Avalon Coaches licence revoked

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One driver was found to have breached drivers’ hours rules 10 times in a 16 day period. MIKE SHEATHER

After significant maintenance and compliance concerns and a long period of time without a transport manager, operator loses its licence

Kevin Rooney, Traffic Commissioner (TC) for the West of England, has revoked the licence of Avalon Coaches of Glastonbury with effect from 2359hrs on December 31, 2017. Before the revocation takes effect, the operator’s licence was curtailed to 12 vehicles with effect from October 31.

No orders of disqualification have been made.


Avalon Coaches Ltd is the holder of a standard international PSV O-licence authorising the use of 22 vehicles. The licence was granted in April 2003.

The company attended a Public Inquiry (PI) on October 5, 2004, at which the number of authorised vehicles on the licence was reduced from 18 to 10 for seven consecutive days. Following this period, an application to increase authorisation to 20 vehicles was granted.

The company attended at a PI on July 22, 2010, at which the number of authorised vehicles on the licence was reduced from 20 to 15 for 39 consecutive days, the repute of both nominated transport managers was lost and a number of undertakings were given, which were later fulfilled and removed from the licence. [wlm_nonmember][…]

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A warning letter was issued on June 14, 2013, following an unsatisfactory maintenance investigation.

A vehicle operated by the company, PO56 OZT, was involved in an incident on June 22, 2015, where it collided with a concrete wall protecting an over-bridge on the M25. The driver of the coach, Gerald Huxtable, subsequently pleaded guilty to driving without due care and attention.

In September 2015, a variation application was submitted by the operator to increase its authorisation from 22 to 30 vehicles. A DVSA investigation was raised to ensure that systems were in place to cope with the fleet increase and as a result of concerns that there was no transport manager on the licence. On November 17, 2015, Vehicle Examiner (VE) Richard Hollinshead and Traffic Examiner (TE) Amy Comer visited, with both noting several shortcomings.

In June 2016, TE Comer made a second, unannounced visit to the operating centre, where she met Clayton Roper, who advised her that he was preparing for the final part of his CPC exam. TE Comer was also advised that Wayne Wealleans was acting as a stand-in transport manager, although it transpired he was actually a ‘transport consultant’ and there was no evidence found to suggest that duties were being undertaken.

Following the completion of the examiner’s investigations, matters were referred to the Office of the TC. The operator was called to a PI, and told the licence would be suspended with effect from January 7, 2017, if a transport manager was not appointed. Prior to this, a short notice hearing with the company was agreed to by the TC. Philip Hatherall was accepted onto the licence as the nominated transport manager as a temporary appointment until Mr Roper had succeeded in achieving the transport manager qualification, having failed to do so at first attempt.

Director Colin Derek White previously held a licence in his own name, trading as Chislett’s Garage. DVSA had concerns that Avalon Coaches Ltd operated using that licence’s discs. Surrender of that licence was offered and accepted.

The operator was once again called to PI for the following reasons:

  • That the holder of the licence may no longer satisfy the requirements to have an effective and stable establishment, to be of good repute, to be of the appropriate financial standing and/or to be professionally competent;
  •  That the laws relating to the driving and operation of the vehicles used under the licence may not have been observed;
  •  Concerns about compliance with rules on drivers hours, tachographs and record keeping, and whether vehicles were being kept fit and serviceable;
  •  The fact a prohibition notice had been imposed on a vehicle owned or operated by the licence holder; and
  •  The fact that relevant fixed penalty notices had been issued to the operator or his drivers.

The company was also noted to have had a significant number of transport managers, and spent a significant period of time with no transport manager specified. The transport manager immediately before the visit of the DVSA examiners in November 2015 was Paul Frank Williams-Thomas, who was called to the PI to consider repute. The transport manager at the time the PI was called, Mr Hatherall, was invited to attend but was not formally called as his repute was not in question. Driver Huxtable was called to a conjoined conduct hearing.

After several adjournments, the TC decided to proceed with the conduct hearing separately and listed the PI for September 8, 2017.

Shortly before the PI, one of the operator’s school buses caught fire. DVSA conducted a follow-up maintenance investigation which highlighted further or persisting shortcomings.

