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In letters to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the ministers of transport, education, children and youth last week, Queenstown Mayor Jim Boult asked them to put an end to the ‘‘inherently unsafe’’ practice.
In response the Ministry of Education said it catered for actual demand, not possible demand, when deciding on the seating capacity of rural bus services.
Infrastructure and digital leader Scott Evans said when preparing tenders for new contracts with bus operators that take effect next year, the ministry asked schools how many pupils they expected to use the service.
Operators then had to confirm they could provide seating for those numbers.
Mr Evans said under land transport rules set by the Ministry of Transport, operators could carry standing passengers to ‘‘manage fluctuating demand and to ensure no eligible student is left behind’’.
Asked why the ministry did not require bus operators to provide excess capacity to cater for rising student numbers over the term of the contracts, he said ‘‘to make best use of our available resources, we design school transport to cater for actual demand from eligible students, rather than possible demand’’.
Ministry of Transport mobility and safety team manager Robert Anderson said its data showed buses were the safest mode of road transport in New Zealand.
Asked why the ministry could not prohibit children standing on rural school buses, Mr Anderson said it regulated on the basis of vehicle type, rather than the purpose of a vehicle’s trip, and to do otherwise could create ‘‘unintended consequences’’.
‘‘... any land transport rule that sought to prohibit children standing on school buses procured by Ministry of Education would likely also apply to dedicated school buses contracted by regional councils and Auckland Transport, but not to scheduled urban public transport services that carry many students to school.’’
Mr Boult said the ministries were dodging their responsibility and wondered what value they placed on a child’s life.
‘‘They talk of expense, yes, but how much would Kiwis pay to save one child’s life?’’
He rejected the Ministry of Transport’s “unintended consequences” argument, saying, ‘‘Just mandate a new standard for buses travelling in rural areas.’’
Hawea Flat School principal Tania Pringle last week said her school would not be considered for more buses until it was ‘‘regularly having children not able to fit on to the bus’’.
Under bus loading certificates, that meant having up to 10 children, as young as 5, standing in the aisle. Because schools in the Upper Clutha were experiencing significant growth, that outcome was inevitable, Ms Pringle said.