‘Damning’ report finds 50,000 spare seats on State-funded bus services

School transport scheme costs more than €1 million a day

A total of 117,000 children are being transported to school daily  but an estimated 35 per cent of seats on school buses are empty, the Public Accounts Committee heard.

A total of 117,000 children are being transported to school daily but an estimated 35 per cent of seats on school buses are empty, the Public Accounts Committee heard.

 

A “damning” investigation of the €190 million publicly-funded school transport scheme has found there are about 50,000 spare seats on buses that are not being used on a daily basis.

The Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee on Thursday heard that a total of 117,000 children are being transported to school daily at a cost of more than €1 million every school day.

However, an estimated 35 per cent of seats are empty and many ticket holders are not using the service every day, according to audits by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

It noted that that while the total number of passengers had fallen over the past decade or so, costs were rising and spare capacity had increased by about 10 per cent over this period.

In addition, the comptroller found that between 35 and 40 per cent of ticket holders were not present on individual bus journeys, based on a sample survey.

The report concluded that some of the decrease in use may be linked to changes such as limiting of eligibility to those travelling to the nearest suitable school and increased charges applied from 2011.

Oversight

It recommended greater oversight by the Department of Education – which funds the scheme – including more detailed service-level agreements and tougher reporting requirements.

It noted that progress had been made on implementing the recommendations in the interim.

Independent TD Catherine Connolly said the report was “quite damning” and had highlighted “serious flaws” with the department’s level of oversight.

The department’s secretary general Seán Ó Foghlú said it was making progress in implementing the comptroller’s recommendations.

He said processes were being strengthened to ensure value for money while also ensuring all eligible children are accommodated with school transport services.

Mr Ó Foghlú said service-level agreements were now in place and his department was undertaking a route audit with independent professional advice to ensure the service is being run as efficiently as possible.

He also noted that costs were rising due in particular to an increase in eligible children with special needs who often require specialised transport.

The number of children with special needs requiring transport has risen from by 3,500 to more than 12,700 over the past four years, with costs rising from €64 million to €92 million.

While special needs children account for 10 per cent of children using school transport, they account for about 50 per cent of the cost.

This is due to the use of smaller vehicles and taxis along with escorts and other special measures.

Stephen Kent, chief executive of Bus Éireann – which operates the scheme on behalf of the department – said spare capacity was unavoidable in many cases and was sometimes a consequence of using more cost-efficient options.

He gave the example of using a 50-seater bus on a “double run” to transport children to primary school and secondary school in separate journeys.

While it gave rise to spare capacity, it was more cost-efficient to use the same bus twice rather than contracting two separate buses which may have fewer spare seats.


* This article has been amended to correct a factual error