A 4400-series TMC RTS bus on State Street. Photo by Kevin Zolkiwicz.

I arrived in Chicago in 2006 to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago for a sociology and urban planning degree. I visited home in Batavia, Illinois, quite often. I took route 60-Blue Island/26th from campus to Northwestern Station to catch the Union Pacific-West line to Geneva. I distinctly remember how decrepit these buses were (this route seemed to have the oldest ones in the fleet, 4400-series TMC RTS). They lumbered; they were dark inside; they had stairs to climb aboard; passengers who wanted or needed to use the ramp had to spend several minutes waiting for the ramp to deploy and then be elevated.* I don’t know how much was just old design, no upgrades being made, or broken down equipment.

That was at a time of major service cuts, fare hikes, and deliberations about new legislation determining how to fund the Regional Transportation Authority and the three service boards it oversees (Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, and Pace).

The Chicago Transit Authority made announcements this year that should ensure this won’t happen again.

  • The CTA has a Request for Proposals out to purchase 425 new buses (325 40-feet and 100 60-feet articulated). This was announced in June 2012.
  • Piggybacking on a contract for new buses that King County Metro in Seattle, Washington, no longer wanted, the CTA will get 100 new buses. These are New Flyer buses and “on their way” to Chicago. Announced in May 2012.
  • The CTA signed contracts yesterday to two companies, Cummins NPower and New Flyer Industries Canada, to perform a mid-life overhaul on 1,029 40-feet buses. From the press release, the overhaul includes service on “engines, transmissions, suspensions, heating and air-conditioning systems, exterior repair and repainting as necessary, LED lights and other internal amenities”. Additionally, buses without particulate filters will get them. Announced Wednesday.

I talked to Cat Hosinksi at CTA to get more information. “The average life of a bus, according to the Federal Transit Administration, is 12 years. This overhaul ensures smooth and safe operations” for passengers. The oldest bus to be overhauled in the program is 7 years old. “[This overhaul program] ensures these buses make it to that average”, Hosinski said. By doing this now, “it prevents continued and multiple repairs in the future”. The bus model to be overhauled is the 1000-series New Flyer D40LF, which first arrived in February 2006.

Curious about the state of the buses I was riding to the Metra station, I talked to Kevin Zolkiewicz, operator of ChicagoBus.org, and occasional contributor. The specific bus model, 4400-series TMC RTS, was first introduced in 1991 and the series was fully retired in 2008. The buses didn’t receive air conditioning until 2002 because of cost! Here’s what he said about bus ages:

Based on a roster I have from October 2008, the oldest number in service at the time was 4404 [the first bus was 4400]. So that one was likely about 17 years old when retired. Some of the higher numbers might have been 16 years old.

Similar story for the 5300 Flxibles which also started delivery in 1991 and were retired by January 2009. As of October 2008, 5347 was the lowest number still in service, making it about 17 years old at the time.

Unlike the 4400s, the 5300s never received a mid-life rehab. Yet they still were in service for around the same amount of time. One of the key reasons for that was simply a lack of capital funds for new buses in the late 90s. Nowadays, the CTA is getting better about retiring buses within the range specified by their service standards (12 years, or 14 years if the bus received an overhaul).

The overhaul program, 100 new buses, and the upcoming purchase of 425 new buses should ensure a good quality and well-running bus fleet for another 7 years. From there on, though, our city will need the right leadership and funding levels (at the national, state and local levels) to know what’s in store for the next 7 years.

* Deploying the ramp was difficult: it seems the bus had to be the perfect distance from the curb; the bus operator sometimes made several attempts to get the ramp in the right position. If the passenger was using a wheelchair, they had to maneuver it just perfectly onto the ramp.

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  • Alan Robinson

    Only 12 years! How is it then that both Coast Mountain Bus Company (Vancouver) and the TTC (Toronto) run their busses for ~18 years before retirement (with some rebuilds running for up to 30 years). Does the CTA rake up the mileage faster or have less preventative maintenance?

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      I’m going to answer “possibly” on both questions as I didn’t ask them those questions.
      In the Wednesday press release, it was stated “The oldest buses to be rebuilt include vehicles that have been in service for seven years and have more than 275,000 miles in stop-and-go traffic.”
      There was a period of time when CTA could not do preventative maintenance because of budget issues.
      I asked if the 12-years was the average found through a study the FTA conducted of all buses in America, or was a recommendation. The CTA spokesperson thought it was an average and would have to research for a fuller answer. I wanted to publish sooner.

      • Alan Robinson

        Hi Steven,

        I’ve seen the 12 year figure comes from the FTA and is a US average.

    • Beta Magellan

      From what I’ve heard, 10-15 years is pretty standard for an IC-powered bus. Trolleybuses can have lifespans in the decades (almost comparable to railcars), which is where I’d guess the 30 year figure comes from, at least in Vancouver’s case.

      I don’t know if this affects buses in the same way, but Chicago weather is absolutely brutal to cars—you’re far more likely to see a 25-year old daily driver in the PNW not only because of its less demanding climate but also because of the response to that climate (i .e. less or no road salt).

      • Alan Robinson

        The 18 years is the expected retirement age for diesel buses used by Translink, and most do reach this age. Trolleys are expected to last 25 years.

        I’ve found a document that explored in detail both the standards, expectations, and experience of bus service life by various agencies.
        http://www.fta.dot.gov/documents/Useful_Life_of_Buses_Final_Report_4-26-07_rv1.pdf
        From what I’ve read so far, the FTA requires buses purchased with federal funds to last 12 years. Canadian operators generally look for buses designed for an 18 year service life. I’m not sure if the current batch of New Flyers and Nova buses are designed for a 12 or 18 year life.

  • http://twitter.com/banoonoo Anna Schibrowsky

    At 8:30 a.m. yesterday, I saw this Nova Bus parked in front of the CTA headquarters at Jefferson and Lake. I asked someone who seemed to be involved if the CTA would be buying this type of bus. He said it’s still in the bidding process – that’s why the bus was there for inspection – but they will most likely get these. I believe the LED signs said this was Nova’s LFS HEV model, which is a hybrid electric vehicle.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      I think it’s become CTA’s de facto policy for all new buses to be hybrid vehicles. They get nearly twice as much gas mileage.