Andrew Turnbull presents

The History of School Transportation in Mercer County, WV

1936-63 - 1963-74 - 1974-84 - 1984-91 - 1991-98 - 1998-2004 - 2004-09 - 2009-14 - 2014-21


2009-10

Even though the Thomas C2 was rightly acclaimed as an innovative design, the circumstances that led to its creation were not free of vice. Traditionally, school bus body builders were "second-stage" manufacturers building their wares atop the chassis of others, and school districts were allowed free reign to mix and match whatever combination they wanted. This came to an end due to industry collusion and consolidation in the 1990s: Navistar bought AmTran, Freightliner bought Thomas, and both companies wasted little time discontinuing the production of all body-chassis combinations other than their own. Caught in the midst of this was Blue Bird. In 1999 the company was veritably an 800-pound gorilla, boasting preferential supply relationships (including an exclusive GM chassis), five satellite plants, and an incredible 45% market share. But the company flailed in the new millennium, being bounced from one corporate acquirer to another, letting a chassis-supply deal with Ford blow up in its face, being squeezed by competitors, and finding itself in the clutches of corporate raiders before the decade was through.

Spawned in these inhospitable circumstances was the Blue Bird Vision, the company's attempt to develop a complete, cost-effective conventional bus without having to rely on outside chassis suppliers aligned with their competition. In a sense, they were well-prepared to do so: Blue Bird had been building their own chassis for Type D applications since the 1970s, and the Vision chassis was based heavily on proven components from their TC2000 Type D line.

In 2008, the state's contract for most of the next year's school buses was awarded to Blue Bird. Since Mercer County's previous Blue Bird dealer had switched affiliations, orders were instead secured from Blue Bird of Pittsburgh, a Pennsylvania-based dealership with a West Virginia satellite operation.

Switching from the Thomas C2 back to Blue Bird's 1960s-holdover body design must have felt like stepping from the future into the past. The new Vision had modernities, however, like a car-like instrument panel that was a world apart from the Blue Birds of yore. Thomas wasn't completely left out of the action, either, as Mercer County used this "Blue Bird year" to add a second Saf-T-Liner EF to its fleet.

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Blue Bird Vision #587. Although the body of the Blue Bird Vision looked mighty familiar from the windshield back, 2009 (and 2008) models featured a sleek new nose with flush-mounted headlights shared with Volvo transport trucks. [Photo by Adam Ross, 2020]

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Apart from the change to Visions, the biggest change of 2009-10's buses was the change to a white roof. White paint reflects more sunlight than yellow, and buses with white roofs stay cooler in the summer months. Although some West Virginia county school districts had specified their buses this way as far back as the 1990s, Mercer County held out on the trend until 2009. [Photo by the author, 2013]

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As with other adjacent numbers in the fleet, #589 is a 59-passenger bus equipped with a wheelchair lift. Also note the tiny wheels: Blue Bird habitually equips its wheelchair-accessible buses with undersized wheels and tires in order to avoid intrusion into the passenger floor. [Photo by the author, 2013]

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#590 is equipped with differently-styled headlight assemblies swapped on from a newer, 2015 or later Vision. Of course, nonoriginal part replacements are a fact of life for many a vehicle in a fleet! [Photo by Adam, 2020]

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#592, a lengthy 77-passenger example and another recipient of replacement lighting. This is as big as conventional buses are allowed to get! [Photo by Adam, 2020]

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The late aughts saw Mercer County renewing its transit fleet with new Type D buses like this Blue Bird All American (aka TC3000). Note the inexplicably-doubled fleet number. [Photo by Adam, 2020]

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Hedging its bets, Mercer County added a second-source Type D bus to its fleet this year with the purchase of this 2010 Saf-T-Liner EF. Although Thomas' Type D line continued to use the company's traditional pre-C2 body design, C2 parts such as taillight clusters were working their way in! [Photo by Adam, 2020]

Bus
Year
Body
Chassis
Cap.
Notes
587 2009 Blue Bird (Vision) 59 Rear wheelchair lift.
588 2009 Blue Bird (Vision) 59 Rear wheelchair lift.
589 2009 Blue Bird (Vision) 59 Rear wheelchair lift.
590 2009 Blue Bird (Vision) 59 Rear wheelchair lift?
591 2009 Blue Bird? (Vision?)
592 2009 Blue Bird (Vision) 77
593 2009 Blue Bird? (Vision?)
594 2009 Blue Bird (Type D) 89 1BABNCPA99F266986.
595 2010 Thomas (Type D) 89 1T88U4E20A1120805.

