Wednesday, 9 March 1988
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. McDonald: I am quite reluctant to use the Adjournment procedure to ask the Minister for Education to consider the situation whereby his contractor, CIE, are attempting to blackmail Laois County Council to allocate funds and repair roads to the satisfaction of CIE  and, in the process of that blatant blackmail, to use 11 national school pupils for their purpose. This problem arises in the Luggacurren area of County Laois where CIE operate a bus service on contract with the Minister and the Department of Education to carry 36 pupils from the general Luggacurren area to Ballyadams national school. This area of south east Laois is in the Sliabh Margea disadvantaged area and the county road network is certainly not as well developed as we all would like.
The main problem with Laois County Council is that the Department of the Environment reduced the rate support grant for the current year by some £575,000 compred with last year which meant that at their estimates meeting the council were able to allocate only £20,000 for the repairs of county roads in the coming year. It is a totally inadequate sum but, in fairness to the council, of which I am a member, every effort is being made to have additional funds made available and to divert funds, if possible, to repair and maintain the county roads. This problem is not unique to our county. We had a series of special meetings at council level to consider the roads in each area. Before the meeting, just ten days ago, I drove over all the roads, especially those in the Luggacurren area. There are certainly potholes, but the salient point is that the roads in this area are no worse than the roads in other comparable areas in the county. Since the council meeting some improvements and repairs have been carried out to the roads which the CIE management and driver objected to. Despite that CIE have not restored the service and 11 children have had to walk an extra mile to school for the past three or four weeks. This is a nonsense. The council expect that more repairs and improvements will be carried out as the year goes on. It is a total nonsense for CIE to attempt to dictate to the local authority where, when and how road works should be commenced and carried out.
I now call on the Minister for Education to instruct the contractors, in this  case CIE, to meet their contract and provide a service, or to get somebody else who is prepared to do it. Are CIE so efficient in their own operations that it gives them a licence to dictate to local authorities as to how they should perform their public services? Perhaps more appropriately, are the management of CIE apprehensive that their buses will fall apart or collapse it they hit an odd pothole here and there? This is the case of a semi-State organisation who have a lucrative contract with the Department of State to transport 36 children to and from school ceasing to provide that service at the drop of a hat in the middle of winter just because they have not got an autobahn over which to drive.
It is significant that the parish we are concerned with here tonight is the only one where the CIE transport service is operated from Broadstone in the Dublin area. The greater part of our county is administered from Athlone, and the south western part of the county bordering on Carlow is administered from Kilkenny. We have a different standard here and I think it is a nonsense. In fairness to the families of the 36 children the service should not cease because it does not suit a driver, or a manager, or whoever.
I ask the Minister to direct that the service be recommenced without further delay. My colleagues on the council and I are determined to do our best to ensure that the roads are brought up to the best possible standard without the means of the council and within the scope of our allocation for the coming year. It is intolerable that CIE should blackmail small children going to a national school in a situation like this. I want to thank the Minister for agreeing to hear this complaint tonight.
Minister of State at the Department of Education (Mr. F. Fahey): I thank Senator McDonald for the very reasoned case he has made. I quite agree with him that what has happened is rather unreasonable. The service in question operates, as he said, to Ballyadams  national school from the area south of the school. There is no question of the service having ceased for the children attending the school.
I should explain that the day-to-day operation of the school transport scheme is carried out by Bus Éireann as the agent for the Minister for Education. This function has been discharged efficiently by the company since the inception of the scheme in 1968. In the intervening 20 years, generations of children have benefited from the scheme, many of whom otherwise would have had extreme difficulty in attending school on a regular basis.
The responsibilities of Bus Éireann in the operation of the scheme are wideranging and include the employment of school bus drivers and contractors and the organisation of the bus routes at local level. Great care is exercised in all aspects of the operation and this is especially so in relation to the safety aspects of the scheme. All drivers, whether Bus Éireann or contractors, are supplied each year with comprehensive safety instructions. Routes, pick up and set down points, turning points etc., are arranged with safety in mind. Regular safety promotional efforts are organised in conjunction with the Department of Education, for example, promotion of safety through the schools, printing and distribution of safety posters, the handing out of safety literature by drivers of school buses to all pupils, including leaflets aimed at both parents and children.
