SCHOOL bus safety versus school bus capacity.
It is a fight that needs to stop and the issues be concurrently examined by the NSW Government and Transport for NSW.
That is the view of Bus NSW Mid North Coast secretary, Brenton Deane.
Mr Deane is at the coalface of the transforming bus sector as the managing director of Wingham Coaches and Forster Coaches. His perspective comes in the wake of the recent NSW Government decision to inject around $208 million in the rollout of seatbelts in dedicated school bus services and school students "standing phased out" over 10 years.
School buses dedicated only to the task of school services in rural and regional areas are the target of the initiative. Buses which run not only school routes, but also regular bus services during the day, will not be included in the program, according to the NSW minister for transport, Gladys Berejiklian. She described it as a "substantial financial commitment to addressing an issue which is so important to communities in regional and rural areas."
And therein lies a developing problem, according to Mr Deane, "Gladys is running around making these announcements but has no idea about the issues relating to implementation and its impact on capacity."
"On one hand you have politicians listening to what the public want, and this has come from the School Bus Safety Advisory Committee report, and then on the other hand you have the department struggling to work out how it can pay for it and manage the capacity issue. They haven't resolved the capacity issues," Mr Deane said.
Capacity is bums on seats and Mr Deane said "the reality is that the department wants bench seats in its buses because you can fit three kids on the seat. You can't do that with seatbelted buses."
Mr Deane welcomes the government decision to seatbelt Contract A buses, a term which means the bus only runs school routes. Contract B buses, those which run school routes and regular bus services, are excluded from the program. The decision to not fund Contract B buses excludes all Eggins Bus Company school routes from the program.
"Again, that reveals a flaw in the program. Eggins has school bus routes, some of which see buses travel at 100kph, but because the buses are also used for other services during the day it is classified as a Contract B and the government will not seatbelt it," he added.
Mr Deane said the program would impact Tinonee Bus Company, which also has one Contract A route.
Seatbelts on school buses is a safety initiative that he has already begun at Wingham Coaches and Forster Coaches, with the costs being absorbed the businesses.
"We're very proactive and we value safety," Mr Deane said.
"As a company we have already seatbelted two Contract A buses of the 13 buses classified as Contract A. They are the Mt George - Rocks Crossing - McQueens bus and the Bulby Close - Firefly bus. The Mt George route has been seatbelted since 2011 and the Bulby Close route since 2005."
Mr Deane said that when you order a new bus and decide to seatbelt it the cost increases by $40,000.
"Even though we are not required to do it, we have also retrofitted one Contract B bus. Fortunately we received a $25,000 federal government grant to do that."
The NSW government has set a 10-year timeframe for the program and according to Mr Deane, some of the seatbelted buses will come as existing buses are scheduled for replacement. As for the rest, "we have not been told and seriously, I don't think the government knows how it will manage the process," Mr Deane said.
Wingham Coaches and Forster Coaches have four buses scheduled for replacement during a period ranging from November 2015 to January 2018. As for the other nine buses, Mr Deane says he will have to wait for news of the process.
"Again, this is where the capacity issue comes into play. It takes more than two weeks to retrofit seatbelts into a bus. It is not a simple process and it depends on the age of the bus as to what is required," he explained.
"We just don't have the capacity to pull buses off routes as there are no buses to replace them."