Fumes in MBTA buses: significant progress

By | June 20, 2013

I met several months ago with MBTA management to present my concerns about toxic fumes in certain MBTA buses. Thank you, again, to State Senator Will Brownsberger and his  Legislative Counsel and Policy Advisor, Michael Buckley, for making that meeting happen.

I am pleased to report that the MBTA took my concerns seriously, investigated them, and took corrective action which they hope will fix the problem.

I met today for a second time with Jeffrey Gonneville, the MBTA’s Chief Mechanical Officer, and Troy Ellerbee, Director of Bus Maintenance, and they filled me in on their progress. Read on for the details.

To facilitate certain repair and maintenance tasks, there is an engine access hatch behind and below the last row of seats in the affected buses. This hatch is covered when the bus is in operation, and the edges of the cover are sealed with hatch seal tape similar to this:

Hatch Seal Tape

This sealing tape is supposed to last for the lifetime of the bus. However, when the MBTA maintenance folks inspected the buses about which I’d reported strong fumes in the passenger compartment, they found that the tape was visibly degraded on some of them. Therefore, as a precautionary measure, they’ve replaced the tape on all of the MBTA buses with this hatch design, and they’ve taken note of the need to check the condition of the sealing tape as part of their routine maintenance of these buses.

They also found another issue which could have been contributing to fumes leaking into the passenger compartment. Directly behind the access hatch is a flexible exhaust pipe that is clamped to a fixed pipe in the exhaust system. The pipe and clamp look something like this:

Flex Pipe

These clamps wear out over time, and they noticed some worn-out clamps which were allowing fumes to leak out of the exhaust system into the engine compartment. They replaced these worn-out clamps, and again, took note of the need to check on their condition during routine maintenance.

Gonneville acknowledged that neither of these constitutes a “smoking gun” which undoubtedly explains the build-up of fumes in bus passenger compartments. We won’t know for certain whether the problem is fixed until the weather gets cold again, because the problem is much worse in the winter (this may be because the buses get better ventilation in the summer; or because the fumes are being caused by the heating system rather than or in addition to the issues described above; or because the diesel auxiliary power unit only runs in cold weather).

Gonneville assured me that neither he nor Ellerbee had been notified about any of the complaints I’d made about the fumes before I escalated the issue to Senator Brownsberger. I believe him, and I also believe his assurances that he and his staff would have taken action sooner had my complaints found their way to him. I fault whoever is responsible for @mbtaGM on Twitter for not doing their job, but that’s certainly not Gonneville’s or Ellerbee’s fault.

Gonneville has provided me with his email address, and in our meeting, he encouraged me to contact him directly if I encounter fumes in buses in the future, as well as reporting them through the MBTA web site (bypassing Twitter, which is apparently a black hole for effective handling of customer complaints).

It is worth noting that Neoplan USA, the company that manufactured these buses, went out of business a number of years ago. If they were still in business, then it’s possible that another transit agency could have discovered the degrading hatch seals and Notified Neoplan about the issue, and Neoplan could have sent out a maintenance bulletin to other owners of its buses, suggesting that they inspect the seals and replace them as needed. Unfortunately, that avenue of communication is closed due to Neoplan USA’s bankruptcy.

These are the facts, which I believe I’ve reported accurately. I would also like to share some subjective impressions. Gonneville and his staff have dealt with me honestly and respectfully throughout. They sincerely care about the quality of service that the MBTA provides to its customers, and if they know about a real problem, they will do their best to address it. I am confident that if it turns out that the steps they’ve already taken do not fully address the problem, they will continue to work at it until a solution (assuming there is one) is found.

It’s unfortunate that not everyone at the MBTA or in state government has the same work ethic.

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8 thoughts on “Fumes in MBTA buses: significant progress

  1. Anonymous

    I’ve complained to the T several times about transmission problems on certain New Flyer buses. When the driver tries to accelerate, the engine races but the bus doesn’t speed up. And then the transmission suddenly engages, and the bus kicks forward with a very hard lurch.

    This is very likely to cause neck injuries, and will cause standing passengers to fall.

    So far I’ve gotten no response, even when writing directly to bus maintenance managers.

  2. anon

    Last week, bus 0653 had exhaust fumes inside the bus. I reported it to the T via their website, and I’ll let you know if I hear anything back.

    This bus is a New Flyer, not a Neoplan, which was surprising. Usually the New Flyers work well, and their exhaust doesn’t smell that bad (relatively) even outside the bus.

    1. jik Post author

      I forwarded your report to my contact inside the MBTA. In my experience, problems about fumes in buses that are reported “through channels” don’t always find their way through the bureaucracy to the people who can do something about them.

  3. anon

    Thanks for working on this!

    I’ve written to the T about a different issue, which is not as urgent but is still worthy of a response: A small subset of the New Flyer buses have a *very loud* fan noise that cycles on and off. It sounds like a combination of a hair dryer and air raid siren.

    Since the New Flyers are otherwise the best buses the T has, and most of them don’t have this problem, and the noise is very disruptive to anyone nearby, I hope the T investigates and solves this problem. Or at least writes back and acknowledges that they received my complaint.

      1. anon

        I used the customer comment link on the T’s website.

        On the plus side, I haven’t noticed this noise recently. But maybe the few buses that have the loud fans have been reassigned to parts of the city I don’t go to.


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