A public inquiry into a Northumberland coach firm's licence took place today following an incident in which a bus carrying schoolchildren broke down on a level crossing.
It took place at the level crossing near Warkworth on Wednesday, January 27, when a coach belonging to Morpeth-based Gardiners NMC was taking around 30 to 40 middle school-age pupils (nine to 13) home from school in Alnwick. It was travelling on the 423 route, which goes to Shilbottle, Warkworth, Amble, Hauxley, Togston, Hadston, Red Row and Widdrington.
The inquiry, which took place at Linden Hall, near Longhorsley, heard that the driver - James Moffatt, from Ashington - had stopped at the crossing to allow a train to pass. When he took the brake off and pressed the accelerator, nothing happened, but because the bus was in gear it rolled down onto the level crossing.
He opened the door and made sure all of the children got off the bus, directing them to stand in a layby so they were off the road as well as away from the tracks. Allegations made by a parent of one of the children on-board, that the door failed to open at first, were strongly denied.
Mr Moffatt called from the crossing's emergency phone to warn the authorities, while an apprentice fitter, who was getting a lift home to Amble, called the transport manager, Adrian Smith, who explained to him how to fix the issue. The inquiry heard that within five minutes or so, the bus had been driven off the crossing, the children were back on board and the bus was on its way.
This morning's inquiry was to investigate Gardiners NMC, primarily a coach holiday company but which also has six contracts with Northumberland County Council, in relation to its public service vehicle operator's licence, which is based on four aspects - having a suitable establishment; being of good repute; professional competence; and having a secure financial standing. And it was this latter category that the Traffic Commissioner for the North East of England, Kevin Rooney, indicated was causing him some issues.
Gardiners NMC's licence allows it to operate up to 35 coaches, but Mr Rooney accepted an offer to 'voluntarily' reduce the fleet size to 10 - the number of coaches that the firm currently runs from its Coopies Lane Industrial Estate base. While he did also have concerns about how the incident itself had been handled, he concluded that to do anything further to the licence would be 'disproportionate', and so issued a formal warning.
"Overall, the fleet isn't a bad one," Mr Rooney said. "Where I have concerns with the operator is we don't know what caused the incident."
Earlier in the inquiry, the company's mechanic, Daniel West, attempted to explain what had caused the incident. But Peter Thompson, a vehicle examiner from the Newcastle office of the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA), who had carried out a full inspection of the fleet following the incident, said: "The only concern is how the operator could tell the apprentice how to rectify the issue over the phone and get it sorted within five minutes."
Mr Rooney said that he had similar concerns and also asked why the issue hadn't returned as the bus continued on its journey. He added: "I'm not seeing this as a plausible explanation. I'm not convinced and this is quite a crucial issue."
This sparked the Traffic Commissioner to ask the firm to bring the bus down to Linden Hall from Alnwick so that they could inspect it and see if the fault relating to the throttle could be replicated. It couldn't, and Mr Rooney explained that the fact the rev counter also wasn't working raised doubts about how they were aware the engine was revving high and therefore how the fault was fixed so quickly.
"My confidence has taken a knock," he said. "If you can't tell me why it happened in the first place, then how are you going to stop it happening again?"
Giving his evidence, Mr Smith, who runs the firm with his father Glenn, described it as a 'random mechanical defect', but conceded: "It's a horrendous thing to happen and it couldn't happen in a worse place. I can only apologise to the parents of the children."
Earlier, he had emphasised the efforts made to ensure the coaches were well-maintained. "We always take advice, we always take criticism and we are always keen to make improvements. I check all the maintenance sheets myself and check they are filled in correctly and the jobs are in hand or due to be done."
The inquiry also acted as a driver conduct hearing and Mr Rooney concluded that no action would be taken against Mr Moffatt, who 'acted in a professional manner'. His boss too had no criticisms of his driver, with Mr Smith saying: "It was handled very professionally."
Giving his evidence, Mr Moffatt, described earlier as 'a career busman' who has been driving for decades, said the coach 'had been running fine on the way to Alnwick' and denied that the door didn't open when the vehicle was stranded on the level crossing. "All the kids got off the coach so the door had to be open. I never had any trouble getting the door open even before they put in a new micro-switch (prior to the incident, there had been issues with the door not closing in cold weather). I was trying to get the vehicle to go, but the fact is it wasn't engaging gears. I had to release the brake to press the accelerator."