"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."
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