There were a lot of nervous people around the maintenance garage at SunLine Transit Agency back in May of 1994. That's when the Agency, serving a population of over 350,000 people in 11 Southern California cities, sidelined its entire fleet of diesel transit buses and—overnight, literally—started running entirely on compressed natural gas (CNG) buses.
"One day they all just came rolling up into the yard, and we were all in awe," recalls Ed Gallardo, maintenance manager for SunLine. "It was 34 brand new Orion buses, and the only introduction we had to CNG at that time was sitting in a classroom and learning about natural gas. So to actually see and be able to operate one of those vehicles was a little bit intimidating."
"The conversion to CNG was extremely aggressive," admits general manager Mike Oglesby, "and there was a little bit of luck involved. I have converted fleets during my time in transit and you always want to have a backup plan, so to put two feet in the water was aggressive."
THE SPIRIT OF A TEST FLEET
What began 11 years ago with an abrupt decision by the Agency's forward-thinking Board of Directors to convert the entire fleet to alternative fuels has ended up transforming SunLine into one of the best-known test fleets in the country. Every day that this fleet is in service, it is running one test bus or another in revenue service up and down the hot, dusty roads and highways of Coachella Valley. The result is a maintenance department that can handle virtually any new technology that management can put on the road.
"Looking back, I wouldn't do it any other way," director of maintenance Tommy Edwards recalls of the CNG switchover 11 years ago. "In fact, when we switched to CNG, I argued that we should phase it in, but the upper management decided to do it overnight. Now that we've done it, I think that's a great way to do that kind of new technology."
Indeed, the window to Edwards' office overlooking the maintenance garage in Thousand Palms reads 'Today's technicians for tomorrow's world,' a slogan that sums up Edwards' approach to new technology. "I like to think that there's not much these guys can't get a hold of and start working on," he says.
THE FIRST ENGINES
Today, SunLine is testing a $3.1 million hydrogen fuel cell hybrid bus, but this new project is one in a long line of tests that began with those early CNG engines. According to Edwards, his predecessor at SunLine was approached by Cummins Diesel to test their first CNG engines, conversions of the existing L-10.
"They came to SunLine and said, 'Hey, let's put a couple of these engines in your buses,' and my predecessor thought, 'Well, if I get two new free engines, that gives me two spare engines,'" Edwards recalls. "That's how he got it started, and it's just snowballed from there."
As associate engineer Apollonia "Polo" del Toro recalls, those first L-10 CNG conversions actually played to the strengths of the maintenance crew.
"What changed was they re-engineered the head to take spark plugs, they hardened some of the exhaust and intake valves, they changed the seat and the piston configuration," he recalls. "So the crossover from diesel to CNG wasn't as dramatic for some of the people who had already seen the L-10.
"The gas guys and the diesel guys learned from each other," he continues. "The diesel guys were used to compression ignition, but on CNG you have to have a spark plug, so we were able to learn from the people who worked on automotive, because they're used to stoichiometric stuff, they're used to running lambda, but they're not used to the big engine. The diesel guys were used to the big engines, so together we learned from each other."
NO SECOND CHANCES
"There were a lot of people saying 'They're never going to make it. It's impossible,'" says del Toro. "We couldn't fail; our old buses were auctioned off fairly quickly, so there was no emergency fleet we could put out there. It was swim or sink, and we all like to breathe, so we did what we had to, to learn what we needed to, to keep the buses on the road."
"We have to put buses on the street every morning, just like every other transit system in the country," says Edwards. "If I don't 'make line,' I won't be sitting here. And we've been able to make line ever since we took on all this technology."
"What was really interesting," says del Toro, "was that some of the problems we had early on—say, you get a relay that might fail; the rear doors were out of adjustment; the brakes would lock up on the road—we recognized that if you had one bus doing it, you check the other buses, and sure enough you've got 19 other buses doing the same thing. So once we got through that phase our road calls went down to a minimum, and we had several smooth-sailing years."
Because of their success with CNG buses in the desert climate, SunLine quickly became the go-to fleet for CNG testing. They took part in one three-year CNG test with the US Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Lab, and have recently concluded a second, 10-year test with the same agencies. And as word got out of SunLine's testing, more engine tests came their way.
According to del Toro, SunLine has been recruited by Cummins, Detroit Diesel and John Deere to test new CNG engines. "After that three-year study, everybody says, 'Hey, you're interested in this sort of stuff; how would you like to test this engine? You'll have the engine for free, and all we want is that after a million miles we get the engine back and we give you a brand new one.' We said, 'Okay!'
"So suddenly a lot of people wanted to test with us," he says. "One reason is our size: we have less than 100 buses, so we're able to focus attention to the buses when needed, they don't get lost in a 2,000 bus fleet. We're able to document and report back to the manufacturer."
AHEAD OF THE OEMs
Of course, Edwards knew that training his technicians on the new fuel was key. As new engines were brought into the fleet, he worked with the bus companies and the engine companies to develop CNG training classes. Eventually, SunLine partnered with the College of the Desert in nearby Palm Desert to develop the first CNG maintenance curriculum in the country.
Training went so well that in some instances, the SunLine maintenance staff was able to teach the OEMs a trick or two. del Toro recounts a time when Cummins asked SunLine to repower two diesel engines to CNG, but told them to wait until they had completed the repowering process on their own, so they could offer SunLine the proper parts and guidance. "We pulled the engine out, and we said 'We can't just sit here,' he recalls. "They said, 'If you think you can make progress, go ahead.
