Statement regarding GR4/GR5 services to Dene Magna School
Monday 18th July 2022
As expected, we have received many calls and emails expressing peoples dismay at our planned changes to our School Transport running from Cinderford, Littledean and Drybrook to Dene Magna School. It is also evident that we have been receiving much criticism and some quite hurtful comments on Facebook since Thursday’s correspondence.
Firstly, we would like to inform you all of the foundation of our business. We are a small family run business that has been trading as Grindles Coaches for over 30 years. Although, our history in operating coaches in the Forest of Dean as a family stretches back well into the 1920’s. We are a family of 5, all of whom work full-time in the company. Our days usually consist of working long hours in some capacity, with little time off. We work extremely hard and tirelessly to keep our business running, ensuring that we can provide our services to the people of our community and beyond. As well as the 5 immediate family members; 4 of whom either drive or work in the office or workshop, we also employ 6 other drivers who also work hard to meet the demands of the industry.
Grindles Coaches took over the running of the Cinderford/Littledean service to Dene Magna School in 2007, when Cottrell’s Coaches decided to cease trading, therefore we have successfully run this service for over 15 years. At the time no other company showed interest in operating this route. Since this time we also took over the operation of the route through Drybrook, subsequently starting the route in Cinderford to provide more capacity.
As explained in our letter, dated Thursday 14th July 2022, there are a variety of reasons why this change has been implemented and we would like to provide more precise clarification for the decision being made but also changes that we have decided to make considering people’s feedback.
Our main reason for making this change is due to having to limit the number of students using the buses to prevent overloading as we are only permitted to carry a certain number of passengers on each bus. Each bus is permitted to carry 77 passengers seated, and 18 passengers standing. Until 2020 we used to operate a vehicle with a capacity of 102 seats on the Cinderford/Littledean route, however, this vehicle would no longer have met current regulations and had to be replaced. The cost of an equivalent capacity second-hand vehicle that did meet regulations would have cost in the region of at least £60,000 - £100,000, if not more, depending on age. This is not a viable solution for the exclusive use for one school transport route.
If we were to not implement a system as we are, we would end up with a situation whereby every day there are students who would not be able to catch the bus to school, when parents are expecting them to. The fact of having to leave students on the side of the road when the bus is full presents a big safeguarding issue, as well as the uncertainty of whether your child has actually arrived at school, and then the dilemma of how to get them to school if they weren’t able to catch the bus. We are sure that everybody wishing to use our service would like the guarantee that their child will get to school every day.
Before making this decision we explored the options of whether it would be possible to supply an extra vehicle to cater for the demand, however, many operational circumstances make this option unviable. The coach and bus industries are facing a huge staffing shortage, as per many other industries. Coach and bus drivers are like gold dust, especially in the Forest of Dean! Unfortunately we can not guarantee sufficient staffing levels to facilitate a reliable service. This would also potentially result in students being left on the side of the road. A lot of parents have also stated that they only require to use the service 2-3 times a week. Therefore, we cannot be confident that there would be enough demand every single day to make an extra vehicle viable. Other circumstances, such as the purchase of an additional vehicle, licensing etc currently makes this not a feasible option. As a coach operator we have to hold an Operators Licence with the Traffic Commissioner - our current licence permits us to run 11 vehicles on the road at any given time. We currently operate 9 school transport routes a day. The remaining 2 licences are used either for Private Hire, Rail Replacement, Day Excursions or Coach Holidays over school pick up times, meaning that it is simply not possible for us to offer additional transport.
In the process of reaching this decision we did research into other School Transport provisions within Gloucestershire. Upon doing this research we found that almost every commercially operated, dedicated school transport service is operated whereby parents have to purchase an annual pass. In fact it would appear that our routes to Dene Magna School are some of the last in the county to have accepted daily fares, especially cash payments.
In terms of the increase in price; we are very aware and understanding of the current situation that families are facing concerning the cost of living. We are a normal, working family different to no other and are having to make changes ourselves. We would like to assure parents that the increase in fare was not a decision that was taken lightly. Over the past few months we have seen a massive hike in the cost of running our business, as have many businesses. The current economic situation has increased the cost of every aspect from Fuel, AdBlue®, Electricity, Gas, Oil, Anti-Freeze/Coolant, Vehicle Parts, Tyres … the list is endless. We would like to give people the complete confidence that our increase in fare is not about making more profit, it is simply about maintaining profit margins and ensuring that our business can continue to run and to continue providing the services that we currently offer. We have absorbed the rise in costs over the last few months however this is no longer possible. We ask that people please don’t liken us to big corporations who are profiteering, as in our circumstance that is simply not the case. Our prices also can’t be directly compared to service bus operators, such as Stagecoach, as their business model is completely different; carrying many more customers across their extensive network. The majority of profits that running these services do generate is spent on overheads that can’t necessarily be accounted for in day-to-day pricings; mainly the running of our premises including our offices and workshops, but most importantly, the maintenance of our vehicles. The remaining profit is reinvested back into our business by purchasing newer vehicles to ensure that we can operate a modern, safe and reliable fleet of vehicles. It is worth remembering that the double deckers we operate are owned solely for the purpose of these services and do not generate any other income throughout the year. Even so, they still cost in terms of upkeep during the 13 weeks that they are not being used; receiving regular inspections and maintenance, as well as the cost of tax and insurance. In the process of researching School Transport provision across the county we compared prices for transport to other schools operated by other coach companies. Based on our findings we are confident that our prices are comparative and offer value for money. Many companies also charge a premium for paying monthly rather than up-front, although we chose not to do this, even considering that facilitating monthly payments costs us more in processing fees.
