Problems with new electric trolley buses cause delayed commutes, safety problems

King County Metro’s new fleet of electric trolleys hit the roads with a string of problems, including poles dropping from the wires, delaying commutes, and mechanics being shocked with electricity while working on the buses.

A KIRO 7 investigation discovered two mechanics were shocked in a matter of five months because they had not received proper training.

The new fleet cost about $227 million. When the buses were launched in August of 2015, they were touted as the next generation of buses, “state-of-the-art” with zero emissions.

A rider named Serena who was on her way to work told KIRO 7, “The two and the thirteen come off the rails a lot more than they used to. It takes a lot longer to get downtown on them now.”

It's called pole de-wiring and she's right. Drivers say it happens on older buses too, but a lot more on the new ones.

Bus passengers aren't the only ones delayed as traffic backs up; bus drivers are fed up with the problem, too. KIRO 7 discovered it has been festering for a while, according to hundreds of internal Metro emails obtained through a public records request.

In one written by the Vehicle Maintenance Manager at the time, John Alley, he stated, “Our operators are frustrated with our delay in finding a fix and having to re-attach the poles is a delay to our traveling customers."

Lead Mechanic Ken Peterson wrote about the new buses on July 1st. He said, "We currently have 10 pole droppers in the rack, and at least one, has a complaint of 'poles dropped 20 times during shift.'"

That was no surprise to drivers like Lance Jennings, whom KIRO 7 met on Rainier Avenue after he said his poles dropped five times.

His bus was taken out of service and he was waiting for a new one.

Jennings demonstrated how drivers have to inch out into traffic to try to get the poles back on the wires, a danger he acknowledges.

But that's not the only safety issue. Metro employee Bill Marion was shocked by electricity while trying to do a routine inspection of Bus 4369 on May 9th, 2016.


“Anybody could have gotten shocked,” Marion said. “And I guess they’re lucky it was me.”

Bill Marion is a mechanic at Metro with more than three decades on the job.

“What I do is inspect the buses,” he said. “Usually three to four buses a day.”

After the shock, he ran and grabbed one of the electricians, who immediately tested the bus.

“He yells to the guy in the driver's seat to turn the bus off,” he said, “and I’m like looking at him because he's yelling like crazy and he's going, ‘It's got 300 volts on it! Shut it off!’”

If the voltage on these buses goes where it shouldn't, something called a hot coach detector alarm is supposed to go off. It should drop the poles and stop the bus. But in this case, records show the wire was disconnected.

Marion said he felt the effects of the shock for weeks.

“I was having all kinds of problems from basically waking up in the middle of the night, checking to see if my hands were still there because my hands were numb,” he said.

“Is that dangerous? It sounds like it's dangerous,” KIRO 7 asked Metro’s Managing Director of Safety and Security, Grantley Martelly.

“Any time the human body comes into contact with electricity, it is potential for harm,” he said. “We acknowledge that and that's why we have procedures.”

The only problem is those procedures to ensure safety around the new fleet of buses didn't exist when Marion was shocked.

The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries investigated and fined Metro $10,800, citing “serious training violations."



“We failed in this instance, as L&I pointed out, in making sure all the mechanics, all the technicians, received the adequate training before the fleet was put into service,” Martelly said.

Emails show an electronic technician, Kermit Gipson, stated he complained about a broad range of issues, including lack of training, as far back as late last year and then again in 2016.

KIRO 7 discovered another mechanic, Ray Moore, was shocked this August before Bill Marion says training on the fleet's hot coach detectors and high voltage specifics finally started in September of 2016.

“It was a failure in process,” Martelly said.

“The timing wasn't allocated for them? The training wasn't set up?” KIRO 7 asked.

“I am not sure all the factors that went into it,” Martelly said. “We're looking into it.”

Martelly said detectors on other buses were functioning and they've added another step so the bus will notify the driver if the detector is off.

Metro says in the case of bus 4369, passengers on board were never at risk.

“Is there any spot that I could have touched, as a customer, in normal service, that could have shocked me?” KIRO 7 asked.

“I would say no, because the body is isolated from the frame,” Martelly said.

But when pressed, Metro acknowledged that if the stray current that jolted Bill Marion was present earlier that morning when bus 4369 was in service, someone walking by could have touched the access panels on the side of the bus and been at risk for a shock.

Metro stressed that Marion was the only record of a person shocked that day and that in a review prompted by the KIRO 7 investigation, Metro reviewed its liability claims database going back to 2001.

“We have no record of anyone in the public ever having reported being subjected to electric shock while on a Metro bus,” spokesperson Scott Gutierrez stated.

As for the de-wiring, Metro admits it’s been a fleet-wide issue, with poles dropping more often on route 3, Queen Anne to Madrona; route 7, Rainier Beach to Downtown Seattle; and route 70, the U-District to Downtown.

When it comes to fixing them, “we’re doing our best to get this completed by the end of the year,” Martelly said.

It is an ambitious goal that at this point seems unlikely.

Only one electric trolley has gotten new springs, which Metro believes will help solve the problem.

On Thursday, Metro noted it had just received 86 new springs, which will replace the current springs on 21 trolleys and provide two spares. It is still waiting for the vendor to make and ship enough springs to outfit all of the trolleys in the fleet.

Metro also said it’s installed new software to make the poles less sensitive, which the agency believes will lead to fewer delays.

Fortunately, all the work necessary for these fixes is under warranty.

Bill Marion has retained an attorney, Andrew Magee, who said he plans to file suit next week.


What is the cost of these new buses?

A.  Total budget for the new trolleys is $227 million

How many buses in the new fleet are having the poles drop and causing delays?

A.  Metro doesn’t have an exact number but says it’s safe to say it’s been a fleet-wide issue. Routes 3, 7 and 70  have seen higher numbers of reported de-wirements. There were more than 1,500 reported dewirements involving 4300 and 4500 coaches from August 2015 to August 2016. The actual number is likely larger given some dewirements were not reported.

How long are the buses under warranty (ie, how long can Metro avoid paying for all these problems)? 

A.  Once Metro notified the manufacturer of the de-wirement issue with the 4300s and 4500s, then under contract, the warranty continues indefinitely until that issue has been resolved.

When did the new fleet start service?

A. The first 17 coaches went into service in August 2015.

What is the policy when the poles keep dropping on my bus?

A.  Normal operating procedure is to notify the Transit Control Center (TCC) anytime there is a de-wirement. Since the newer trolleys have a battery backup mode (ESS), operators have been instructed they can request permission to operate in ESS for an extended period of time if they experience multiple de-wirements. They can remain in ESS until a service truck or another coach is available.

Operators must still get out of the coach to manually reconnect the poles, and are trained how to safely do so. That includes activating their emergency flashers, setting the brake and putting the coach in neutral, and turning off the master switch before stepping outside the bus. They’re also trained to put on a safety vest and gloves, and check traffic before leaving the coach, and to check for damage to the poles and the overhead wire. Operators also are trained to ask riders to remain inside the bus while the poles are being reconnected.

What is causing the poles to dewire?

A. SPRINGS: Each trolley pole system is equipped with a set of 4 springs that holds the poles up against the overhead wires. The initial sets of springs on these new coaches were found to be unable to maintain enough pressure to keep the poles in place.

POLE SEPARATION: The pole system will automatically retract the trolley poles if there is a dewirement. It checks for dewirement by monitoring the vertical distance between poles. Metro has learned the system was too narrowly programmed and did not have enough allowance for side-to-side movement, body roll, or potholes or dips in the road – causing poles to retract unnecessarily. Metro is working with the manufacturer to install a software update that will expand that allowance.

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