Battle lost - war begun

The battle is over but the war is just starting as many South Australian school bus operators found out today they had lost their contracts

Battle lost - war begun
Battle lost – war begun

By David Goeldner | June 27, 2011

South Australia’s school bus sector has been left reeling after several operators found out today they had lost their school bus service contracts.

The decision handed down by the Department of Education and Children’s Services (DECS) means many operators will close their doors, throwing hundreds out of work in regional South Australia.

Bus and Coach Association of South Australia Executive Director Sonia St Alban says school bus operators are ‘devastated’.

"There are some operators that have been in business for over 50 years and this decision has virtually wiped them out," she says.

Victorian-controlled Australian Transit Enterprises, trading in South Australia as Southlink, picked up 20 contracts, just under half of the 45 contracts awarded in the first of four rounds announced today.

Out of the 45 contracts announced by DECS, one operator – Townsend’s Travel – retained its eight contracts providing school bus services in the Riverland district.

However it appears most of the smaller two or three bus operations tendering in the first round were told today their contracts would not be renewed.

Late last week, St Alban predicted there would be ‘winners and losers’ from the first round, and it now appears her prediction has proved correct.

The four rounds are based on ‘Request for Proposals’ from private operators to retain or tender for school bus contracts – affecting about 270 contracts state-wide – and opening the door for larger operators to engage in the DECS tendering process.

Rounds two and three are closed and yet to be determined, with round four closing this week.

"By DECS allocating services to the ATE Group a number of incumbent operators have lost their services," St Alban says.

"There are a lot of devastated people today, and we are just trying to give them space to collect their thoughts," she says.

"I will be speaking with them again in the morning and working out where we go from here."

Having lost his three school bus contracts, Harris Coaches Principal Greg Miller says his 55 year old business looks like closing its doors at the end of the school year, but not without a fight.

"We are dumbfounded at the moment," Miller says.

"We know we can’t mount a battle individually, so we’ve got to have a combined plan of attack through with the Association (BCASA) – there’s going to be a fight."

The Gawler-based operator says several nearby school bus services will also close their doors, affecting operations at Strathalbyn and Evanston.

Miller says operators who have lost their contracts are likely to sign agreements with DECS to carry over school bus services to the end of the year.

While operations will continue under the extended agreements, Miller says it’s likely those affected by DECS’ decision will band together to have their contracts reinstated.

"We are going to be fighting tooth and nail – if we don’t have the contracts we don’t have a business."

South Australia’s Opposition Leader Isobel Redmond has started taking up the cudgel on behalf of operators who lost their contracts.

Redmond says the decision is a ‘slap in the face’ to local operators who have lost their livelihoods.

"Many of these business outlaid substantial funds in order to submit a tender for this contract," Redmond says.

She adds that after five years of uncertainty, operators had now been dealt a ‘cruel blow’ saying they had been overlooked in favour of a large interstate operator.

"The loss of contracts for locals has a flow-on effect with money circulating and benefiting the economy of other states instead of South Australia," Redmond says.

ATE’s Adelaide-based division Southlink, the big winner from round one, and tipped to increase their haul from rounds two and three, declined to make a statement about today’s announcement citing a contractual condition preventing public comment while further deliberations continue.

The BCASA is expected to hold further operator meetings later this week.

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