Traffic Commissioner (TC) for the West of England Kevin Rooney (pictured, above) was “dismayed” to hear that a coach owned by an operator that recently saw its O-Licence subject to a delayed revocation order had caught fire on Thursday 8 February.
Mr Rooney’s concern follows his action against the 25-vehicle standard national O-Licence held by Denwell Mini Coaches Ltd. Revocation takes place from 2329hrs on 31 March, as does the disqualification of Transport Manager (TM) Darren Brown for one year and until he passes a further Certificate of Professional Competence examination. Mr Brown is sole Director of the business.
A delayed revocation order was made due to maintenance issues, lack of finance, and a lack of continuous and effective management at the operator. Mr Brown’s repute as TM was found by the TC to have been lost after a Public Inquiry (PI) on 18 January. Mr Rooney’s written decision was published on 30 January.
The stiff sanctions came despite the TC acknowledging progress at the operator and what he termed “green shoots,” including the recruitment of a “very competent” engineer. The operator’s core activity is home-to-school (H2S) services in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire.
Delayed revocation followed a submission at the PI by Wiltshire Council (WC) around its difficulties in sourcing H2S transport. However, the 8 February coach fire led to an about-turn by the local authority (LA). A day after the fire, it announced a decision to immediately cease using Denwell Mini Coaches for H2S services.
In a statement, WC Leader Cllr Richard Clewer says that the LA had initially maintained its contracts with Denwell after issue of the delayed revocation order because “the [Traffic] Commissioner was satisfied that the vehicles could be operated safely… until 31 March.” WC has cited the coach fire as the reason for its change of heart.
Alternative providers were quickly arranged for the afternoon of Friday 9 February. The council is “now working hard to secure suitable alternative transport for when the children return from half-term on Monday 19 February.”
Evidence given by a WC representative at the PI in January had highlighted the county’s “supply and demand issue” on home-to-school transport, and claimed that if another operator was lost, no contingency was in place.
The coach that caught fire on 8 February – operating under the associated igobus brand – blocked the A417 near Cirencester for a period. The conflagration started in the vehicle’s engine bay, pictures published in local media sources show.
A recorded message on the telephone number quoted on the Denwell Coaches and igobus websites now states that all the business’s H2S routes are “inoperable.” That is attributed to information issued by schools causing “a social media frenzy,” and “unacceptable abuse” suffered by staff on Friday 9 January. The business is dealing with enquiries via email only.
In his earlier written decision, Mr Rooney had noted that “the spotlight created by the PI process” was hoped “to generate sufficient compliance to keep vehicles safe for a short period” until the revocation and disqualification take place.
Mr Rooney heard that the MoT failure rate of Denwell Mini Coaches in 2023 was 46.0%, up from 31.5% in 2022. The national average for coaches and buses is cited as 7.35%.
Various maintenance issues formed part of the hearing along with concerns around the business being able to recruit engineers; financial standing; and the strength of driver defect reporting.
Mr Brown told the PI that he intended to take steps to improve maintenance, and via his counsel that he would “be willing to appoint another TM.” Mr Rooney observed that “green shoots” had been visible at Denwell, although those were not sufficient to sway him on revocation and disqualification.
The TC also noted that Mr Brown has taken responsibility for failings, and that staff have been recruited as part of what Mr Rooney terms “a new regime.”
Receiving credit was an experienced individual who joined from another operator to oversee engineering. He was described as “very competent” by TC Rooney, who acknowledged that difficulties with mechanics had been dealt with.
In making the revocation and disqualification orders, Mr Rooney turned down a period of grace for financial standing. He questioned availability of funds to get vehicles to the required standard consistently, and commented that “the previous history cannot be ignored.”
TC’s written decision here.