NSW BUS FIRES: A major catastrophe inevitable

In light of the major bus fire that occurred on the M4 in the early hours of Sunday 2 June, a disaster – possibly to involve fatalities or serious injuries – is simply a matter of time, according to a leading hydraulics expert.

The lives of passengers and drivers of buses in New South Wales is at risk should rubber hoses in engine bays not be replaced with new fire-proof, ‘intrinsically-safe’ steel-based technology, hydraulics engineer Norm Mathers contends.

The recent bus fire on Sydney’s M4 motorway, where 16 passengers were evacuated from the bus, is just one of a spate of recent incidents – the previous being in November last year where a private charter bus caught fire on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, where again the bus was destroyed.


In 2018, the Office of Transport Safety Investigations (OTSI) reported there were 101 reported incidents including 14 fire incidents and 87 thermal incidents – an increase in total incidents of 12% from 2017. Six percent of those incidents resulted in the bus being completely destroyed. (Source: Bus Safety Report: Bus Fires in New South Wales in 2018).

In 74% of these, bus drivers were the first to either see or smell smoke or see flames. In 12% however, the driver was not aware that there was a fire or incident on the bus and was alerted by another driver or external source.

In 2017, there were 90 reported bus fire incidences including 21 fire incidents and 69 thermal incidents. Five of these incidents resulted in the bus being destroyed and a total of 87 buses were damaged to some degree. (Source: Bus Safety Report: Bus Fires in New South Wales in 2017).

Managing Director of Steel Safe Fluid Power, Norm Mathers said it is terrifying that in every one of these incidents, where flames have been exacerbated by the fuel accelerants, a major catastrophe could have occurred where any number of passengers could have been killed.

“These passengers don’t realise how close they’ve come to escaping a fatality or significant injury,” he said.

“It is only a matter of time until there is a major catastrophe on NSW’s buses, while rubber hose systems remain in engine bays.”

An intrinsically-safe solution to prevent bus fires: steel-based technology

Mr Mathers’ hydraulics company, Steel Safe Fluid Power has invented a flexing steel piping technology which replaces rubber hoses, eliminating the potential for these hoses to perish in the event of a fire and add a combustible accelerant.

“The existing Engine Bay Fire Suppression Systems (EBFS) are inadequate as they can only suppress a small fire, not prevent a fire from occurring in the first place or exacerbating to the point where the fire can’t be extinguished without emergency services,” Mr Mathers said.

In 2018, the OTSI found that the majority of fire and thermal incidents originated in the wheel well (56%). The engine bay had 33% and the body 11%. The cause of the engine bay incidents in 2018 was mechanical malfunction (46%), fluid leakage (33%), and electrical malfunction (21%).

“The time saving element is one of the most important features of the Steel Safe model, alerting drivers that there is a fire on board while automatically alerting emergency services. This provides precious time in evacuating passengers – plus keeping in mind passengers with varying degrees of mobility plus prams, small children etc,” Mr Mathers said.

“Importantly, it features fail safe electronic monitoring and a thermal lock-off seal which fully quarantines flammable accelerants.

“The existing suppression systems which were installed on the state’s fleet of 2200 buses in 2017 (but not on all private buses/coaches) do not have this capability and are therefore vastly inadequate to ensure the public’s safety.”

“In my view, Minister Andrew Constance should be looking at fire prevention rather than fire suppression – a band-aid solution which has proven to be inadequate.”

How effective are Engine Bay Fire Suppression Systems (EBFS)?

All State Transit Authority buses are now fitted with engine bay fire suppression systems. In 2018, the EBFS system was activated for seven incidents out of 92 buses which were fitted with the system. Significantly, of three buses destroyed last year, one of the buses was fitted with EBFS – “proving this system is inadequate”, says Mr Mathers.

According to OTSI’s incident report: “fuel leaking from the primary fuel filter ignited and burnt. The fire spread throughout the engine bay and into the passenger saloon area. The EBFS activated but the fire was not extinguished and the asset was lost.”

Mr Mathers added for safety, it must be an intrinsically-safe system.

“While the rubber hose systems exist, a critical safety risk exists to all passengers and drivers. By not replacing the existing rubber hoses with a steel system, Transport for NSW is placing lives at risk,” Mr Mathers added.

“In my view, Minister Andrew Constance should be including explosive fire prevention from rubber hose failure in bus engine bay fires wherever their source, versus a stand-alone fire suppression system which has consistently worldwide proven to be inadequate, when people’s lives are at risk.”

The key benefits of the Steel Safe Fluid Power technology:

  • It replaces existing rubber hosing in bus engine bays with flexing steel piping technology;
  • It eliminates major rubber hosing malfunction which causes overheating and fires to occur, sometimes leading to a combustion or explosion;
  • The technology is fireproof – it includes a thermal lock-off seal enabling the full quarantine of flammable accelerants in the event of fire or high temperature events;
  • Immediate driver interface alerts for vehicle evacuation in case of fire;
  • Substantial increase in public safety and asset protection;
  • Removes the extreme risk of flammable accelerants leaking into engine bays during fires and overheating.