A factor that may play a larger challenge in impacting school district and bus company operations for 2021-2022 is that school bus service replacement ages may be extended, as school districts and private bus companies right-size their fleets or look to reduce short-term, new-vehicle acquisition budgets. This could be due to many transportation operations reducing the number of vehicles in their home-to-school fleets, to account for changes in reduced student ridership and the uncertainty of funding.
We can only hope that the new school year will bring about a renewed emphasis on in-classroom learning and more clarity regarding transportation funding formulas
that would bring student transportation capacity back to pre-pandemic numbers.
It is possible, however, that you may be confronted with revaluating your operating fleet, resulting in the need to keep units in service longer than anticipated due to uncertain capital budget constraints limiting new-vehicle orders. These pandemic- induced changes to your operating parameters are certainly going to influence your fleet replacement and life-cycle maintenance strategy, regardless of publicly or privately run transportation departments.
The forecasted cost of maintenance parts and supplies as well as outside repairs are anticipated to rise. This should come as no surprise. As the economy improves, you can expect an increase in the cost of raw materials, which should have an impact toward the end of 2021.
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Higher labor costs are also predicted to increase the maintenance spend for routine repairs, and competition for skilled technicians will increase. During the pandemic, many technicians were protected from job loss because they were deemed essential workers, so there was little impact on the labor market for technicians. As more experienced technicians continue to transition into retirement and fewer young adults enter the field, along with the high probability of a lack of technicians in the market when the full economic recovery arrives, shop labor rates will likely increase. Especially in cities where technicians are in noticeably short supply.
This challenge is compounded by the emergence of higher capital cost alternatives to diesel power, including electric vehicles in fleet operations, and the proliferation of advanced driver assistance systems, resulting in the increased complexity in fleet maintenance.
Revolutionary technological changes in school buses has occurred many times in the past, such as the dieselization of school buses in the 1980s and the advancement of clean diesel through the 2000s. The electrification of school buses is just starting. How it revolutionizes the industry will depend on several factors, many of which are uncertain now. But the 35-plus year historical example of dieselization of school buses can highlight how quickly significant changes can occur in evolving school bus design and its impact on the cost of operation.
Innovation and technological advances in electric power for school buses are producing technologies that will affect decisive, revolutionary and challenging opportunities across the school transportation industry. As these creative power trains reach the market, transportation directors will need accurate information on the benefits and risks, not forecasts or assumptions, so that everyone can profit in this evolving landscape.
Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the July 2021 issue of School Transportation News.
Robert T. Pudlewski is the technical editor for School Transportation News with over 40 years of experience in the school bus industry. He is also a member of the National School Transportation Association Hall of Fame, and the retired vice president of fleet operations, maintenance and procurement for Laidlaw.