Trucks on fire: USPS Long Life Vehicles outlive their lifespan

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With over 211,000 vehicles, the Postal Service operates the largest civilian fleet in the world.  About 190,000 vehicles are used to collect and deliver the mail, and about 140,000 of them are Grumman-built Long Life Vehicles (LLVs), the iconic postal trucks that are a ubiquitous presence on America’s streets and roads.

These LLVs are getting on in years, and it’s long past time to begin replacing them.  They’re getting far too expensive to maintain, they may be involved with an increasing number of accidents, and more and more of them are ending their lives in a fiery blaze with a postal worker scurrying to save the mail.

Just last week, another LLV went up in flames in Tyler, Texas, and nearly 2,000 pieces of mail were destroyed.  Along with videos of letter carriers tossing packages and pictures of cars crashing into post offices, images of postal trucks on fire have become an Internet meme.

 

The aging fleet

Most LLVs are Right Hand Delivery (RHD) vehicles that were purchased between 1987 and 1994.  They weren’t built to last forever.  In fact, they were designed to go for 24 years, and many of them are already well past their expected lifespan.

As this chart from a February 2015 USPS presentation shows, most RHD LLVs are now more than 24 years old.  (There are more details in this useful infographic.)

The age of the USPS fleet is unique among other federal agencies.  According to a GSA analysis of all government-owned vehicles, as of FY 2014 (over a year ago), the average age of all USPS vehicles (208,000 passenger vehicles and trucks) was 19.6 years.  The average age the military fleet (176,000 vehicles) was 7.5 years, and the average for the civilian fleets (249,000 vehicles) was 6 years.

Looking just at light trucks like the LLVs, the story is much the same.  The average age for USPS light trucks was 20.7 years old.  The average age for light trucks owned by the military (about 40,000) was 7.5 years, and the average owned by civilian agencies (about 50,000) was 5.8 years.

According to the GSA data, then, the Postal Service’s vehicles are about three times older than the rest of the government’s fleet.  While other federal agencies replace their fleets every seven years, the Postal Service is going on 21 years and counting.

(The GSA report is here; we’ve put it on Google docs here.  Table 2-1 has the inventories of each agency; Table 2-10 has the vehicle ages.)

For another point of comparison, it’s useful to look at the fleet replacement strategies of foreign postal systems, the subject of this OIG report from August 2015.  The posts that the OIG looked at to determine a benchmark replace their fleets every three to nine years.

 

Trucks on fire

There’s not a lot of available data, but it’s clear that as the fleet ages, LLV fires are becoming more frequent.  An August 2014 USPS memo on “Vehicle Fire Prevention” states, “An increase in vehicle fires has been experienced in the USPS fleet over the last year and a half.  The increase of vehicle fires has primarily occurred in the right hand delivery trucks, particularly in Long Life Vehicles (LLVs).“

An article entitled “Dangers of Melting USPS Vehicles” that appeared in a July 2015 NALC local website also reported that “USPS vehicles catching fire is becoming more frequent as the fleet ages and is in dire need of replacement.”

A Google search for photographs of postal trucks on fire yields about 40 instances of fires since 2009 (seen in the slideshow above).  It may just be due to the growing prevalence of smartphone cameras, but 21 of the fires are from 2015.

Since many fires go unreported in the news, that number may be just the tip of the iceberg.

NALC’s Director of Safety and Health, Manuel L. Peralta Jr., has written several articles for the union’s online publication about vehicle fires. (His piece on Vehicle Safety here is very useful).  In a column that ran in August 2014, Peralta reported that since the first of the year — a period of about seven months — there had been 36 LLV fires.

A piece called “Not-so-fun facts about LLV fires” that circulated on NALC local websites in July and August of 2015 says that while the actual number of fires goes unreported, “according to Trident there have been 77, now 79 LLV fires this last year.”

That’s a reference to Trident Engineering Associates, which was hired by the Postal Service in January 2014 to investigate vehicle fires. NALC asked to see Trident’s report, but it has not received a copy, and the report has not been made public.

 

Cracks, corrosion, and leakage

As for the causes of these fires, that 2014 USPS memo reports, “Most fires initiate from locations in and around the engine compartment and some have been linked to failed fuel system components.  The fuel system carries a greater potential for a fire than other vehicle systems.”

