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HomeNewsCan't catch a break: school trips appear forgotten in local bus privatisation...

Can’t catch a break: school trips appear forgotten in local bus privatisation deal

The quasi-privatisation of bus services on the Northern Beaches has caused headaches for local schools once reliant on State Transit buses for excursions and sports matches, with concerns no provision was made to protect the service availability or rising fees.

With the transfer of services from government to a ‘franchise’ model with Keolis Downer (see our previous coverage here), issues have included cancellation of transportation for primary school children to inter-school sports matches; a large increase in costs of hiring private bus services; and the levying of fines when bus services are cancelled, including agreement on who is liable to pay them.

For the students and parent representatives at Manly West Public School, action is needed for a reassessment of the agreement with Keolis Downer by transport authorities to avoid incurring rising costs.

Keolis Downer has said its priority rests with keeping the general bus services running, so with bus driver shortages private bus hire falls short.  With La Niña causing countless sports day cancellations, the school has also been left with cancellation fees ($100 from Keolis Downer but $1,000 from other private companies), which they were not previously liable for, which is “financially crippling” the school, according to Marina Daillecourt, Vice President of Manly West Primary School Parents and Citizens Association.

The issues in detail

Sports attendance now a challenge

The regular weekly sports matches and occasional sports carnivals between state-run primary schools, known as the NSW Primary Schools Sporting Association (PSSA) and organised into zones, used to rely on State Transit government-run buses to transport kids to matches. But on 1 November 2021, State Transit Authority services covering Region 8 (Northern Beaches and Lower North Shore) were taken over by Keolis Downer, Australia’s largest provider of multi-modal public transport – including buses, trains, trams and light rail.

Keolis Downer were immediately responsible for delivering an estimated 24,000 services across Region 8, including the yellow double-decker B-Line buses commuting between Wynyard and Mona Vale, in an eight-year contract estimated at $900 million.

However, because of the NSW Government’s privatisation of state-run bus services across Sydney, transport of primary school children to excursions such as these PSSA school sports matches are no longer automatically catered for by the new contractors and have required a new agreement.

Manly West Public School in Griffiths Street, Balgowlah is one of the schools faced with higher costs associated with hiring the new privately-run buses.

Marina Daillecourt, Vice President of Manly West Primary School Parents and Citizens Association, explained the issue to Manly Observer.

“This problem has been going on for a little while, and it stems from difficulties with the buses since Keolis Downer replaced the State Transit…

“Keolis Downer buses will not cater to PSSA sport. So, an assumption on my part is that when the NSW Government put the tender process out, they didn’t make any allowances for public school requirements for the PSSA transport when giving out the tender.

Manly Observer asked this question directly of Keolis Down and Transport for NSW but did not receive a response to that particular question. 

“The school has had to engage in a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with different bus companies since the beginning of the term…

“What complicates it further is that with not having State Transit, the price that the school is incurring for PSSA transport is nearly double.”

“What complicates it further is that with not having State Transit, the price that the school is incurring for PSSA transport is nearly double, if not more than what they were previously paying through State Transit. And what complicates it even further than that is with it being a private company, they have different cancellation policies and so forth.”

Marina Daillecourt, Vice President of Manly West Primary School Parents and Citizens Association. Photo: Alec Smart

Keolis Downer Northern Beaches (KDNB) were contacted by Manly Observer for clarification and a spokesperson replied, “KDNB provides private charter services to public schools for the Primary School Sporting Association (PSSA) and excursions as well as other community groups and events where specific transport options are required.

“The schools call and book the required charter service according to the times they stipulate to pick-up, drop-off and vice versa. There is some flexibility to wait for games to finish, dependent on whether the driver or the bus is scheduled to undertake a serviced route following the charter.”

This confirmed KDNB hire out buses for PSSA matches, but, unlike their predecessors, State Transit, don’t automatically provide those buses at government expense.

When KDNB were asked if:

(a) they were originally obliged to take on the PSSA transportation when they won the Region 8 tender, but opted out, or

(b) the NSW Government didn’t stipulate in their contract that KDNB should continue providing the PSSA services after they took over Region 8 services from State Transit, KDNB didn’t clarify.

