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School bus fire caused by brake fault

A damaged bus, which investigators say was set ablaze by a brake fault (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

A brake fault was the likely cause of a fire in a bus filled with schoolchildren last month, according to Senator Michael Fahy.

Speaking on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Fahy, the Minister of Tourism, Transport and Municipalities, said the Department of Public Transportation had embarked on “enhanced strategies” to prevent further incidents, including improved oversight. And while he said the Ministry was trying to introduce a new bus schedule to ease the strain on the ageing fleet, he revealed that those discussions may be taken to arbitration.

“In an environment of budget constraints, there are too few buses for the existing schedule and too many in need of repair, which has caused too many cancellations of individual bus runs,” he said.

“This has meant substantial pressure on the bus mechanics to service the fleet and get more buses on the road.

“We were fortunate that no one was injured in what was an unnerving event and we know the changes we have put in place should assist in our safety efforts going forward.”

Regarding the cause of the bus fire, which took place on the morning of March 7 near St Mary’s Road, he said investigators had agreed that a malfunction of the braking system was the most likely cause.

“More particularly, the report has said that the brake springs were stretched which caused the brake shoe to stay in contact with the wheel drum,” he said.

“This malfunction resulted in abnormal contact within the wheel drum, which caused enough heat to ignite nearby residual, combustible materials.

“Fire retardant systems did work in insulating the bus interior from immediate fire intrusion, which allowed passengers and the driver to safely vacate the vehicle. But this was a very distressing occasion.”

He noted that immediately after the incident the vehicle’s sister bus was taken off the road, adding that DPT management have been discussing with representatives of the BIU and BPSU the findings of the report, with a view to collaborating on ways to prevent this type of occurrence in the future.

“In the meantime, with the assistance of a technical adviser from the bus manufacturer MAN, who was on the island working on related technical matters on the day of the accident, the DPT has enhanced the oversight procedures for mechanics and technicians,” Mr Fahy said.

“DPT staff have gained access to additional MAN technical service manuals and MAN technical service bulletins for the repair of the fleet of buses. Additionally, MAN have provided two of their technicians for several weeks, to assist the local mechanics/technicians in work procedures, diagnostics and repair, with a focus on safety systems.

“The MAN technicians were originally scheduled to be here starting at the end of April, but were recruited earlier for an extended tour.

“The DPT will also fill the position of maintenance manager, which was vacated in 2013.”

Mr Fahy said he remained confident that, despite the looming challenge of the America’s Cup and the summer season, the bus service would be able to meet demand.

Meanwhile, in a PLP statement released today, Lawrence Scott, Shadow Minister of Transport, chastised Mr Fahy for failing “to ensure key personnel were hired and retained”.

“Budget constraints have nothing to do with this,” said Mr Scott. “The maintenance positions were there for a reason and his decision and its outcome are seen in the flames. Thankfully, no lives were lost because the Minister decided that it was not cost-effective to worry about safety.

“To avoid such catastrophic malfunctions the PLP thought it sound to maintain key personnel and did so.

“The Minister may not see the correlation between job cuts and the negative impact it can have on public safety. But, one thing I can assure you is that it’s not just the PLP who see this as important; everyone who travels by bus or ferry would also agree.

Passengers, including our schoolchildren, put their lives in the hands of the Government for safe, reliable and secure passage on land and water.”