A councillor has slammed the “shambolic situation” which resulted in children being left at the roadside on what should have been their first day back at school.
Donal O’Cofaigh said he was disgusted that pupils were left stranded on Monday because an Ulsterbus contract does not kick in until September.
The Fermanagh and Omagh councillor, also voiced concerns over fare-paying passengers not being allowed on ‘designated school bus routes only’ from next week onwards.
Translink and the Education Authority have defended their position, saying service users were advised to check Translink’s website before travelling.
Mr O’Cofaigh said a number of pupils bound for Mount Lourdes Grammar School in Enniskillen were left high and dry when their bus did not turn up on Monday morning.
“Children who were meant to have a first day at school were left on the side of the road after the bus they were expecting simply didn’t show,” he said.
“Several bus drivers confirmed that services weren’t operating as the Ulsterbus schools contract only starts at the beginning of September and hadn’t been brought forward.
“In other areas of Northern Ireland, I understand school children were charged to go to school on operating Ulsterbus services. This is a totally shambolic situation, children’s education and safety have been impacted.”
He added: “Let’s call out what happened here. Ministers in the Stormont Executive thought that children being left without any form of transport to school, on a timetable for reopening that they themselves set, was a price worth paying in order to cut public transport budgets.”
The cross-community Labour councillor said many bus services suspended during lockdown “are set to reopen as term-time only, designated school bus routes”.
“Drivers have been told that they must refuse fare-paying passengers from next Tuesday as Stormont’s special dispensation to ignore social distancing only applies to buses exclusively occupied by school children,” he added.
“With more and more workers needing to access public transport as we transition out of lockdown, Ulsterbus and the Department for Infrastructure need to answer what public transport is going to be offered for workers needing to get to or from workplaces in rural areas like Fermanagh and Tyrone?”
He said the impact of the removal of public transport services to isolated rural communities, and indeed the economy of the area, will be “severe”. He also called on Ulsterbus bosses for clarity on the details of what is being proposed in the long-term.
Mr O’Cofaigh said details on the school bus services that will operate after September 1 “are few and far between”.
“In one case the time of the school bus service leaving has been published by Translink but there is no information on the time of the bus back,” he said.
He also raised concerns over the potential loss of services.
“The fears of many bus drivers — which will be shared by rural communities across this region — is that the replacement of suspended ‘service’ runs with ‘designated school services’ will become permanent and that the old services will never return,” he said. “At one stroke we will lose a huge number of our rural bus services, many operating repeatedly through the day. These are vital for rural connectivity.
“Stormont ministers must quickly and publicly commit to the return, as soon as it is safe to do so, of all rural bus services which operated previously.”
Translink said its plans were in line with the latest public health guidance.
“Translink, under the guidance of the Department for Education, and working in partnership with the Education Authority, has put plans in place to enable children to return to school safely,” it added.
“Dedicated school services will restart on Tuesday, September 1.
“Pupils returning to school from Monday, August 24 can use normal Translink bus and rail services. Sessional school passes will be valid on Translink scheduled services from August 24.
“We have advised parents whose children use our services to check our website before travelling.”
It said that Translink was operating more dedicated school buses across Northern Ireland this year than in the past.
“School bus routes will largely operate as normal, however pupil numbers will be monitored, and services may be adjusted to reflect demand and in line with Department of Education and public health guidance,” it said. “The same level of service will be maintained for the wider public, irrespective of school services.”
The Education Authority apologised for “any inconvenience” and advised parents to check their Translink journey before travelling at www.translink.co.uk/schoolservices.
“We confirmed that limited services would operate from August 24 to 28 and therefore Translink ‘dedicated’ school services would not run on these dates and that normal services would resume on September 1,” it said.
“Parents whose children use Translink services were also advised to check the Translink website for any schedule changes before travelling.”
The Department for Infrastructure said it “currently provides support to Translink from the Rural Transport Fund to ensure public transport bus services are provided in rural areas like Fermanagh and Tyrone, many of which are used by people travelling to and from work”.