2010-11

The school buses of 2010-11 were Blue Birds once again, and identical in most respects to those of the year before. There was one unusual and prominently visible change: The addition of a two-digit numeric suffix to the fleet number, keyed to the model year. The rationale for this is unknown.

The suffix was of dubious utility: The model year of a bus is superfluous to 99% of riders, and mechanics and transportation directors have other ways to keep track of the relative age of a bus. The suffix also compromised the legibility of the fleet number, turning a clear three digits into an illegible, scrunched-together string. However, it wasn't without precedent: Adjacent Raleigh County added a model-year prefix to its school bus fleet numbers in 2010, and some West Virginia counties such as Boone made use of year-based numbering as early as the 1960s.

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#596, a 2011 Blue Bird All American. With this batch of buses, Mercer County slipped into a pattern of purchasing a single new Type D alongside their stead of conventionals each year. [Photo by Adam, 2020]

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#597, a 77-passenger 2011 conventional. On both this year's lot of Visions and the last, fleet numbers appeared on the buses six times over: Front, rear, left side, right side, and on the corners of the body below the windshield. [Photo by the author, 2013]

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#598 and #599 are two identical buses. The rear view shows the smooth bumper that all Blue Bird Visions have, topped by a rub rail on all but the earliest models. [Photos by Adam, 2020]

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Mercer County fleet numbers hit the magic "600" mark in the 2011 model year. #601 is yet another archetypal 77-passenger specimen. [Photo by the author, 2013]

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#602 is a 59-passenger model, bearing the undersized wheels and tires characteristic of Blue Bird wheelchair-accessible lift buses. [Photo by Adam, 2020]

Bus
Year
Body
Chassis
Cap.
Notes
596 2011 Blue Bird (Type D) 89 1BABNCPA5BF277991.
597 2011 Blue Bird (Vision) 77 1BAKGCPA9BF277986.
598 2011 Blue Bird (Vision) 77 1BAKGCPA0BF277987.
599 2011 Blue Bird (Vision) 77 1BAKGCPA2BF277988.
600 2011 Blue Bird? (Vision?)
601 2011 Blue Bird (Vision) 77 1BAKGCPA0BF277990.
602 2011 Blue Bird (Vision) 59 1BAKCCPAXBF277992.

2011-12

Mercer County's third year with the Blue Bird Vision saw the school district be the recipient of new innovations in lighting technology. Light-emitting diode (LED) brakelights, taillights, turn signals, backup lights, clearance lights, and warning flashers all appeared on 2012's additions to the fleet, endowing the buses with higher visibility to motorists at night and also ameliorating the annoyance of bulb replacements. Blue Bird buses also sported redesigned mirrors in rectangular fairings, with the driver's side mirror being top-mounted to eliminate post obstructions from the driver's field of vision. Crossover mirrors took on a new flat-topped design.

Model years in the school bus industry since the 2000s have been inflated beyond the point of reason, and as such many of these buses delivered in 2011 with 2012 VINs were actually built in late 2010. This year also saw the local introduction of the "next generation of Blue Bird:" The redesigned "TX3" All American.

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Blue Bird's new LED lighting technology was most apparent on the rear end of a bus...as on #603, seen here. This bus also bears an older "County" license plate transferred from a 1995 AmTran, judging by the sequencing. [Photo by Adam, 2020]

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#604 and #606 are identical 77-passenger buses from Blue Bird's 2012 model year. As with other Blue Bird 77-passenger buses owned by the county, their body structure includes three "stretched" windows covering four rows of seats. [Photos by Adam, 2020]

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#607 and #608 are slightly shorter versions of the same thing. Visible in the latter photo is the "Safety View" transparent panel next to the door, which ostensibly improves visibility for the driver during student egress. Also note the presence of a puddle light on the lower sail panel. [Photos by Adam, 2020]

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#609, Princeton, West Virginia. This is a rare example of the "TX3" generation of Blue Bird's All American transit-style bus, distinguished by a unique rear panel with flush glass and a squared-off Wayne-style roof. It is the only TX3 in Mercer County's fleet. [Photo by the author, 2013]

