Keeping the fleet fit for the Big Chill

How the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority prepares for winter

Richard Crawford / September 24, 2020 / 3 minute read
How the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority prepares for winter
Image: Minnesota Valley Transit Authority

If you don’t prepare, you won’t be able to manage Minnesota winters.

This is according to Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA) Fleet Manager Dan Rudiger, who oversees a fleet division with 22 mechanics who work around the clock five days a week to keep a fleet of 169 buses in service in two suburban counties south of the Twin Cities. 

The MVTA is the public transit provider for the cities of Apple Valley, Burnsville, Eagan, and Rosemount in Dakota County and Prior Lake, Savage, and Shakopee in Scott County. The MVTA fleet includes 45-ft coach buses, 35-ft and  40-ft low floor transit buses, and smaller cutaway buses. The average age of MVTA buses is currently about seven years, Rudiger said. Rigorous preparation and attention have kept even the older buses working well. 

“All the buses have different requirements and needs,” Rudiger said. But when it comes to Minnesota’s harsh winters, all the buses require preparation and a well laid-out maintenance plan to keep buses and passengers moving. 

“Without preparation, we wouldn’t make the pullout,” Rudiger said. Winter fuel preparation begins in earnest around Oct. 1, when the buses are switched over to winter blended fuel. Without the change, fuel filters and lines could gel and or become plugged with falling temperatures. Fuel additives also help to keep fuel from gelling. 

Fleet counterparts in warm-weather climates do not need to focus on winter fuel blends, Rudiger noted. But the warm weather fuel will not last long in northern climates. Every winter, truck drivers from Oklahoma, Texas, and other southern states end up on the side of the highway because their fuel gels on the way up north.

HVAC systems and diesel fired heaters are other critical items on the year-round checklist, but particularly in the winter time to keep passengers comfortable. MVTA mechanics start prepping the heating units at the end of August to ensure they are producing heat and all the valves are in good order. 

Watching the fluids

As the temperatures drop, MVTA fleet staff keep a close watch on all the fluid lines and the vehicle air systems. MVTA drains air tanks and rebuilds air dryers to remove excess moisture from the air-brake system on the buses to minimize the threat of freezing.

“The air systems can create moisture in the lines and freeze in cold weather, causing blockage in the airlines,” Rudiger explained.

Window washer fluid is also monitored during the winter to ensure the freeze point is well below outside temperatures. Otherwise, the fluid would freeze in the lines causing safety issues and service calls.

With the winter slush and snow, MVTA buses are constantly going through the bus garage wash bay, so keeping that in working order is a top priority. 

MVTA buses receive lots of attention, even when they are running as expected. Once a week, all fluid levels on the buses are checked. Every 60 days, every bus gets a full inspection. 

Big chills

MVTA does not have the luxury of keeping buses in the garage when the weather gets challenging. 

MVTA buses remained in service from Jan. 27-31, 2019, when an arctic blast brought some of the lowest air temperatures to visit Minnesota since 1996, and the lowest wind chills since the 1980s.

The -28 degrees F temperature in the Twin Cities on Jan. 30, 2019, was the lowest air temperature in the Twin Cities since the region was hit with -32 degrees F on Feb. 2, 1996. “We had a few issues, but overall we really did well,” Rudiger said. 

Jet airplane fuel can freeze at about 40 degrees below, and when the temperatures get that cold there are limits to what can be done to keep buses running smoothly. 

Rudiger credited his staff for tackling the challenges Minnesota winters provide. “Without the preparation and ongoing maintenance, there is no way you can manage in Minnesota,” he said. “Unless you have a Florida winter … which we never seem to have.”

About the Author

Crawford is Public Information Manager at Minnesota Valley Transit Authority.

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