A subsequent USPS memo on “Vehicle Fire Prevention” states that “Trident’s reports indicate fires occurred primarily due to electrical system issues or fuel & oil/hydraulic system leaks.  In some cases evidence was provided that oil leaks previously existed and this problem was not addressed.”

In a comment board on PostalMag.com about the causes for the fires, postal workers pointed to cracked fuel lines, corroded electrical connections, faulty wiring, hot fuse panels, overheating engine compartments, leaky windshield fluid lines over the fuse panel (the fluid contains alcohol), flammable dust collecting at the bottom of the steering column, and so on.

Whatever the causes, when a LLV catches fire, it looks like the truck is almost melting.  That’s because it is.

While the LLV’s chassis is made of steel, the bodies are made of aluminum (unlike most truck bodies, which are steel).  While steel melts at 2,500°F, the melting point for aluminum is 1218°F.

Given that postal trucks obviously contain highly flammable materials like paper and cardboard, it’s probably not hard for the truck to reach that temperature once a fire gets started.

One USPS maintenance worker says of the vehicles, “It’s like driving an aluminum soda can.”  Judging by the photos in the slideshow, the vehicles melt like soda cans too.

 

Accidents on the rise

Every accident involving a USPS vehicle is reported in detail on a special form, so the Postal Service has an extensive accident report database.  This information, however, is not shared with the public on the USPS.com website, so one can only speculate about whether or not the accident rate is increasing due to the aging of the vehicles.  It’s not necessarily so.

In 2011, a GAO report on “Strategy Needed to Address Aging Delivery Fleet” stated that while the LLVs were obviously aging, officials at a number of vehicle maintenance facilities reported that “the LLV is a well-designed, highly functional vehicle that is easy for mechanics to work on, and its long-lived aluminum body has held up well.”

According to the GAO, “Vehicle maintenance facility managers, technicians, and letter carriers routinely stressed that they had no safety concerns about the vehicles despite their advanced age.”

Despite these reassurances, the accident rate is be going up.  In its 2015 Annual Report to Congress, the Postal Service states, “Our safety initiatives for the next year will assist the field in establishing effective accident reduction plans, enlisting the cooperation and support of our employee partners and taking steps to address the increase in motor vehicle accidents” (p. 18, italics added).

A 2012 OIG report on vehicle accident prevention says that from FY 2008 through FY 2012, there were about 20,000 motor vehicle accidents annually.  (That comes to an average of 9.2 accidents per million miles driven.)  An article in the December 2015 issue of Postal Bulletin says that in 2015, USPS reported nearly 27,000 motor vehicle accidents.

Just because accidents are increasing, however, doesn’t mean the aging vehicles are the cause.  There may be other explanations.  One likely cause is increased use of non-career City Carrier Assistants, who have less experience than career workers.  In fact, the Postal Bulletin article says that nearly half of those 27,000 accidents “were experienced by our newer employees.”

In any case, there’s clearly a connection between vehicle condition and accidents.  That’s why most states have vehicle inspection laws and that’s why the Postal Service does regular inspections of its own vehicles.  That 2012 OIG report on accident prevention has a section on vehicle maintenance that says supervisors and letter carriers did not always do vehicle inspections properly.  As result, observed the OIG, “Vehicles not properly inspected could be operated with an undetected safety hazard, which could result in a preventable motor vehicle accident.”

Vehicle condition is also one of the factors the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) measures when it analyzes the causes of accidents.  According to a 2015 report, drivers are responsible for almost all accidents, but about 2 percent of them are due to problems with the vehicle — tires, breaks, steering, and so on.

NHTSA has also found a correlation between the age of a vehicle at the time of a crash and the “injury outcome” of the driver — the older the vehicle, the more serious the accident.  The study found that “the driver of a vehicle that was 18+ years old at the time of the crash was 71 percent more likely to be fatally injured than the driver of a vehicle that was 3 years old or less.”

Obviously, many postal vehicle accidents also involve injuries.  A GAO report on “Mail Delivery Injuries” stated that from 2009 through 2012, there were 13,000 reported injuries attributed to mail delivery, many of them involving vehicle accidents.  (The report doesn’t specify how many.)

These accidents are not only dangerous but also expensive.  That OIG report cites NHTSA data showing that in general (not for the USPS) “the average crash costs an employer $16,500.  An employee who has an on-the-job crash resulting in an injury costs their employer $74,000.  When a fatality is involved, costs can exceed $500,000.”

