoing educational webinar series, Bus Operation 101: Shop Orientation.

The panel was moderated by Mike McDonal, BusMARC Chair and Director of Regulatory Compliance and Industry Relations at Saucon Technologies, with panel members Derek Brown (TEMSA), Dany Landry (ABC Companies), Robert Hitt (Prevost), Ben Kopp (Coach USA), and David Mailhot (Motor Coach Industries).

Panel topics included criteria for outsourcing vehicle maintenance versus considerations for keeping maintenance in house, levels of vehicle maintenance, coach per technician ratio, technician types and qualifications, PPE and sanitization tips, inventory and equipment, and on-road repairs.

It is presented here in an abridged format:

What are some of the criteria that should be considered when deciding whether to farm out your work or to invest in opening your own shop?

Robert Hitt: That is a great question. We focused on the market and building service facilities, so we are one-sided in trying to get you to bring us your equipment. And of course, we try to get service packages put together with you so that you are paying low monthly fees and pennies per mile, versus you having staff and keeping up with the requirements and regulations. But in my previous life, I did operate a shop. There are a lot of good benefits to having that talent in-house also. 

I think you must look at your own operation and figure out what really makes sense for the size of your fleet and available talent. Then you must monitor the expense of keeping up with the latest repair technology and tools. You really must know the age of your fleet, and the diagnostic capabilities of the staff you have, and then reach out and get some advice on which is the best way to go. 

Is there a specific number of vehicles you think we should be looking at to consider opening up our own doors?

Derek Brown: It depends on the availability of outside service centers and your company’s area. Will your facility accommodate a motorcoach? Can you get the vehicle inside? What is the skillset of the technicians you have? As far as a number of coaches: I would say once you get more than a couple motorcoaches, I would start doing my own maintenance. I like to be responsible for my own problems and have the ability to get myself out of a situation instead of being at someone else’s mercy. That is just my opinion. I do not know that there is a specific number of vehicles needed before you can justify doing your own maintenance – and that maintenance may come at different levels.

If you do decide to outsource your repairs, what are you (as the operator) still responsible for?

Dany Landry: When you are outsourcing to another shop to do any repairs, you should know what they are qualified to do. All shops have that information readily available for anyone coming into their locations. In our shops we make sure that information is always on our walls, so anyone can see what our technicians can and cannot do. You do not want backyard mechanics doing your engine or transmission work. We want to make sure technicians are certified, no matter where a customer is going for repairs.

How many technicians do you need in a shop?

Dave Mailhot: That comes down to a couple factors, the first being age of the fleet. If the coaches are a little older, then obviously the ratio of technicians-to-vehicles is going to be a bit higher. This will also determine your mission – if you have coaches which are running nose-to-tail, and downtime is counted in hours and minutes instead of days, then you will want to have a requisite number of technicians available.

You must also consider what kind of service you provide. 

It really depends on what your operation looks like and what your system requires for dispatcher liability. 

What type of toolset would you expect a technician to have in their own personal toolbox versus relying on the company to provide? 

Ben Kopp: If I am hiring an entry-level tech, I would expect them to have basic socket sets, screwdrivers and electrical toolkits. If I am hiring a technician who is already expected to know air brakes, for example, I would expect a much larger tool set, including air pneumatic tools. They would also need basic knowledge of how to use simple tools like refractometers or tread depth gauges.

If the technician is claiming to have greater knowledge or becoming a higher-level tech, correspondingly their tools would increase in complexity. 

What types of things should we be looking for in our shop as it relates to bulk quantities?

Robert Hitt: In a lot of our facilities, we have gone away from bulk storage because we found that it was a challenge to manage an inventory on oils and things like that. We have also had some luck getting the suppliers to take back the plastic containers for recycling, so that has worked out well. I think the key here is touchpoints on any tools or dispensing items – make sure you have a clear policy in place. For us, we are required to wipe down these items before and after use, or before the shift starts and after the shift ends.

How far do you take your service truck before looking for an outside service?

Ben Kopp: Normally it is within reason, meaning less than an hour’s drive. Some of that depends on the region, as the Northeast and Midwest have different repair options available. 

You have to really rely on the driver to give you good information, because you do not want to send a technician out for hours only to find the damage is not something that can be repaired on the roadside. It is sometimes a risky adventure to send a tech out. We typically send only one technician out at a time – because, if two techs are required, it probably is not safe to conduct those repairs on the side of the road. 

Some of our locations do not necessarily use a service truck. They will send another bus with tools on it, flip the drivers, and get going. It all depends on the circumstance, and there are many questions you have to ask before immediately dispatching a truck.

What do you typically stock on your service truck? 

Ben Kopp: Most of our trucks do not have much oil stocked in them, because if you have a major oil leak you are not going to be driving the bus home. But we stock enough coolant to fully fill a system, as well as tools like a large air compressor, a large air gun, and a proper torque wrench for torquing the wheels correctly. There are many different wrenches and items like hose picks to get around inside the engine compartment. There are also miscellaneous wires and other items for fixing electrical repairs as needed.

Dave Mailhot: If your operation requires a service truck, you could not have enough lights on this vehicle! Always make sure that the lights are all running correctly. More people get killed on the side of the road performing simple tasks than is acceptable. 

We would stock the truck with the basics, but then add a barrel of coolant. The key is going to be inventory controls what is on the truck. If jugs of oil or DEF are not clearly marked, there is a chance of contamination of misplacement.