It will be clear, therefore, that particular emphasis is placed on the necessity to ensure the safety of the children. In this context the condition of the roads is an important factor. Bus Éireann are very conscious of their responsibilities in relation to their contractors and of the need to ensure the continued safety and roadworthiness of the school transport vehicles. Factors which I have mentioned are paramount in the consideration of the matter raised by the Senator.
The special school service in question runs from the Boley area to Ballyadams national school and is operated by a large  bus under contract from a private contractor. The service caters for approximately 40 children. The same bus also serves the Athy post-primary centre. Very recently it came to the notice of the Bus Éireann manager that the portion of the route from Pedigree Corner to Temple Lane had deteriorated over the winter months and the question arose as to its continued suitability for school bus operations. The local Bus Éireann inspector examined the route and concluded that this portion of road, a spur of 1.5 miles in length, was now unsuitable for bus operations and all concerned were advised that the service would not operate beyond Pedigree Corner with effect from Monday 29 February 1988.
However, as a result of repairs carried out on the portion of the road between Pedigree Cross and Luggacurren junction in the interim, the service was restored to Luggacurren junction on the evening of 29 February and has operated to this point since then. Luggacurren junction is .8 miles from Temple Lane. Four children are inconvenienced by the nonoperation to Temple Lane. Two have .8 miles extra to travel to Luggacurren junction and the other two have somewhat less to travel. Five others have marginal inconvenience but they reside very close to Luggacurrean junction. All are travelling to school at present. It will be appreciated that the overall degree of inconvenience caused is not severe, especially having regard to the fact that in the operation of the school transport system as a whole, only a basic level of services is the general aim, and those availing of the service would normally be expected to walk certain minimum distances.
All routes are checked by Bus Éireann as to their suitability for the type of vehicle employed — varying from motor cars to double decker buses and this is an on-going process. Bus Éireann staff are very experienced in these matters and must have regard at all times to the safety of the children being conveyed and of other road users. Each decision is taken after examination on the ground by experienced personnel. It would not be  open to the Department to permit the operation of any service under the school transport scheme on roads which Bus Éireann deem to be unsuitable. I am aware of Senator McDonald's concern and I accept that the removal of a service like this is regrettable.
The Department are determined that arrangements will be made to have the service to Temple Lane restored as soon as the road is again deemed suitable for the operation of the school bus service and, in that respect, I feel the Senator may be able to urge the local authority to carry out the repairs that are necessary to make this section of road suitable. We will certainly accede to his request and restore the portion of the route as quickly as possible.
Mr. McDonald: I thank the Minister for his very comprehensive refresher course on the whole transport service and compliment him on meeting as many problems as possible. The chief engineers of Laois County Council, the county engineer and the chief assistant with responsibility for roads have told me that the road is up to the same standard as the roads generally in the county and, therefore, they refute the CIE driver's allegation. If this man has been travelling on the same road for 250 days a year he should know where the potholes are and should be prepared to manoeuvre. He is not travelling that fast anyway. It is the principle of CIE using kids to blackmail the local authority that I object to. If this starts up in every national school area, where will the local authorities get the money? CIE are afraid their buses will collapse into some of these potholes. I assure the House that the county engineer assures me that the road is quite safe. They have repaired the one area where there was subsidence and they say that the rest of the roads will be attended to in the course of the year's work. I hope the Minister will order CIE to either honour their contract or give up their monopoly.
Mr. F. Fahey: Would it be possible that some small amount of remedial  action could be taken, as the honourable Leas—Chathaoirleach has said? Filling in some potholes might go a long way to sort out the problem. We need a bit of common sense from both sides and I certainly will try to bring it about on our side.
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