Bus Éireann says it is working “intensively” to secure more school transport capacity and issue tickets to all eligible students who have paid on time.
The company, which operates the scheme on behalf of the Department of Education, said it would issue 96,000 bus tickets by Monday for the new school year. Of these, more than 70,000 will go to students who meet distance criteria that makes them eligible for a place.
Free school transport is available for primary school children travelling to their nearest or second-nearest school which is more than 3.2km away and for secondary school pupils living more than 4.8km away from their school.
Concessionary – or paid – tickets are allocated to those who do not meet this criteria if seats are available. Availability fluctuates on routes every year.
A number of parents have reported receiving rejection emails days before their child was due to return to school, despite having initially applied for seats last month.
Last year, according to the Department of Education, 114,100 children, including 14,700 with special educational needs, were transported at a cost of more than €224.7 million.
School transport services, which resumed on Thursday, were continuing to operate at 50 per cent capacity, which was proving a “challenge” in some areas where there was limited driver or vehicle availability, a Bus Éireann spokeswoman said.
“The Bus Éireann school transport team is continuing to work intensively across 11 offices on securing transport and issuing tickets to all eligible pupils who paid on time,” she said. “Places are also being allocated to concessionary pupils who applied within the application process timelines and where capacity exists.”
She said the company was always clear that concessionary seats were “not guaranteed from one year to the next”.
Roscommon-Galway TD Michael Fitzmaurice said he had been "inundated" with calls from parents who have been "left in the lurch with time running out to find alternative arrangements".
Many had paid for tickets before the deadline, but were now being offered refunds, he said.
Sinn Féin’s transport spokesman, Darren O’Rourke, called on the Minister for Education to add capacity to the system. “Every year demand outstrips supply… by tens of thousands,” he said.“The situation is worse than any other year.”
While Bus Éireann operates the system, 86 per cent of staff and buses are subcontracted locally. The service requires more than 6,800 vehicles to serve its 9,000 dedicated routes.
Over the summer, Bus Éireann issued €4.7 million in refunds to 40,000 families to compensate them for school closures earlier this year.