Bus
Year
Body
Chassis
Cap.
Notes
603 2012 Blue Bird (Vision) 77
604 2012 Blue Bird (Vision) 77
605 2012 Blue Bird
606 2012 Blue Bird (Vision) 77
607 2012 Blue Bird (Vision) 59
608 2012 Blue Bird (Vision) 59
609 2012 Blue Bird (Type D) 89

2012-13

Blue Bird has long been notorious for making running detail changes to its buses, keeping spotters and transportation enthusiasts on their toes. Likewise, Mercer County's 2013 Visions differed visibly from the previous year's in having their fuse panels be secured by one latch instead of two. The doorside nameplate changed. And, the black "streamer" above the window line disappeared from the livery entirely, giving the roofs a naked appearance. In a way, this represented a throwback to the Blue Bird roof graphics of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Though the Blue Bird name had traditionally been associated with quality, the district's 2012 and 2013 Visions proved to have dubious mechanical durability. Three buses required outright engine replacement in 2019.

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A 2013 Blue Bird Vision, flanked by older Blue Bird/International buses in Princeton. [Photo by the author, 2013]

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#611-614 are identical full-size buses in Blue Bird's maximum (for conventionals) 77-passenger capacity. Note the transparent "Safety View" panel on #613, a feature which would appear this year for the final time. [Photos by Adam, 2020]

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Surprisingly after tasting the future with Blue Bird's advanced "TX3" Type D design in 2012, Mercer County reverted the next year to the older "TC3000" All American model which remained in concurrent production. The specification of this bus was different from past TC3000s, however, with curved windshield glass and high headroom. It also lacked the redesigned mirrors and LED lighting that had debuted on the previous year's Vision conventionals. [Photo by Adam, 2020]

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59-passenger variations of the 2013 Vision, without and with wheelchair lifts. [Photos by Adam, 2020]

Bus
Year
Body
Chassis
Cap.
Notes
610 2013 Blue Bird (Vision) 77
611 2013 Blue Bird (Vision) 77
612 2013 Blue Bird (Vision) 77
613 2013 Blue Bird (Vision) 77
614 2013 Blue Bird (Vision) 77
615 2013 Blue Bird (Type D) 89
616 2013 Blue Bird? (Vision?)
617 2013 Blue Bird (Vision) 59
618 2013 Blue Bird (Vision) 59 Rear wheelchair lift.

2013-14

Although 2014's Blue Bird buses didn't look vastly different, the Cerberus "private equity" firm was in control and they were running the company into the ground for a quick buckout to cut costs. Evidence? The much-touted "Safety View" panel was deleted from the Vision as though it never was. Blue Bird also eliminated the rear side window "kink" on standard-headroom models that had been a feature of its body design since 1979.

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As usual, 2014's allotment of buses included one equipped with a wheelchair lift. [Photo by Adam, 2020]

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If this picture of #620 (a 2014 59-passenger non-lift Vision) is any indication, Blue Bird's hood paint quality leaves something to be desired. Doubtless Cerberus was behind cost-cutting here, too! [Photo by Adam, 2020]

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#621, Princeton, West Virginia. As in 2013, Mercer County signaled the new model year with the acquisition of a Blue Bird All American with curved windshield glass and high headroom. This bus was brand new at the time of photography, and had just entered service. The revised mirrors of the 2012 Vision had finally migrated to the transit line by this point of production, although marker lights remained incandescent. [Photo by the author, 2013]

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#622 through #626 are 77-passenger buses used on typical daily routes. #624 has been retrofitted with updated headlight assemblies from a 2015 Vision. Bad hood paint is also in evidence here, if #626 is any indication! [Photos by Adam, 2020]

Bus
Year
Body
Chassis
Cap.
Notes
619 2014 Blue Bird (Vision) 59 Rear wheelchair lift.
620 2014 Blue Bird (Vision) 59
621 2014 Blue Bird (Type D) 89
622 2014 Blue Bird (Vision) 77
623 2014 Blue Bird (Vision) 77
624 2014 Blue Bird (Vision) 77
625 2014 Blue Bird? (Vision?)
626 2014 Blue Bird (Vision) 77

Continued...






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