Thousands of families are waiting to hear if their children will be given a seat on a school bus this year following a massive surge in demand for places after the Government announced it was waiving school transport fees for a year.
Politicians say they have been inundated with pleas for help from worried parents, with some claiming they were told that their children had missed out under a lottery scheme despite having paid for the service for years.
Bus Éireann, which operates the school transport scheme for the Government, said it was working through applications but could only issue tickets when “extra buses and drivers are sourced”. It attributed delays to an “unprecedented” surge in applications after the Coalition announced in July that parents would not have to pay for the service for the upcoming school year to help amid the cost of living crisis.
The company said it received a record 130,000 applications for school bus tickets by the July 29th deadline, with some 44,300 of these from first time applicants.
Fianna Fáil Senator Fiona O’Loughlin said the temporary waiver was “a good move” but had created a need for extra buses and drivers.
“I have been inundated with pleas from stressed and worried parents whose children have had concessionary tickets for a number of years but can no longer be facilitated due to the increased demand,” she said.
Concessionary tickets were traditionally given to pupils who did not necessarily meet the criteria for the scheme – for example, those not attending the nearest school – where there was capacity on a bus route.
“I completely accept that priority must be given to those who meet the criteria, but I have spoken to parents who have had two or three kids availing of concessionary tickets for five or even six years that have suddenly been told that they have no seat come September,” Ms O’Loughlin said.
The Co Kildare based Senator said parents have contacted her saying that they are considering giving up their jobs or buying a second car in order to get their children to school. “If there is no public transport what do you do? These are generally people in rural hinterlands.”
Independent TD Verona Murphy said there had been outcry among some parents in her constituency over the “chaos” arising due to the measure. She accused the Government of “poor planning” and estimated that “hundreds” of pupils in Co Wexford were being “denied a place on their local school bus this year”.
John Halpenny, chairman of the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland, said Bus Éireann told him it has been “overwhelmed” by the number of applications for the scheme. Around 96 per cent of school bus services are operated by private companies, sub-contracted by Bus Éireann, he said.
“The problem is there aren’t enough coaches out there and it is only a week before schools reopen,” he said, adding that a mandatory retirement age of 70 for bus drivers was exacerbating the issue by taking buses off the road.
“It is great to give people free transport, but it should have been planned and announced earlier. We should have all sat around the table and figured out what was available. Trying to get everything organised within a week is impossible.”
While more than 100,000 tickets have been issued, Bus Éireann said it was still processing applications and would “issue tickets as soon as extra buses and drivers are sourced and become available to provide transport for the higher numbers qualifying for the service”.
“However, regrettably the unprecedented numbers of new applications for the upcoming school year has led to some delays in issuing tickets,” a spokesman said.
For those who normally get concessionary tickets, Bus Éireann said availability of seats varies from year to year “and cannot be guaranteed for the duration of a child’s school education cycle”.
The State bus company declined to confirm claims by parents that they were told seats were allocated through a lottery system. It said it would not have a figure for how many pupils were not offered a seat until it finishes processing all the applications received.
Case study: ‘I’ll literally be driving behind the bus’
“It was a good idea, but it just wasn’t thought through,” said Emma O’Regan, a Co Kildare mother of five, of the Government’s decision to waive school transport fees for the coming year.
Two of the pharmacy assistant’s three teenage children, Kate (16) and Daniel (14), have been taking the bus to school in Newbridge from outside their home in Pluckerstown since they started at second level. Matthew (13) is going into secondary this year and all three have been turned down for a seat on the bus.
“We had to apply for concessionary tickets because the closest school to us is mixed, and we wanted to send them to schools a kilometre further away,” she said. “We applied as normal in April, then paid in July, and they should have arrived by this week. But I got an email from Bus Éireann which basically says there aren’t any places for my children.”
The emailed letter stated: “The number of applications received exceeded the number of seats available. This vehicle is now operating at capacity, and I confirm there is no room available to accommodate your child(ren).”
It added that Bus Éireann decides “the allocation of the tickets by random selection”.
“I phoned them up and they said they were inundated with applications and those who applied for concessionary tickets were put into a lotto,” Ms O’Regan said. “If it was a fair lotto, then that is what happened, but my concerns is that some of these people don’t actually need the bus. I need the bus. Otherwise I will have to drive 48km every day – 12km in and out twice. Then if they are doing choir or football after school it will back into Newbridge and out again.”
Ms O’Regan, who works in Tallaght, also has to drop her younger children – aged 10 and eight – to primary school. There is no other public transport near her home which goes to Newbridge before 11am.
“With price of fuel going up, the costs are going to be massive, not to mention the wear and tear on the car. This will cost me a fortune. I’ll literally be driving behind the bus,” she says. “The boys are talking about riding their bikes, but there is the traffic on the Hill of Allen and I don’t want them going by the canal in the dark, wet winter mornings. I’d be worried sick.”