Bus fires concern Gwinnett officials

Transit system’s latest trouble hit Wednesday

The latest fire happened Wednesday with 22 people aboard. A Gwinnett Transit bus was headed north on the I-85 north access road near Sugarloaf Parkway just before 6 p.m. when the engine compartment caught fire. The driver pulled over and activated the bus’ internal fire suppression system, quenching the blaze.

Passengers evacuated safely.

“[The driver] took immediate action and he was able to contain the situation to a smaller incident,” said Phil Boyd, director of Gwinnett Transit. “We’re thankful for that.”

Boyd said mechanics will look over the bus in the next few days to determine what caused the latest fire. Boyd said it may have been flammable fluids leaking into the hot engine compartment.

The failure of a turbocharger caused the engine compartment of another Gwinnett Transit bus to catch fire July 8 while a lone driver was traveling on I-85 north near Indian Trail Road. And a flare-up March 27 in the exhaust system of a bus traveling in Norcross also prompted the evacuation of one passenger and a driver.

Gwinnett Transit officials are trying to determine if there is a problem with a particular model bus — the Orion VII, which runs on compressed natural gas. The fires Wednesday and in July involved the Orion VII 2005 model. The incident in March involved the 2002 model.

The Gwinnett Transit fleet includes a total of four 2005 models and 42, 2002 models.

Boyd said Thursday that the fires are “troubling” because they put customers at risk.

“We’re going to take a hard look at what is the cause,” Boyd said. “Is it a cause that is systemic across this set of buses? If it is, we’ll do something about it.”

Gwinnett County Transit suffered a string of four bus fires in late 2006 and early 2007 partly due to a design flaw in the turbochargers of its Orion VII buses. The engines on those buses, which were 2002 models, were all retrofitted to correct the problem.

MARTA buses have caught fire twice this year.

Both fires occurred in the diesel-fueled 2004 model of Orion VII. The first incident happened on Aug. 11 as a driver was transporting the bus back to the garage at the end of his shift. The driver was uninjured, but the bus was a total loss, said Mary Ann Jackson, assistant general manager for MARTA bus operations.

A new bus will cost about $400,000, Jackson said.

The second fire Sept. 18 occurred in the starter of an empty bus that was parked, and caused $5,000 damage. Jackson said all MARTA buses underwent a close inspection after the fires and anything that could potentially contribute to a bus fire was repaired.

Cobb County Transit manager Rebecca Gutowsky said there have been no fires in Cobb buses. None of the vehicles in its fleet are Orions.

A spokesperson for Daimler Buses North America, which manufactures Orion buses, said the company is not aware of any systemic problems with the equipment used by MARTA and Gwinnett Transit.

“We haven’t been contacted by either customer,” said Patrick Scully, the company’s chief commercial officer. “These are infrequent occurrences, but we address them jointly with our customers when they contact us for assistance.”

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