Extending the requirement for PSVAR compliance to more coach sector workstreams in the long term is being examined by the Department for Transport (DfT), a letter from Under-Secretary of State for Transport Baroness Vere has revealed. It also details further exemptions from the Regulations for closed-door home-to-school services from the start of the 2021/22 academic year.
The communication was sent on 6 July to the heads of trade bodies that represent the coach industry. Its tone leaves no room for doubt that DfT expects operators, local authorities (LAs) and educational establishments to make progress on the transition to satisfying PSVAR on home-to-school transport.
Most notably, and in the strongest language yet used publicly by a minister when referring to PSVAR, Lady Vere says that all parties involved “must focus now on how they can provide services inclusively rather than seeking to avoid their legal obligations.”
Extension of PSVAR mooted as H2S exemptions continue
While the home-to-school element of Baroness Vere’s disdainful letter is the most pressing for the coach industry, her words about PSVAR on work other than those services that have required exemptions thus far will be of the most concern to many operators. Such an extension of scope is a topic that was first floated by the Disabled Persons’ Transport Advisory Committee early in 2021.
She says that the exclusion of coaches used on private hire and tours from the Regulations “may have contributed to a lack of compliant vehicles available for home-to-school and rail replacement services.” Because of that, DfT officials are now considering how private hire and tours could be brought within scope of PSVAR.
Additionally, those officials are exploring how the claimed practice of removing lifts from compliant coaches after they are displaced from scheduled services can be prevented, including in law. Lady Vere’s letter hints that these considerations may form part of the review of PSVAR that DfT has already committed to – but which may not be completed until the end of 2023.
Some PSVAR elements required under medium-term exemption plan
Applications for temporary exemptions from PSVAR for home-to-school services will be considered for the period between August and 31 March 2022 on the same basis as those offered under the current process. Operators are advised to email DfT now in order to be advised when details are released.
From 2022 onwards, there will likely be a stricter approach to compliance on home-to-school and rail replacement services.
Lady Vere “reluctantly” accepts that there is a need for special authorisations until sufficient compliant vehicles are available. But she says that “such exemptions must not incentivise operators to stop investing in their fleets.”
To that end, plans are being developed for medium-term exemptions from PSVAR for home-to-school and rail replacement. While that work is still to be consulted on, it will see the issue of such temporary dispensations restricted to operators that can “demonstrate the steps that they have taken proactively to provide compliant services.”
DfT officials are exploring whether it will be possible to provide an exemption only from the requirements relating to wheelchair users laid down in Schedule 1 of the Regulations. That is to say, no means of exemption may be available to Schedule 3, which relates to steps, gangways, handrails and others, unless those elements cannot be complied with in the time available.
A curveball is added by Lady Vere when she says that “operators may also be expected to operate a minimum number of fully [PSVAR] compliant vehicles in order to be eligible for any exemption.” In a further remarkable statement, she says that while the exemptions being offered and developed are essential, “they must not be used as a licence to discriminate.” Operators “should begin planning now if they anticipate requiring exemptions from 2022 onwards,” Lady Vere adds.
Trade bodies respond rapidly to minister’s letter
Trade bodies were quick to respond to Baroness Vere’s letter. UK Coach Operators Association Managing Director Peter Bradley has told members that the approach to home-to-school services “provides some clarity” for operators in that field.
However, Mr Bradley cautions that it may also require some modifications to vehicles “in the next few months” to ensure that Schedule 3 elements of PSVAR are met.
The Confederation of Passenger Transport says that DfT must now work “urgently” with the coach industry to develop the medium-term exemptions referenced by Lady Vere. Chief Executive Graham Vidler adds that the terms of those “should… reward those [operators] that have already invested in PSVAR compliant vehicles.”