Buses in the blackboard jungle
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by lain Sherriff, MITA
THERE are all sorts of reasons why children need to be transported to schools. New estates are developed without suitable schools, care has to be taken to see that a child's education is not upset by having to change schools in the last year of his or her education, or perhaps an area is so sparsely populated that it would not be a practical proposition to build a school.
In fact it is sound economic sense to take the children to the school rather than the school to the children. It's also a sure way of getting them to attend.
Most school transport is provided by private operators; the operator with between one and 20 vehicles. There are, of course, a few cases of larger companies carrying school traffic but seldom does a local authority supply transport from its own resources. School traffic moves at peak hours and only during term-time. It therefore follows that local authorities require to hire in to meet the additional load. This has been the case and will continue to be so in many areas—but what about the situation in the Passenger Transport Authority areas?
Might it not be the case that in these areas a pooling of the resources of the municipal bus undertakings, which are being merged in the PTEs anyway, could produce sufficient spare capacity to meet the need of the education authority? What would be more rational than one department of a local authority working for another?
Rational it might be, but following my inquiries, I do not think it would be an economic proposition. I expected to find small operators living in fear that they would lose this lucrative traffic to "big brother" PTE. This was not the case— rather the reverse. In some instances the small men are intentionally pricing themselves out of the contracts.
Schools' contract work was described to me as "bad business" and for a number of reasons. It is purely seasonal traffic—how many readers realize that the school year is one of only 190 days? It is underpaid; in many cases as low as £8 for a bus per day. Under the Transport Act 1968, schools' work will interfere with more lucrative work, as I shall explain later.
Loss makers Some operators estimate that 95 per cent of schools' contracts are loss makers. Unfortunately, not all operators realize this. Book-keeping is not always what it should be and the school service returns are lost in the accounts. Provided there is an overall profit at the end of the year the operator is happy. But it is the private hire work which is subsidizing the school contract in many cases, I was told.
"A 41-seater coach should earn £4,500 each year," says Mr. R. B. Richmond, of Epsom. This I consider to be a reasonable figure. Now look at a school contract rate of £8 or £10 per day against that. The maximum the coach can earn on schools' work is £1,900 a year.
Short of the target This leaves the operator £2,600 short of his target and 175 days in which to earn it. One must assume that at least 50 days each year are lost to servicing, repairs and cleaning, so the Bays left for earning are reduced to 123. On these days the vehicle has to earn £22 to make the £4,500.
It is appreciated that in the school day there are four hours, excluding cleaning time, when the vehicle is available for hire. The vehicle can again be earning in the evening using a 16-hour spreadover.
However, this additional earning capacity must be discounted on two counts. A 16-hour spreadover is not an attractive proposition to drivers today when they can fill their leisure time easily. When Part VI of the 1968 Act is implemented, contract work and private hire work, like oil and water, just won't mix. Drivers on schools' and works' contracts, which do mix, will normally be required to start at around 7 a.m. and finish at about 6 p.m. This is ideal and gives the driver a 10-hour day or a 50-hour week. He cannot then be employed for tours but may engage on one private hire job on Saturday or Sunday to make up his 60-hour week.
This is not to say that the coach cannot be used for tours or private hire work. Only the driver's time is restricted; the vehicle can be used for 24 hours, seven days a week. This utilization requires only the employment of sufficient drivers to do the job—if you can find them.
Practical problems There are, however, some practical problems: administration, servicing, repairs and. of course, a proportionate increase in operating costs. The most important one, to my mind, is the type of vehicle which is employed.
School contract vehicles need not be, and I suggest should not be. of the calibre one would expect to find on private hire work. They mix very well with works' contracts and produce the ideal hours formula. Both contracts require similar vehicles and the hours are complementary. If you accept this, it follows that unless an operator has a works' contract to back up his schools' contract then he must look for more than 110 for his local authority work.
The proprietor of Biss Bros, Bishop's Stortford. Mr. W. A. Varney, who is vicechairman of the London and Home Counties area of the Passenger Vehicle Operators Association, told me that school buses should earn £12 per day, and that increases of the order of 40 per cent in rates were therefore required now. This would still only produce around /2,700 from school work and leave the operator to earn 14 each day out of term time, and at weekends, to make his target.
What chance is there of this? Mr. Varney held out very little hope because, as he put it: -It's too easy to get into this business. and local authorities are more concerned with price than service." He added: "Low rates will continue as long as this attitude of mind persists.
The passenger-carrying sector is suffering the same headaches as the goods vehicle operator: the cut-rate pirate. These are the men who drive for an operator for a season, get to know the ropes. obtain a vehicle on hire purchase and then offer their services at a cut rate.
Mr. Varney told me of 12 operators who had started in business in his area in the past seven years and who were now out. They had failed to balance the books. What depresses Mr. Varney is that there is a seemingly never-ending supply of these people.
It was suggested to me that there will be a wholesale evacuation from schools' contract work when the new driving hours are introduced next March.
It appears that unless local authorities are prepared to pay realistic rates to operators they will require to transport the schoolchildren in their own vehicles. Any deficit resulting from this means of transport, and there would assuredly be a deficit, would be added to the domestic rate, and therefore buried.
Ministry means business
In the meantime, many reliable operators will continue to run the contracts at a loss because they are under contract. When the contract expires, and the pirates take over, the enforcement men will move in and put them off the road. This was Mr. Varney's opinion and he is quite adamant about it. -The Ministry of Transport means business," he said; "the enforcement men could be fully occupied clearing up this whole messy affair."
In answer to my question: "Is there a future in schools' contract work?-, his answer was: "Yes, in the bankruptcy court."