Contract clash sparks anger

NSW school bus operators forced to back-pay the state are considering dropping emergency replacement services

Contract clash sparks anger
Contract clash sparks anger

By Sean Muir | March 6, 2012

Regional and rural NSW children might need to invest in some good walking shoes if a contract conflict between bus operators and transport for NSW is not resolved.

The dispute surrounds a government contract condition requiring school bus operators to use buses less than 25 years old.

Operators who have been caught using buses more than 25 years old have faced ‘funding adjustments’, which for some has meant back-paying the state thousands of dollars.

But many operators argue older buses should be allowed to replace newer contracted buses in emergencies such as breakdowns, and some operators are even opting to drop services in such situations rather than face monetary drawbacks.

Taree’s Fisher Bus operator, Brian Fisher, says operators across the state are unhappy with the government’s heavy-handed standing on the use of older, emergency replacement buses.

"Any time we’ve used an older model we have had to back-pay them money," he says.

"What’s happening is instead of putting an older bus on the service if we’ve got a bus off the road, we put the service down and the kids have got to find their own way to school - which is stupid."

Fisher had until recently been using an older model five-star luxury coach, pictured, with air conditioning, airbags, and seatbelts, as a replacement bus.

He says the luxury coach is just as safe as his contracted bus.

"The bus goes through all the same inspections," Fisher says.

"The stupid part about it is I can use it on a school charter to carry kids. The very same kids that I take on the school bus to school, I can take them on an excursion somewhere on a charter and it is fine."

Orange’s Apple City Tours operator, John Woodhouse, who has also been caught using an older emergency replacement bus, says he was required to pay back close to $7000.

"I think the whole thing is wrong myself," he says.

"That bus, that we’ve owned since new and still has its two inspections a year, and is a very good bus, is not allowed to fill in an emergency.

"But that’s the rules and that’s what we have to play by. You’re not going to beat the system, you can bet your money on that."

Grenfell’s Loader’s Coaches operator, Richard Loader, says the problem with the system is it makes it difficult for operators to get funding for new replacement buses before contracted buses have reached the 25-year limit.

He says this leaves the average operator without a spare bus less than 25 years old to use in emergencies.

"My argument was, if I run a vehicle for 25 years, I was hoping that I could use it as a spare, but I can’t use it at all," he says.

"So they are making me go to 25 years, but I can’t use it anyway. I’ve got to go to 25 years before I get to replace it."

Industry Representative, BusNSW Executive Director Darryl Mellish says the government needs to be more flexible in emergencies.

"The industry’s position is that we accept what the contract says, however, we believe that the operator should be able to put a case forward if the circumstances justify it," he says.

But Mellish says it’s difficult for the government to know whether a situation is a legitimate emergency or not, which is why it is hesitant to put anything in writing exempting drivers from the rule in emergencies.

"All they are prepared to put in writing is that the bus needs to comply with the contract," he says.

"I would support that if there are circumstances where it was either an older bus or no service I would like to think the government would support the providing the service."

"But the question you have then is how do you know if it’s bona fide?"

Mellish says he recognizes the practicality of the contract condition.

"It was a bit difficult for them (operators) to accept, because the 25 year old bus is roadworthy and meets its inspections, and is probably a very suitable bus," he says.

"But the argument from the government is that bus age is a general proxy for reliability and safety. You couldn’t have 1800 rules so they set the rule that 25 was the threshold. They had to draw a line somewhere."

Mellish says operators are funded to provide spare buses in their funding model and there is an allowance in their payments that assumes a bus is off the road a certain number of days a year.

He says some operators may not realise this replacement funding is already a part of their payments.

"It’s partly a communication breakdown, and that’s why we have put information alerts out about trying to make sure people are educated," Mellish says.

A Transport for NSW spokeswoman says in most emergencies operators can borrow spare buses from neighbouring operators.

"Rural and regional bus operators need to ensure they have made adequate arrangements so age compliant spare buses are available for use in emergency situations from other neighbouring bus operators," she says.

The spokeswoman says in extreme cases bus operators should contact their regional office for advice.

The spokeswoman also confirms operators failing to comply with contract terms and conditions could receive penalty notices and have their funding adjusted.

"Transport for NSW has adjusted funding depending on the age of the bus operated to perform contracted services," she says.

"School bus contracts clearly state the maximum bus age cannot exceed 25 years."

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