SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — As the City Sightseeing bus careened down Post Street, sideswiping cars and dragging a bicyclist, perhaps no one was more terrified than the driver, who said he had lost control of the bus, which finally crashed to a stop in scaffolding in Union Square.
A total of 20 people were injured in the crash on November 13th. The driver, who suffered a broken back, said he thought the brakes had failed.
KPIX 5 has learned that bus came from a fleet with a troubled history of problems with brakes and hydraulic systems, dating back to its origins not as a double decker bus, but as a transit bus on the streets of Washington, DC.
Fifteen years ago, the bus was one of nearly a hundred new transit buses built by a company called Orion and sold to Washington, DC’s Metro.
But there were problems with the buses, including braking and air valve systems and multiple fires. For years, Metro asked Orion to fix the buses. After a complete overhaul in 2005, Metro had to pull them again in 2010, after a fire aboard one bus revealed hydraulic problems.
After more fixes, more fires, two in one week in 2012. That’s when Metro decided to get rid of all of them.
Metro told KPIX 5 that their head mechanic estimated repairs for each bus would run about $20,000 apiece. Instead, Metro put them up for auction in May of 2012 “as is,” with buyers responsible for fixing a bus that was part of a fleet Metro thought was not worth fixing, with a history of brake and hydraulic problems.
Two years later, one of those transit buses made it to the streets of San Francisco as a double decker tour bus. It was registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles, but never inspected by the California Highway Patrol or registered with the California Public Utilities Commission as a City Sightseeing bus.
But who remade the bus? And who regulates that procedure? Substantial changes are required for that transformation, which theoretically could have involved fixing known problems with these Orion VI transit buses, but surprisingly no state agency can answer the question.
The CHP told KPIX 5 their inspectors don’t ask, while the CPUC said they did not know. The DMV said they’d know only if the bus was remade in California. If it was remade out of state, they would not know, and did not know in the case of the crashed bus.
KPIX 5 reached out to City Sightseeing owner Christian Watts and his attorney, with no response.
CHP inspection records reveal that most of City Sightseeing’s double decker buses are manufactured from transit buses, or school buses, from a variety of cities.
Sources said us that a “same type” of bus had another brake failure a few months ago, but the driver in that case was able to bring the bus to a stop, because it was traveling at low speed.