We're still working on ours.' We finished installing two engines in a four-month period—this is a brand new repower, hadn't been done before—and they were still working on theirs four months afterwards. So then they started asking us 'How'd you do this? How'd you do that?'"
Edwards also recalls a more recent time when his technicians were puzzling over a problem with a Ford V-10 hydrogen internal combustion engine (HICE).
"There were several little issues: control problems; fuel issues," he says. "The ISE Corporation put a lot of effort into helping us—they're a great partner in helping to figure out all this stuff, and we had some support from Ford—but the engine itself, it's one of a kind, and my guys took ownership of it. So our guys started figuring out the issues long before the OEMs did; and it was hard to convince them that this was what we should do, this was the problem. Now, we've developed such a good relationship that when our guys tell them what's going on, they pretty much buy it.
"The philosophy I've taken in running this maintenance department, especially with all the weird things we've gotten into over the past 11 years, is that if we were to just sit here and point our fingers back at the OEMs and say 'It's your problem, you fix it,' it'll take a lot longer to resolve a problem," Edwards maintains. "We should be part of the solution, so we take ownership of these special projects, and that's what happened with the HICE bus."
Surprisingly, the SunLine Board was seriously considering a switch to hydrogen power back in '94, before the conversion to CNG. Although the technology wasn't road ready at the time, the Agency has since wasted no time getting hydrogen buses to test.
In 1990, SunLine saw an opportunity to bring together a solar power test, a hydrogen generation test and a hydrogen bus test together into one grand project. That was the year that the Agency built a solar-powered hydrogen formulation plant to produce hydrogen fuel for its first hydrogen test bus, powered by a Ballard fuel cell.
Today, SunLine produces enough hydrogen to power its two hydrogen-fueled buses (one powered by a UTC Power fuel cell, and another powered by the Ford V-10 hydrogen internal combustion engine), as well as two hydrogen/compressed natural gas (HCNG) buses.
General manager Oglesby is rightly pleased with his fleet of hydrogen buses, pointing out that the two pure hydrogen-powered buses are zero-emission vehicles, and the HCNG buses are meeting 2007 EPA NOx emissions standards today. And each of these 40-foot buses is in revenue service every day. And, naturally, each of them is part of an ongoing test.
Any one of these buses would be a standout in any fleet, but SunLine's new fuel cell bus steals the show. The A330 bus was manufactured in Antwerp, Belgium by VanHool, but the fuel cell was designed by United Technologies Corporation Fuel Cells of South Windsor, CT. The fuel cell was installed by ISE Corporation in Poway, CA, and the bus was delivered to SunLine in November, 2005.
"I take pride in the fact that we have the technology but we don't put it up on a pedestal," Oglesby says. "The first step is here now."
As intimidated as Edwards and his maintenance crew were by their first CNG engines 11 years ago, they are surprisingly accepting of the current crop of hydrogen powerplants.
"Obviously, our technicians are used to gaseous fuels, and hydrogen is a gaseous fuel," Edwards says. "It has some differences, obviously, so it's still a good challenge for them; it keeps them sharp. They love working on new stuff; it gives them a cutting edge.
"Hydrogen technology is still in the beta form," he continues. "It's ready for us to test it, break it, make it work, make it not work, get the bugs out of it."
"The technicians are excited, because they're learning a craft, and with the hydrogen hybrid internal combustion engine vehicle, what's needed to maintain the vehicle is easily taught, and our maintenance people have just taken to it like fish to water," says Oglesby. "These guys are specialists in oddities. So now, just give them another one; they're up for the task."
If you go by the SunLine experience, once a fleet starts testing new equipment, it's very difficult to break the habit. SunLine has developed such a reputation for testing that many major component suppliers come to them for help developing and testing new technology.
In recent years, SunLine has tested electric fan motors for a major supplier, Federal-Mogul has worked with the Agency to test a new severe heat wheel end seal, and Delco Remy is currently testing new alternators on SunLine buses. Toyota, Mitsubishi, Honda, Ford and Peterbilt have all tested new vehicle technologies with SunLine, and the phone keeps ringing.
On reflection, it's not hard to understand why Edwards and Oglesby have become habitual technology testers. It's a win-win proposition for their fleet and their riders. "We've been able to take some of those technologies that we've tested and see them to fruition, by putting them on our buses," Edwards says. "To me, that's part of why we do this, is to see if these technologies work, and if they do, how do you get them on the new trucks? How do you get them on the new buses?
"Sometimes we can get grant money to do something, and then at the end of that grant period we end up with a piece of equipment that we own that didn't cost us much, aside from some sweat and blood," he continues. "The other thing we get is that our technicians stay on top of the technologies. And it gives the agency a chance to get publicity; in turn, if our elected officials in Washington notice this little 50-bus transit agency getting that much recognition, when money comes down the pike sometimes we are able to get a lot of transit-related things, to get money to put buses on the streets. So it's a little unusual for a small transit fleet like this to do as much branding as we have, but everybody knows SunLine, whether they like us or don't like us."
"Stay tuned for the next big thing," Oglesby says with a smile. "I don't know what it is yet, but I can guarantee you that SunLine will be involved with it."