However, the KDNB spokesperson added, “Currently, due to driver shortages, we are limited to service charter operations so as not to adversely affect the ability to provide public transport bus services to the general public.”

Keolis Downer bus depot at 630 Pittwater Rd Brookvale. Photo: Alec Smart

Bus cancellation fines punish schools

With the new requirement by state primary schools to hire private bus contractors to take children to sporting tournaments came the risk of paying fines if those buses were subsequently cancelled.

Over the 2021-2022 academic terms, outdoor sports run by the PSSA, such as Australian Rules football, rugby, softball, cricket and soccer, were negatively impacted by the La Niña weather system. The severe storms – bringing torrential rains, high winds and flooding – often forced cancellations of games, mainly due to waterlogged sports fields.

Unfortunately, when sports fields are waterlogged and Council inspectors prohibit their use, for both user safety and the fields’ protection, the matches are cancelled and buses are no longer needed.

This has led to cancellation fees – effectively fines – imposed by private bus operators, if buses and drivers are stood down when they could be serving the community.

While the fees are reasonable, it was not previously an issue when State Transit operated school sports buses.

Now that La Niña extreme weather events are predicted to continue well into 2023, bus cancellations will become a regular occurrence again as Council rules sports fields are unusable.

But who should pay the cancellation fines?

Ms Daillecourt said the issue is financially crippling to Manly West Primary and causing schools across the Northern Beaches to consider withdrawing entirely from PSSA inter-school sports matches.

“They [KDNB] require over a week’s notice for a cancellation, but cancellation of PSSA sport generally happens because it’s weather-dependent. And most decisions are made by the Council pretty much on the day of the activities.

“So, if the cancellation of the buses goes ahead, the school is hit with very hefty cancellation policy payments that need to be made.

“It’s the school that pays the cancellation fees. And with a school the size of Manly West – although we are not the only ones that are having this difficulty, from my understanding – it is significant money that we’re talking about every week. Should the sport be cancelled it’s completely out of our hands…”

Schools have to pay fines to bus companies when Council close sports pitches if they are waterlogged. Photo: Alec Smart

A KDNB spokesperson confirmed to Manly Observer that fines were issued for cancellations. “KDNB has introduced a cancellation fee of $100 per bus or full rate in the instance customers are a ‘no-show’. This is to cover costs of not being able to reschedule dedicated drivers and vehicles at short notice resulting in unnecessary expenditure.”

The spokesperson added, “KDNB has engaged with local Councils to address field closures, which impacts PSSA in inclement weather, to ensure as much notice is given when announcing field closures to give schools enough time to cancel their booked charter services and avoid the cancellation fee.”

Ms Daillecourt revealed that Manly West use other bus companies to transport their students to PSSA sports matches, which charge significantly more for cancellation than Keolis Downer’s stated $100 per bus.

“The school have had to employ private bus companies for the PSSA transportation and they require cancellations 7 days in advance – if not a charge of $1000 per bus cancelled. We need four buses, so if Northern Beaches Council close the sporting fields as a result of the weather it will cost the school $4000!

“The school have had to employ private bus companies for the PSSA transportation and they require cancellations 7 days in advance – if not a charge of $1000 per bus cancelled. We need four buses, so if Northern Beaches Council close the sporting fields as a result of the weather it will cost the school $4000!

“Previously with state transit there was no cost involved for cancellations at all. This isn’t sustainable for the school.”

The fees charged to Manly West School parents for their children to attend PSSA sports has also increased significantly, to allow for additional overheads – primarily the substantial rise in bus hire. It is now $100 per term.

Buying buses not an option as PSSA could be cancelled

Unlike private schools, which often own several buses to transport pupils for sports and extra-curricular excursions, buying and maintaining a bus is beyond the budget of Manly West Primary and other Northern Beaches schools under the remit of the NSW Department of Education.

Besides, Ms Daillecourt revealed, Manly West routinely uses four buses each sports day (Fridays) to carry students to other schools around the Northern Beaches region.

