Buses in need of repair are piling up at King County Metro’s bases and the culprits are familiar ones: the supply chain and staffing shortages.
Delays in manufacturing and shipping have come for the transit agency, as they have for a broad range of industries, leaving more buses in need of parts the county doesn’t have. When the parts do arrive, finding enough skilled mechanics to install them is a stretch.
The good news is the larger-than-normal number of idle buses hasn’t yet resulted in any canceled routes. But it’s another headache for Metro as it grapples with depressed ridership, driver shortages, and public health and safety concerns.
“There’s no doubt about it: The two major pain points for us is personnel and supply chain,” said Thomas Getachew, Metro’s vehicle maintenance fleet services manager.
King County Metro typically expects about 7% of its fleet to be sidelined for repairs, not including routine maintenance such as cleaning and oil changes. Lately, that number has crept up to 11%, or around 160 buses.
The types of missing parts have changed over time. For a while, hoses and belts were tough to come by, said Getachew. Now, the most elusive are the components needed for storing energy in the fleet’s hybrid electric engines.
Walking between jacked-up buses in Metro’s central base, lead mechanic Craig Phinney points to a small tank on one coach that holds fluid to help it drive more cleanly. “There’s a sensor in these,” he said. “I’ve got about 10 buses that need a sensor, but we don’t have any. That’s a supply issue.”
Some bases are more backed up than others. As of late January, only 3.5% of buses based in Bellevue were out for repairs. Meanwhile, nearly 18% of buses at the Ryerson base near the stadiums were immobile and just under 17% of buses at the south base needed work.
The scarcity of parts is not specific to King County Metro. Monica Spain, spokesperson for Community Transit in Snohomish County, said they’ve struggled to find hoses, belts and anything with a microchip. To avoid service cuts, the agency has “stockpiled” parts. Pierce County has ramped up its rebuilding department to Frankenstein together transmissions and alternators in-house rather than depend on outside vendors, said spokesperson Rebecca Japhet.
For King County, the issue of finding parts has persisted for months. Some buses have been on the sidelines since August. But the recent snowstorm caused the backlog to grow, as all staff turned their attention to responding instead of doing repairs.
“The public is really benefiting from that [snow] effort, but we pay for it on the back end,” said Getachew.
To keep as many buses on the road as possible, Getachew said they’ve needed to get creative with ordering and repairing. Before, the agency would go to a vendor, who’d source parts from a manufacturer. But as the manufacturers have struggled, the effects have trickled downstream.
In response, Metro has started shopping around, testing new products and ordering as many as they can when it works.
“Most manufacturers want us to stay there and wait for them, but we have to put coaches on the road,” he said.
Local agencies also have coordinated more than in the past, said Getachew, trading parts when needed. Metro has also taken to stripping parts out of one bus for use in several others, stretching the materials they have further.
To move the work forward when they do find parts, Metro has elevated employees at a lower classification to take care of simple tasks, like changing lights and wipers, freeing the more skilled mechanics to tackle bigger projects.
Staffing concerns predate the pandemic, as schools haven’t been pumping out enough trained individuals to replace those retiring, said Getachew. When the pandemic hit, more workers retired early. Some left following the implementation of the vaccine mandate. At 258 workers, vehicle maintenance is currently down 33 employees from what’s considered full staff.
“It’s been kind of a struggle,” he said. “Everybody’s struggling, and we all have to draw from the same pool.”
Metro increased its service in October, restoring 36 lines paused during the pandemic. But overall ridership remains at just 40% of what it was in 2019. Returning to normal capacity is likely to be slowed by a shortage of both drivers and mechanics; in a presentation to the Metropolitan King County Council last week, Metro leadership told council members that service in March will not significantly increase as had been previously planned.
It’s a struggle, but Getachew is hopeful improvements are on the horizon.
“It’s not going to be 100% but we think that by next summer the constraints will kind of calm down a little bit,” he said.