A CONSORTIUM MADE up of Irish businessmen and American companies is taking a legal case against the State over its failure to put the country’s school bus network contract out to tender.
Headed by Dublin businessman Tim Doyle and Galway-based solicitor Brian Lynch, Student Transport Scheme Ltd (STS) will begin its challenge in front of the European Union’s commercial court on 6 June.
Lynch told TheJournal.ie that the group, which he says has a “huge amount of support from Irish operators”, hopes the court will find the current contract with Bus Eireann ineffective and force the Government to put the job out to public tender.
Doyle said they were left with no choice other than to go the European court route after the Department of Education refused to follow EU procurement processes.
“We’re simply asking for a fair, open and transparent tender,” he told TheJournal.ie today. “We’re not asking for the contract – just an opportunity to compete.”
This evening Bus Éireann insisted that it was the only body in Ireland “with the skills, experience and capability to operate the Scheme in an effective manner”.
It added that an independent value for money report carried out last year had found Bus Éireann to be efficiently and effectively managing a “significant” and “complex” scheme.
“The School Transport Scheme is an example of a successful public-private partnership with Bus Éireann working with 1,400 private operators throughout the country, who employ around 4,000 people, to deliver the Scheme,” it said in a statement.
Doyle expressed confidence that any offering involving American firms Trailways and IC Bus (the makers of the famous yellow high school bus) will be cheaper and safer, as well as create jobs in manufacturing in Ireland.
If the procurement process is opened up here, IC Bus has committed to open a facility to make its vehicles in Ireland.
“They currently do not operate in Europe and are looking at Ireland as a base,” explained Doyle, who is supremely confident that they will win their case at EU level.
“It is frustrating,” he added. “Spending lots of time and money doing something that will actually save the State tens of millions of euro.”
The service, if the consortium wins the contract, would be provided by a number of Irish operators who have joined the legal challenge. Some already hold contracts with Bus Éireann so the matter is quite complex and sensitive.
Doyle estimates that the current contract – which has been held by Bus Éireann for the past five decades – costs the taxpayer about €180 million. Doyle believes an alternative service could be delivered for about €40 million.
Bus Éireann said, however, that it had delivered €25 million in savings since 2008 “despite more than 300 new services being introduced to the Scheme, mainly for children with special needs. Bus Éireann has committed to delivering further savings over the next number of years”.
It added that the Trailways documentation showed “a lack of understanding of the rural and provincial nature of the School Transport Scheme”.
“It seems to suggest that School Transport for rural Ireland can be managed from a computer screen in Dublin using vehicles that are untested on Irish rural roads,” the national transporter said.
“It also fails to take into account that one-third of the cost of School Transport goes towards transporting children with special needs and such services are often of a specialised nature.”
Doyle leads the consortium after spending the past year putting together the group of interested parties. He made initial contact with Trailways through a cold call at “exactly the same time they were looking at expanding globally”.
A lucky break – but also a smart one – given that the owners are described as a “bunch of Irish-Americans” who were eager to invest even before the Bill Clinton-inspired pleas by Government.
“One of the guys that came over to Ireland visited his grandfather’s grave while here. He was the first of his family to return,” Doyle recalls.
Following initial discussions, Trailways secured the interests of IC Bus and between them they are providing about 20 per cent of the funding needed to take the challenge through the courts in both Ireland and the EU.
Doyle, himself, has a business background in recruitment but no experience in providing transport systems.
When asked for a statement, the Department of Education said it could not comment on the issue as the case is yet to appear before the courts.