New rules will make life hard for students on school buses.
HUNDREDS of students in Wales face uncertainty over their journeys to and from school, because many of the coaches used do not comply with accessibility regulations which are compulsory from January 1. To avoid breaking the law, some councils will axe their home-toschool passes for students who do not qualify for free travel. Other councils are considering their options.
There are concerns that some youngsters could be denied access to post-16 education where there is no practical or affordable alternative transport, while councils face losing the income they receive from selling passes.
The Department for Transport and Welsh Government say the Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations (PSVAR) have been in place since 2000, allowing a generous transition period.
But councils say they had no idea until recently that the regulations would apply to coaches for school pupils only.
The regulations require coaches to have wheelchair access, a boarding aid, priority seats and destination display equipment.
Operators of public coach services, such as National Express, have geared up, but many Welsh coach operators have not because they do not operate any services where the general public pays separate fares to travel.
Coaches which carry pupils to school for free are exempted.
However, many hundreds of spare seats on school transport each year are offered to parents for a discounted fee, for pupils whose ages or home addresses make them ineligible for free transport.
If any children on board have paid-for passes, the coach will have to comply with the PSVAR. Most schools services in Wales are operated by non-compliant coaches, and making such a large fleet compliant by 1 January is impossible.
Councils are pressing for an exemption, arguing that they already provide dedicated transport for pupils who can't access non-PSVAR vehicles.
Cardiff, Vale of Glamorgan and Wrexham councils have decided to comply with the law by abolishing their spare-seat passes from 1 January.
David A Bithell, Wrexham's lead member for transport, said councils were urging the DFT to review the regulations.
"The new regulations have been in the public domain for a number of years to allow operators to upgrade their fleets to comply, but it was widely believed by operators and local authorities across England and Wales that the regulations would not apply to closed school contracts," he said.
"It has recently been confirmed by the DFT that these regulations will apply to any service where a separate fare for travel is charged, whether the fare is paid directly to the driver or through the local authority."
Most of the council's schools contracts were with coach companies whose vehicles did not comply, and adapting the vehicles would probably be "technically and cost prohibitive".
He added: "The council will continue to offer discretionary concessionary travel passes to non-qualifiers where there are available seats from September 2019. However, applicants will be notified at the point of application that these passes will become invalid as from 1 January 2020 and they will need to arrange alternative travel arrangements."
One council officer, who asked not to be named, said the DFT's guidance meant not only a substantial reduction in income for councils, whose budgets were "already stretched", but potentially also that "some pupils will not be able to access education".
He added: "This will have a huge effect, especially on rural areas where transport is sparse."
Cardiff council received about PS44,000 from sale of passes last year, with 118 pupils using the option. All of the council's schools services are operated by coaches non-compliant with the PSVAR.
A spokesman said the council would sell seats for the autumn term only. "After December 2019 we will no longer allow purchasers to travel on contracted bus services." The council would explore all options to see if there was any way it could continue to allow pupils to use the vehicles.
Councils which have not yet decided on the matter include Rhondda Cynon Taf (with income last year of about PS74,000 from paidfor passes for 604 pupils), Conwy (about PS17,000 for about 80 pupils), Monmouthshire (PS89,000 and 202 pupils), Powys (PS30,000 and 126 pupils) Ceredigion (PS7,000 and 19 pupils) and Denbighshire (PS16,474 and 116 pupils).
RCT has 185 vehicles on mainstream school transport contracts. Only two are PSVAR compliant. All of Powys' schools services use coaches are non-compliant.
However, only 10% of schools services in Ceredigion are operated by non-compliant vehicles, and very few in Swansea, where low-floor buses are used.
Caerphilly, Merthyr Tydfil and Torfaen councils do not sell spareseat passes.
Richard Cope, of the Association of Transport Coodinating Officers Cymru, said: "We do not have the funding to make this discretionary service accessible, as the payments made go nowhere near covering these costs.
"Even so, any lost revenue in these austere times is a concern.
"Some authorities may choose to offer this spare capacity as now on a first-come, first-served basis, without making a charge. Elsewhere, the impact will be particularly felt by post-16 pupils in those areas where transport is not provided on a discretionary basis and in rural areas where the public transport alternatives are sparse.
"We are working with Welsh Government, the Welsh Local Government Association and colleagues in England to obtain an appropriate derogation."
A DFT spokesperson said: "Bus and coach accessibility regulations were first introduced nearly two decades ago, ensuring that services are fully accessible. We expect operators and authorities to comply, and continue to work with local authorities on how they can achieve this."
The UK Government had written to councils in 2001 to warn them that most services "where at least some passengers pay fares" would need to comply with the PSVAR.
A Welsh Government spokesman said: "We are aware of the concerns raised by local authorities in Wales and have been liaising with both local authorities and DFT in the hope of finding a way forward.
"We are committed to ensuring children can get to school safely and provided funding to local authorities in Wales of nearly PS110m to cover learner transport in 2017/18.
"There has been nearly 20 years to prepare for the implementation of these regulations.
"This is plenty of time to have planned accordingly to allow the roll out of new vehicles that meet the requirements."
Changes in accessibility regulations are bringing confusion over transport for some students
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|Publication:||Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||Sep 2, 2019|
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