Pocahontas County Schools adds to bus fleet, joins pilot program

Pocahontas County Schools recently added two new school buses to its fleet – one diesel and one gasoline. The gasoline powered bus is part of a pilot program to see if gasoline buses are more efficient than diesel. Jimmy Ryder, above, poses with the new diesel which he drives on his northern Pocahontas County route and below, Rick McCarty and mechanic Justin Taylor check out the new gasoline bus, which McCarty drives on his Marlinton route. Photos courtesy of Ruth Bland and Stephanie Barkley

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

With 17 buses traveling more than 1,800 miles a day, Pocahontas County Schools’ transportation department knows a thing or two about the abilities of school buses on West Virginia roads.

For the past several years, Pocahontas County Schools has been purchasing new buses and selling old ones to ensure the fleet is at its peak to serve the students.

This year, when it came time to purchase two new buses, director of transportation Ruth Bland said Pocahontas County was selected to participate in a pilot program to implement gasoline powered buses, so she purchased a new diesel and a new gasoline bus for the fleet.

“There are seventeen buses that are diesel and one that is gas,” she said of the fleet. “Pocahontas County Schools was picked to go into a pilot program to see whether the reintroduction of gasoline buses into West Virginia school bus fleets would be efficient. We received our buses the second week of January, and we placed them in service on January 10.”
Rick McCarty is driving the gasoline powered bus, and Jimmy Ryder is driving the new diesel. 

As part of the pilot program, Bland said she has to keep reports on the gasoline powered bus to compare to the diesel buses and will submit them to the West Virginia Department of Education.

“Mr. McCarty has been trying out the bus on his regular run, and he took students from Marlinton Middle School up to Snowshoe to go tubing the other day,” Bland said. “A gasoline powered bus doesn’t have that hand brake – Jake brake is what they call it – so there was some concern about how much wear and tear would be on the brakes. It does have a Roush transmission in it and he was able to gear down, and he didn’t have to use the brake too much coming down the mountain. He needed to use the brake in the sharpest turns, but he didn’t have to rely on it. He is going up and down Price Hill every day and he’s gearing down and so far, he has been very pleased with the performance.”

There are many positives to having a gasoline powered bus in that the engine has fewer sensors than a diesel, the fuel is cheaper and the cost of the bus is cheaper, as well. It’s the long term benefits that are unknown at this time.

“There are, I believe, eight counties that are in this pilot, and we have to turn in gas mileage,” Bland said. “He’s starting out at about six point three miles per gallon, but just looking out at our regular gas, it’s $2.19 a gallon and diesel is $2.99. So, we’re trying to see if there will be a fuel savings on that. The other thing is the amount of maintenance that goes with it.

“We have diesel emission filters that we have to put on those diesels and diesel emission particulates that we have to worry about,” she continued. “Sometimes it can be a lot of labor intensive work with a diesel engine. The other thing is, on a day like today [frigid cold], a gasoline powered bus will start quicker than a diesel that hasn’t been plugged in to get that block warm, so that’s another consideration that the state department of education is looking at.”

Prior to purchasing the buses and deciding to join the pilot program, Bland said the state department came to the county last spring with a gasoline powered bus and a propane bus for testing purposes. The state is also doing a pilot program with propane buses and the drivers of Pocahontas County tested both kinds before the county chose to go with the gas powered bus.

“We tested both of them,” she said. “It was one of those days that the children stayed home and all the people worked, so my bus drivers gathered up at the bus garage, and we rode the gas and the propane one all over the place. We were looking for a mountain to see what we needed to do with the brakes. I think I went over Allegheny Mountain on [Rt.] 84 at least seven times that day.

“One driver would go over [the mountain] and then we would put another driver in the seat to drive back. We went into Patty’s Knob with it to see if we could turn it back there, and we turned it just fine.”

Bland said the benefit of a propane powered bus is that it does better when there is a lot of stop and go, and so it is more ideal for an urban area rather than a rural area like Pocahontas County. Morgantown and Charleston have both added propane buses to their fleets.

“The propane bus had as much giddy up and go as the gasoline bus did, and as the diesel bus did, but, over time, I don’t know,” she said. “We don’t know. If they’re just using it for in town where there’s a lot of traffic and air pollution, the propane would be better in those types of areas than in the rural areas.”

To ensure the buses are road ready and safe for students, they are all inspected at least once a year and are carefully monitored by the two county bus mechanics – Justin Taylor and Ian Bennett – as well as Blue Bird technicians.

“Blue Bird has always been at Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, which is outside of Pittsburgh, but they have built a shop at Sutton,” Bland said. “It’s much better because their technicians can come out to the counties. The other thing is, before we put the buses on the road, we have to have the state bus inspector come in and do the inspection. He lives in Nicholas County, so he was able to go to the Sutton garage and do the inspection before they were brought to us.”

Having local mechanics has also saved the school system money in that both are able to monitor the buses and keep them in tip-top shape without having to send them away to be repaired.

“My mechanics have diagnostic equipment, just like regular mechanics do, to be able to read those computers to find out what the problem is,” Bland said. “With our older buses that are no longer under warranty, there are YouTube videos out there, left and right, about how to fix those buses. They rely on YouTube sometimes, especially where a wiring harness is between the firewalls or where a particular fuse is.”

With all these elements in place, Pocahontas County, and West Virginia as a whole, has one of the safest transportation track records in the country.

“We have to provide the best services that we can for our kids, and the buses that are coming out now are so safe,” Bland said. “People don’t know how pristine the safety record of West Virginia Schools are when it comes to accidents. This state-wide school system has fewer accidents than almost any other state, and that’s because they still employ those state inspectors that come out of the state department of education.

“Other states don’t have that,” she continued. “What happens, other states are contracting with bus companies, so their standards are different.

“West Virginia has Policy 4344 which contains specifications for a bus in the state of West Virginia, and then they have Policy 4346 that says how things have to work.

“When the times get hard, they [other states] cut bus drivers and go to contracted companies, and those contracted companies don’t have the same rigid specifications that we have set in our policies. 

“And that’s only for the safety of the students.”

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