As a coach company we are committed to operating vehicles that meet Low Emission standards. As it stands, 85% of our vehicles meet the Euro 5 standard, including the two double deckers used on these services which have been retrofitted with Low Emission systems. Almost 20% of that number meet the latest Euro 6 standard. It is a commitment of ours as a family that we contribute towards helping the Forest of Dean and our country to become carbon neutral. We also support the government's plans for the country to become Net Zero by 2050. In order for us, as a company, to achieve Net Zero it requires us to invest in vehicles that rely upon renewable energy, rather than diesel. The only electric powered coach currently in the UK market retails at a cost in excess £300,000, with a double decker bus being considerably more expensive! The current cost of a brand new, low emission diesel powered coach is anywhere in the region of £190,000 - £260,000, again with a double decker bus being more. As it stands, there currently isn’t any financial help available to coach companies/operators in order to purchase these vehicles, meaning that this has to be solely funded by our income/profits. If our services were to cease to operate, this could result in a minimum of an extra 50 cars on the road every morning and afternoon, based on 3 students travelling in each car; so this could result in considerably more. Not only does this inevitably increase emissions, but also puts extra pressure on the already suffering road networks.
It is important to note that when living in a location that is not covered within a schools catchment area that travel to the school almost certainly comes at a cost. Free travel is provided by the County Council for students who; live in the schools catchment area but live more than 3 miles away, where there is not a safe walking route, or due to low income. However, exceptions are made and it is worth contacting Gloucestershire County Council if you think you may be eligible.
Another aspect of our decision is that over the past academic year we have seen a big rise in fare-dodging. This has either been in the form of; simply not paying, not being able to show a valid pass, or simply arriving at the bus without the correct amount of money. Through our good will and our driver’s own discretion students have still been allowed to travel to school. We appreciate that not everybody is guilty of this but this has presented itself as a problem and we feel that this solution is also the only way to make sure that everybody is able to travel and use our services fairly. As much as we appreciate that a minority may have spoiled it for a majority I’m sure that you can understand our position concerning this issue.
It is also worth pointing out that our vehicles very often suffer deliberate damage from students as well as general bad behaviour and often rudeness and abuse directed at our staff.
The coronavirus pandemic was an extremely unsettling time for ourselves and our business, with the uncertainty of whether it was going to be possible for the business to survive. Luckily we managed to, otherwise it is obviously unlikely that this conversation would be happening. We would like to address the speculation that as a company we received huge amounts of money in grants in order to keep the business running. As a family we were very grateful for the help that was available to us, however, we certainly did not receive grants to the amounts that the bus industry did. We did however utilise the furlough scheme, and received some considerably smaller grants from the local district council.
We appreciate this decision has come at short notice, however, it has only been made aware to us of the demand that we could expect next academic year during the Year 6 Induction Week. It has taken a few weeks for us to finalise our solution before advertising it. We would also like to make people aware that we are under no obligation to consult with any parties of changes that we may be deciding to make to our services. A brief conversation was held with Dene Magna School over the issues experienced during the week in question, of which we agreed to provide a solution ready for the new academic year.
We realise that opening the portal from Monday 18th July 2022 may make it difficult for some families to secure a place. Therefore we are going to make a few changes. We will change the opening of the portal to a new date of Monday 1st August 2022. We hope that this gives everybody a chance of having the money available for those who would like to secure a space for the year. Along with changing the date of the portal opening we have also decided to change the structure of payments to make it slightly more affordable for parents. We have changed our initial deposit to a value of £60.00, and will offer the remaining balance to be spread over 11 payments of £66.36.
Listening to the concerns of parents who do not necessarily use our services on a daily basis, and who appreciated the flexibility that the daily system offered, we have decided that we will sell single tickets. These will be available to purchase via our system, upto one week in advance. A single journey will cost £2.30. However, this will only be possible if seats do not sell out due to the sale of annual passes. We would consider utilising the standing spaces on the bus if that was the case, however, this is something that we have been trying to avoid as a whole. We will of course consult with parents about this nearer the time.
We wish to note that we work closely with the Integrated Transport Unit at Gloucestershire County Council and that those students in receipt of a free bus pass in either Cinderford, Littledean and Drybrook are not required to purchase an annual pass from ourselves, and that provision for them to travel on our services has already been catered for. In the coming weeks the parents of these students will receive information from ourselves, or GCC, with instructions on how to obtain your QR Code/Ticket, free of charge.
We had considered as a family whether we wanted to continue operating these services for parents who found themselves so freely able to show so much animosity towards us. We do not appreciate public defamation nor people going to the press to attempt to damage our reputation to force an overturn in decision. We are not obligated in any way to provide these services and it is totally at our discretion whether we decide to or not. However, we are going to continue for the parents who rely on this service. If we had taken the decision not to, it would have most likely resulted in no dedicated transport from Cinderford, Littledean or Drybrook to Dene Magna School due to the increased demand and lack of availability across the coach industry.