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Students being forced into taxis due to tickets fiasco

September 12th, 2022 3:00 PM

By Kieran O'Mahony

A school bus dropping a delighted Alie off to her first day at school, with Jack, Kenzie and Tegan O’Sullivan at Cahermore National School in Beara. But many other children around West Cork have had to find alternative ways to school as their bus tickets didn’t arrive on time for last week’s first day – while others are unsure if they will get them at all. (Photo: Anne Marie Cronin)

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Parents across West Cork are desperately juggling school runs after many children were refused bus tickets this year, with others still in limbo waiting to find out if they have a seat or not

THE abolition of school transport fees for this year, coupled with a lack of both drivers and buses, has created a ‘perfect storm’ whereby students who usually have a bus seat, have found themselves literally left at the side of the road.

Many of these were ‘concessionary’ bus ticket holders – that is tickets which are issued to students who wish to go to school outside their catchment area – and they are subject to availability.

However, after school transport was made free for this year, Bus Éireann was inundated with new applications, which created a major delay in the issuing of tickets.

Working parents are now trying to juggle schedules, with some hiring taxis to bring their children home, while it was reported that some students were kicked off buses in West Cork for not having tickets.

Several parents who spoke to The Southern Star said the  biggest stumbling block was the lack of communication from Bus Éireann officials.

Many complained that officials did not reply to their emails, while others spent hours on hold on the phone and never got to speak to anyone.

They all agreed the school bus transport system – dating back to the 1970s –  is broken, in urgent need of a major overhaul and that there is a need for better transparency when it comes to making decisions on who gets a bus seat or not.

In Rossmore, 22 secondary school students have also been refused concessionary bus tickets due to their location in relation to their nearest schools in Clonakilty and Rosscarbery. Frustrated parents met with Fine Gael Senator Tim Lombard and Cllr John O’Sullivan in Kilmeen National School last week to outline their concerns.

Sen Lombard said he was ‘gobsmacked’ by the number of parents who turned up for the meeting and he is calling for a bigger bus to cater for the school-going community there. ‘The majority of the students are trying to go to schools in Clonakilty and it’s the classic scenario whereby if you live one side of the road by the national school, Rosscarbery is the closest school, while on the other side it’s Clonakilty and because of this 22 students are off the bus,’ said Sen Lombard.

‘The majority of these people are working parents and they already have primary school runs to do as well and they’re totally frustrated. Most of these children had bus tickets last year, too, and they were on it until the system changed and by making it absolutely free, some children are only using it for a few days,’ said Sen Lombard, who has been contacting both Bus Éireann and the Department of Education on the matter.

He has also called on Bus Éireann to employ bus drivers over the age of 70 to ease the concerns of school transport.

‘Experienced and qualified bus drivers, aged 70 and over, are currently not being used and this needs to be examined and resolved,’ he said.

Meanwhile, two families who live in the same estate in Bandon have been left in limbo after their children were refused bus tickets to travel to nearby Laragh National School, despite travelling on the bus last year with concessionary tickets and applying for the tickets in time.

Both Muireann Cox – who has three children attending the school and Mary Boland – who has one child at the same school – said what’s more frustrating is that there are five seats empty on the 18-seater bus, since the schools returned last week.

Speaking to The Southern Star, Mary Boland said if she could just speak to a ‘human being’ in Bus Éireann, then she could get some answers on their situation.

‘It’s just very frustrating when you can’t get any answers and hugely stressful for us all as we try to juggle work commitments while doing the school runs,’ said Mary.

‘There seem to be five spaces on the bus since school started last week and they may be allocated to people who are not using them but it’s trying to get the information from Bus Éireann that’s the problem.’

She said they had always received the concessionary bus tickets but for some apparent reason, they didn’t get allocated this year. ‘Why did everyone on the bus last year get tickets except us and we’re the longest people on the bus? I really want to get this issue sorted once and for all and every day is struggle.’

Muireann Cox said she will have to make six journeys of 20 minutes a day in order to get her children to school. ‘That’s a huge amount of time as well as petrol too,’ said Muireann.

‘My children have been on this bus for the past two years and were very happy and I’d pay a lot more money to get them on the bus.’

Despite appealing the decision, Muireann has heard nothing back from Bus Éireann and feels they should be facilitating existing customers first and then allocating the leftover seats.

‘It’s always been a bad system but this is highlighting the unfairness of it and there’s no transparency here. We have rung them several times and no one gets back to us.’

She added that her children are upset and it’s leading to a lot of anxiety.

Bantry mum Emma had been left in the dark about a bus ticket for her daughter when school started last week, despite applying on time and living 14km from the nearest school. Thankfully, though, they received the good news last Thursday that she would be getting a ticket after all.

‘We received word that they were sending out her bus ticket and I want to thank our local TD Michael Collins who had been fighting our case and it has worked out, but we could have done without the stress and worry.

‘I had been onto Bus Éireann almost three times a week and told them my husband and I both work and cannot take her to Bantry every day. What was so frustrating was that I applied as a paying customer and it’s very unfair.’

Emma said it’s ‘adding to the stress’ of moving to a new school for her daughter.

‘They opened up this free bus scheme but didn’t have the resources to implement it and it’s a very unfair system.’

Cork South West Independent TD Michael Collins has called on the Minister of Education Norma Foley to intervene and end the school bus mayhem. ‘As schools reopen, thousands of children across the country are in limbo, awaiting news of a bus seat confirmation or receiving a rejection of their seat application. Problems with the scheme’s eligibility occur yearly, but the disorder witnessed this year is far greater than before,’ said Deputy Collins.

He called for the entire system to be ‘overhauled’ and for the ‘strict eligibility criteria’ to be completely axed.

Sinn Féin representative for Cork South West, Clare O’Callaghan, said that the Minister for Education and representatives of Bus Éireann must come before the Oireachtas urgently to address the scandal of shortages on school transport in West Cork.

‘Across West Cork, parents who have relied for years on school bus transport are pulling their hair out after being let down last minute by the government. I have been inundated with calls from parents locally who are desperate to get a seat for their child,’ she said.

Cork South West Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns said every year families across West Cork have issues accessing school transport that students are entitled to.

‘Parents should not have to spend the summer fighting for a place on a bus when it is clear that their children meet the criteria. This is especially troubling when there are additional needs or a disability involved,’ said Deputy Cairns.

Deputy Cairns also highlighted the lack of a sufficient bus route for Goleen National School which is affecting 14 pupils.

‘With schools back since last week it is disgraceful that the Department of Education has not arranged this route. Bus Éireann have assured me that they are still trying to accommodate these pupils, but said it is proving difficult.’

A Bus Éireann spokesperson said it operates the scheme on behalf of the Department of Education, which determines the policies governing its operation and acknowledges the unprecedented demand for the school transport scheme this year.

‘The ticket priority is to ensure eligible pupils receive tickets firstly, followed by concessionary pupils who are attending their second nearest school.

‘Where there are more concessionary applicants than places available, tickets are allocated using an agreed selection process.’

Due to increased demand, they have to date secured over 272 additional school transport vehicles and 116 services have had larger capacity vehicles added to the service or the route extended.

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