Wednesday, 8 February 2006
On 23 May 2005, a fatal bus crash occurred at Kentstown, near Navan, in which five school children tragically died when the bus toppled over. There was an understandable public outcry and the Government was obliged to react. In July 2005, €36.5 million was provided, and 130 buses were to be added to the school bus fleet. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, stated at the time that the school system would continue to maintain the highest standards. The bus tragedy in Meath focused attention on the necessity of providing seat belts.
I was recently approached by a parent in the Galbally area, where approximately 30 children attend second level schools in Tipperary town. The school provides transport for approximately 30 pupils to Lisvernane school. The bus providing the service is an old Bus Éireann vehicle, which in recent times has been the subject of breakdowns due to mechanical defects. Following one of these breakdowns, one of the parents had to provide substitute transport at short notice. Regrettably, she was involved in an accident in which her car skidded and considerable damage was done to the vehicle.
The bus being used is not fitted with seat belts and it must travel on winding rural roads which in many parts are not satisfactory. Many of these old Bus Éireann buses are not suitable for the fitting of seat belts. The pupils using the bus are entitled to feel secure when being transported to school. The parents are rightfully concerned about their children and they need positive reassurance that a more modern school bus will be provided equipped with seat belts. I look forward to a positive response indicating that the Minister will ensure suitable and safe transport.
I welcome this opportunity to outline to the Seanad the position regarding school transport services in the areas referred to by Senator Finucane. In general, Bus Éireann, which operates the school transport service on behalf of my Department, plans bus routes in such a way to ensure that, as far as possible, eligible students have a reasonable standard of service. At the same time, every effort is made to ensure that school transport vehicles are fully utilised in an efficient and cost-effective manner.
The company places special emphasis on safety, and to this end has a wide range of checking procedures in place to ensure a safe and reliable service. These procedures are reviewed on an ongoing basis to ensure that standards are maintained and that all relevant regulations, as laid down by the Department of Transport, are complied with.
With regard to the case referred to by Senator Finucane, Bus Éireann has reported to my Department on the school bus that normally operates from the Galbally area to Tipperary town for second level students, and which also provides a service for primary school children attending Lisvernane national school. The bus was temporarily withdrawn from service by Bus Éireann last week to enable it to undergo its scheduled annual roadworthiness test, which it passed. This bus has a satisfactory operating record, and it has not broken down this year.
While undergoing the test, the bus was replaced by a spare school bus which suffered a mechanical failure on two consecutive days. On both occasions a replacement bus was provided, but the timetable was inevitably delayed while the replacement bus made its way to the scene of the breakdown. A small number of children waited for the replacement bus to arrive, while others decided to make alternative arrangements rather than wait.
While any mechanically-operated vehicle may be prone to breaking down for any number of reasons regardless of the standard of maintenance involved, it is more unusual for a bus to break down on consecutive days. Bus Éireann regrets the inconvenience caused to the families on this occasion and reassures them that arrangements are made to provide vehicle cover in the event of a breakdown.
On the issue of safety belts, Bus Éireann has initiated a programme to retrofit its existing school bus fleet with safety belts in accordance with the timetable I announced in July 2005. The acquisition of additional buses to facilitate one-for-one seating arrangements is also in hand and all these buses will be fitted with safety belts. In general, safety belts are to be fitted on all services provided under the school transport scheme by the end of December 2006, and I understand the process is on target for completion within that timeframe.