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Ministry puts a stop to bus fiasco

GRAPHIC/STOCK.ADOBE.COM

Story by Tom Taylor

The Ministry of Education is stepping in to straighten out Wairarapa’s new school bus provider.

Schools across the region have complained of students arriving late – or not at all – with Australian-owned company Go Bus failing to pick them up or changing schedules without notice.

Many principals said that they had received no communications from Go Bus, and at least one bus driver had quit the company over the debacle.

Last year, Go Bus won the tender for all of Wairarapa’s school bus routes, from Pahiatua in the north to Pirinoa in the south. Previous provider Tranzit, based in Masterton, had serviced the routes for the 73 years.

Go Bus also won contracts in Manawatu and Marlborough.

In a letter to schools on Tuesday, the Ministry of Education [MOE] said that some of Go Bus’s shortcomings were the result of a communications issue.

“I have been in touch with [the] Go Bus North Island manager who has explained they are having issues with communication with Spark, who are working on a fix,” the Ministry’s regional transport adviser said.

“Though this does not excuse not calling back or communicating in the last several weeks, it does explain why some calls are not getting through currently.”

MP for Wairarapa Kieran McAnulty said he was first alerted to the problem by concerned schools and parents on Monday, the first possible start date for Term 1.

“There are instances of children not being picked up, or being dropped off late. It’s just not good enough,” McAnulty said.

“The region was well-served by Tranzit; there was a level of service that we’d come to expect, and Go Bus has not lived up to that.”

McAnulty tried to contact Go Bus but did not receive any reply.

He had since met the office of the Minister of Education in an attempt to get to the bottom of the issue.

“It’s not something that the Minister of Education has direct responsibility for, but if we can’t sort this out locally, then I’ve got no choice as the MP but to get the Minister involved and get the ministry to sort it.”

The Minister’s office had committed to a daily meeting with McAnulty and the Go Bus chief executive until the problem was fixed.

“The most frustrating thing in all of this is it was highly avoidable,” McAnulty said.

“If the assessment of the capability of the provider was available early, then if there were some issues, we could have identified them early, and got them sorted before school started.”

MOE’s contract with Go Bus would last for an initial term of six years with two three-year rights of renewal.

McAnulty said that the tender system for school bus providers was an independent process and was out of his hands.

However, he said that Go Bus had had enough time to get up to speed in its new region.

Tranzit, having lost the Wairarapa bus routes, had gained routes in parts of Hawke’s Bay that were within McAnulty’s electorate.

“I have constituents in the northern part of the electorate that are covered by them [Tranzit], and I’m not hearing the complaints that I’m hearing down here.”

In South Wairarapa, Kuranui College principal Simon Fuller had been fielding calls from concerned parents since the school restarted.

Fuller said that throughout the transition to the new provider, there had been no consultation with Kuranui.

On Wednesday, some students were half an hour late to school. After school, they faced wait times of up to 40 minutes.

“One of the common threads when you talk to students and families is that the times have completely changed,” Fuller said.

“We haven’t been provided with that information to dish out to our community, but they’re changing on a daily basis.”

He said some bus runs had simply not happened. For other runs, bus drivers had contacted the school directly to ask questions about their route.

The school had deployed teachers in Carterton and Featherston to pick up any students that the buses missed.

This year, Kuranui had an influx of 135 extra students on its roll, bringing its number of students to 800. Fuller said this growth was not factored into Go Bus’ considerations.

“Almost all of our buses are at capacity. One bus has got 24 kids standing. It’s ridiculous; it’s a health and safety risk.”

Hinakura resident Pip Wilkinson, who had a son at Kuranui, said that on Wednesday, a full-size bus had shown up in the remote valley.

Wilkinson he said it was far too big for both the road and the number of students needing to be picked up.

“It is having to go right out on the wrong side of the road to get around the corners,” she said.

“It’s so big, and this road is so narrow, that it’s having to go on to the other side of the road to get around corners, getting into the path of logging or stock trucks, or another car. It’s not right.”

Previous bus provider Tranzit had used a small “Coaster” bus to pick up the area’s nine students.

“We had a Coaster bus for a reason, because the bigger bus is unsuitable for this road,” Wilkinson said.

“It’s just a nightmare. No one has driven the road to see what it’s like, and they should.”

The bus driver for Hinakura, who wished to remain anonymous, had since resigned, complaining that the company had not planned appropriately for the conditions of the Wairarapa roads.

On Thursday morning, a replacement driver made it as far as Hinakura Hall, where most parents refused to put their children on the bus due to safety concerns.

In the afternoon, Go Bus provided an eight-seater minivan, which arrived back in Hinakura 20 minutes behind schedule.

“We will take this as a win,” Wilkinson said.

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