“From my perspective, as a parent… the state government, in their wisdom of not having the Northern Beaches utilising State Transit for its public transport and giving that tender out to a private bus company, have created a problem that they didn’t foresee…

“From my perspective, as a parent… the state government, in their wisdom of not having the Northern Beaches utilising State Transit for its public transport and giving that tender out to a private bus company, have created a problem that they didn’t foresee…

“It appears to me that the state government never made any allowances or made any provision in that tender process that certain things need to be catered for when providing that service to an area…

“The [bus rental and cancellation fines] prices are becoming prohibitive, to the point that it looks like PSSA could be a thing of the past on the Northern Beaches, which to me is just nonsensical.

“State government is spending huge sums of money every year with Healthy Harold [a giraffe that promotes child welfare programs] and trying to get children to eat healthily. And now, one of their avenues to do so, is cut off…

“The PSSA games are a very important factor for the well-being and the balance of any child’s wellbeing whilst in a state school.”

Manly West Primary is calling on the NSW Government to work towards a solution.

Manly Observer contacted NSW Member for Manly James Griffin and Transport for NSW about the issues outlined above but the latter did not respond.

Minister Griffin’s office sent the following statement:

“I understand there is a driver shortage, and of course the weather has been terrible so there are plenty of sports cancellations. However, I won’t accept my local schools being out of pocket when it comes to bus hire. If there were no costs for cancellations before, I’ll make sure that is the case today.

“This issue has not been raised directly with me by the P&C but I am going to ask the Minister for Transport to ensure that schools are not paying any more than they have in years gone by. There should be no change experienced by schools. Kids need to get to sport, it’s as simple as that.”

Schools pay significantly more to transport kids to sports events since bus privatisation. Photo: Alec Smart

NSW bus privatisation criticised in damning Legislative Council report

In September 2022 the NSW Legislative Council severely criticised the NSW Government’s decision to privatise the state-run bus services, calling the takeover of regional service by private operators a “disaster.”

The Privatisation of Bus Services Report concluded: “The community anger and frustration at the degradation of services is palpable. It is clear to us that the NSW Government’s decision to privatise these bus services has been nothing short of a disaster…

“Of course, the government would have us believe that there has been no privatisation, and that the approach to contracting out to private operators is a franchising model distinct from privatisation. The committee, and the public, disagreed.”

The sentiment was echoed by Northern Beaches Greens’ councillors Kristyn Glanville and Miranda Korzy, who called for the privatisation of bus services across Sydney to be reversed.

The report continued: “The realisation of the NSW Government’s objective to cut operational costs, and the private operators’ objective to make a profit, has come at the expense of effective and reliable bus services for the public, and fair and equitable working conditions for bus drivers.

“These impacts have been acutely felt in areas that in recent years have transitioned from public to private hands: Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, North Shore, Northwest, Northern Beaches and Inner West, and in Newcastle.”

Whilst strongly criticising what it called a “two-tiered workforce by paying some of their drivers less to do the same work,” (former State Transit drivers were re-employed by the new regional operators) and the “reduced, and sometimes unsafe, working conditions,” the report recommended: “several significant changes should be made to Transport for NSW’s bus privatisation model. These include introducing contractual safeguards to protect and maintain local and less patronised bus routes..”

The report found “The privatisation of bus services in New South Wales has created an incentive for private companies to sacrifice the needs of more vulnerable people in order to cut costs while still appealing to a wide enough user base to meet their contractual obligations.”

NSW Transport Minister David Elliott, whilst committing the NSW Government to respond to the Legislative Council’s recommendations and findings within three months, retaliated and described the report as ‘partisan’.

“The Greens-led committee was nothing but a partisan attack on the private sector’s involvement in public transport, 100 years after it first started,” he declared.

Although the report was Chaired by Abigail Boyd of the Greens, the Legislative Council Committee that oversaw the investigations also included Shayne Mallard and Chris Rath of the Liberal Party; Mark Buttigieg and Daniel Mookhey of the Australian Labor Party; Mark Banasiak of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party; and Wes Fang of The Nationals.

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Manly Observer is an experiment in providing non-sensationalist hyperlocal news on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. We cover the big news across the LGA, but with a hyper focus on the Manly electorate encompassing Balgowlah, Seaforth, Freshwater, Brookvale and Curl Curl up to Dee Why. It is run by those living in the community for the benefit of an informed community. We care about an informed and connected community. That’s it. Simple. Thank you for your support in keeping quality local news alive!

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