The OIG does not report any USPS-specific data on the costs of postal vehicle accidents, but the total could run into millions of dollars.  At an average cost per crash of $16,500, those 27,000 USPS accidents in 2015 would have cost $445 million.

 

The high cost of maintenance

One of the most obvious problems with the aging fleet is that maintaining the old trucks is getting very expensive.  They suffer from rusting frames, worn-out chassis, blown transmissions, tired engines, and so on, and the replacement parts are getting harder to find.  But because of its financial problems, the Postal Service hasn’t been able to replace trucks, so it has had no choice but to repair them.

In April 2015, a USPS OIG audit report found that in fiscal year 2014, the Postal Service vehicle maintenance expenses totaled $1.1 billion.  A significant portion of that expense goes to keeping the LLVs on the road.  According to an earlier OIG report from June 2014, the Postal Service spent about $450 million on maintenance for 142,000 LLVs in FY 2013.

Much of the maintenance costs go for a relatively small portion of the fleet.  The Postal Service told the OIG that it “projected that in FY 2013 about 9 percent of the LLV fleet (nearly 13,000 vehicles) would require maintenance repairs costing more than $6,000 per vehicle per year, or a total of over $107 million. This represents more than 23 percent of total projected FY 2013 LLV maintenance costs.”

Plus, the costs are just going up.  According to this infographic, in 2008, the average cost per vehicle for repairs was just under $1,886; by 2013, the average had risen to over $3,188.  At this point, the average may be approaching $3,500.

That number — $3,500 — is the “maintenance threshold” at which point postal management directs vehicle maintenance managers to assess whether to repair, replace, or dispose of the vehicle.  As of 2009, 26 percent of delivery fleet met or exceeded this threshold.  By now, half the LLV fleet may be above the threshold.

 

Replacing the fleet

It has been clear for many years that the Postal Service would need to begin replacing the fleet, but the recession and its impact on mail volumes and revenues set back any plans to do so.   As noted in this 2015 GAO report, the Postal Service made a decision in 2011 not to replace its delivery fleet “largely because it would cost about $5 billion,” money it just didn’t have at the time.

Now that the Postal Service’s financial situation has improved, however, the agency is moving forward on buying new trucks.  The current plan is to buy 180,000 “Next Generation Delivery Vehicles” (NGDVs).  The anticipated cost for each NGDV is between $25,000 and $35,000, which comes to a total cost of $4.5 billion to $6.3 billion.

The plan has come under fire from a couple of advocacy groups, Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) and Americans for Tax Reform, the latter of which called the Postal Service’s plan a “billion dollar boondoggle.”  These groups argue that there are cheaper ways to solve the problem, like buying off-the-shelf vehicles, leasing some portion of the fleet, and not locking in to one design, which would allow the Postal Service to take advantage of future innovations.  While such suggestions are worth considering, the critics seem more interested in bashing the Postal Service than in saving money.  It’s not as if taxpayers will be paying for the vehicles anyway.

Whatever approach the Postal Service takes, the question is not if the fleet will be replaced but when.  It takes a long time, perhaps as long as five or six years, to go through the process of identifying the vehicle specifications, negotiating with manufacturers, testing the prototypes, and deploying the new trucks.

Plus, once deployment begins, it will take several years to completely replace the old vehicles.  The Postal Service plans on staggering its purchase of 160,000 new vehicles over a nine-year period beginning in FY 2018.

The Postal Service is already falling behind schedule. According to a USPS presentation from February 2015, the Postal Service anticipated that planning and executing the necessary custom-built vehicle acquisition would take over four years. You can see the timeline in this slide (click on the image for a larger version).

The Postal Service had planned to issue the Request for Proposals (RFP) in April 2015, with a due date for suppliers of June 2015.  However, a solicitation notice on FedBizOpps.gov, dated October 20, 2015, indicates that supplier responses to the RFP are now due on February 5, 2016 — seven months behind the schedule in the timeline.

According to the plan, delivery on the vehicles was to occur in January 2018.  At this point, it looks as though mid to late 2018 is more likely, and that’s if everything goes according to schedule. By that time, many LLVs will be well past their 24-year life span, over a billion more dollars will be spent on maintenance, and we will see more LLVs going out in a blaze.

(Photo credits: Slideshow: click on any image for source; aging fuel line (PostalMag); postal vehicle in accident; Postal Bulletin; preview of NGDV)

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