How a small bus company showed up First Student in bitter cold

ST. LOUIS COUNTY - What happened in the Rockwood School District Friday morning could be a precursor for things to come next week.

Around 5:40 a.m. its contracted student bus service, First Student, alerted the district that 14 busses wouldn't start due to the cold weather.

By 6:15 a.m. the number had grown to 28. Apparently, batteries weren't charging and there were problems with fuel lines and air breaks.

By 6:30 a.m. school officials cancelled classes. But 65 area students were already on buses heading to school, and others were standing out in the cold waiting to be picked up. In addition, a different bus company called Go-Ahead, out of Chicago, was in the process of transporting hundreds of voluntary desegregation students from the City of St. Louis into the Rockwood district. All of those buses were turned around.

But that got us wondering how Go-Ahead was able to start all 100 buses without a problem, and First Student was not?

Call it David versus Goliath in the world of student transportation. Go-Ahead North America is a relatively small firm in comparison to First Student, the nation's largest student bus service.

"Go-Ahead is based out of Chicago. So they have a lot of clients north of us and maybe they're used to dealing with these kinds of (cold) issues?" said Bill Sloan, transportation director for the Rockwood School District.

"We bring in technicians overnight if we think there might be issues. They help start buses, pre-warm them before they leave the yard, and we use special fuel and special oil on buses. The synthetic lubricants can hold up in weather -40 without buses breaking down," said John Benish Jr., chief operation officer for Go-Ahead.

It costs more, but Benish says it's worth it.

One bus driver emailed 5 on Your Side saying First Student wasn't prepared and drivers did not come in early enough.

A spokesperson for First Student, out of Cincinnati, denied that but issued a statement saying: "Due to the near-zero temperatures this morning, there were 12 units with frozen batteries. First Student has gone through these twelve units and replaced the batteries. There were additional units that had frozen fuel pumps. Regarding air brake lines, First Student has only 30 buses with air brakes at the Rockwood location, which means the statement of 85 buses is inaccurate. Air brake issues can occur with temperatures at or below zero.

"In anticipation of Monday's continuation of extreme cold, we are presently testing the rest of the fleet batteries. We have additional batteries for our locations and our operations team will be preparing on Saturday as well. First Student, in accordance with our cold weather procedures, has purged the air brake tanks; put brake line deicer in the air brake systems; and, performed additional fluid checks, over and above the required weekly checks, to ensure the buses are safe and operable."

Monday and Tuesday's sub-zero temperatures are the big focus this weekend for all local school districts and the bus companies transporting students.

Sloan says he hopes the district will reach a decision about school closure Sunday evening or very early Monday morning.


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