The Public Inquiry

Colin White, sole director, attended for Avalon Coaches Ltd accompanied by Mr Clayton Roper, Transport Manager, and Wayne Wealleans, Transport Consultant. Also in attendance was former Transport Manager Paul Frank Williams-Thomas and former Transport Manager Phillip Hatherall. Present for DVSA were TE Amy Comer and VE Gary Ford.

Colin White began by stating he had been operating coaches since 1998. He had taken on Avalon 12–13 years ago. Work was mostly school runs, and there had been growth, with 29 vehicles in total now in possession. He said some were in for long-term repair ‘project jobs.’ The peak vehicle requirement was 22 vehicles.

There was one minibus, one midibus and the rest full size buses or coaches. He employed 26 drivers and four staff in the office.

DVSA: Gary Ford Evidence

VE Gary Ford said that on July 6, 2017, he had inspected three vehicles at Wells Blue School. Two were issued with immediate prohibitions, one for a fractured seat frame to which a seat belt was anchored, and the other for the offside front tyre worn beyond the legal limit and cords exposed.

Following that encounter, Mr Ford attended unannounced at the operating centre accompanied by another VE, Luke Miller. Five vehicles were examined and four received prohibitions, one immediate and three delayed. The immediate prohibition related to a defect in a Telma retarder, which was disconnected. The same vehicle had previously received a prohibition for a defect with the same retarder.

Messers Ford and Miller again attended the operating centre on August 9, 2017, this time having given one day’s notice. Four more vehicles were inspected with two receiving immediate prohibitions, the first for a brake pipe leaking without pedal applied and air pressure unable to be sustained with engine at fast idle, and the second for an oil contaminated Telma retarder constituting a fire risk (a different vehicle to the previous Telma issue). The two other vehicles were issued with advisory notices for a combination of an oil leak, a power steering fluid leak and a leak in the windscreen.

Mr Ford felt many of the defects were longstanding and should have been detected by drivers and workshop staff during safety inspections. Mr Ford raised concerns with the transport manager over the standard of inspections being carried out and indicated that driver defect reporting seemed ineffective.

It was Mr Ford’s opinion that the single inspection bay had adequate height and length for the fleet operated, but was not sufficiently wide to allow side lockers to be opened fully. The main fitter, Danny Lambert, was unskilled and self-taught. He had made ‘a basic and fundamental error’ in not testing brakes under pressure, directly leading to the failure to detect a vehicle presented for test with ballooning brake hoses, attracting an immediate prohibition.

Mr White asked Mr Ford if a Telma retarder could be a fire hazard if completely disconnected. Mr Ford agreed that disconnecting the wiring would prevent the retarder from working so it would not then be a fire risk.

TE Amy Comer evidence

TE Amy Comer had been asked to visit the operator following the crash on June 22, 2015. Ms Comer detailed an encounter with vehicle FJ11 MMA, where the driver was carrying an excess number of charts.

She highlighted a letter from the operator to a driver called ‘Norman.’ The letter identified 10 separate drivers hours infringement in a 16 day period. Ms Comer pointed out that the infringements appeared serious, one example being seven hours and 58 minutes driving with only 37 minutes break taken. The TE stated that there appeared to be little investigation into these infringements.

Ms Comer also highlighted what appeared to be a notice to go on a wall or noticeboard. It was headed ‘All Staff’ and instructed that drivers record a vehicle check with the tachograph to cross hammers. Ms Comer expressed the view that such blanked communication was inadequate to deal with the problem.

Former Transport Manager evidence

Mr Williams-Thomas was asked about the apparent use of the sole trader discs by the limited company. Mr Williams-Thomas said that Colin White’s brother, Keith White, had brought him the two discs from Chislett’s Coaches and said he could use them. Mr Williams-Thomas put the discs in the window of two vehicles and allocated drivers but it was his position that the vehicles were actually operated by Chislett’s, not Avalon. While he did not consider that he had any direct responsibility for these two vehicles, he claimed he did check that they were being inspected as required.

The TC asked about who had applied for the replacement Chislett’s discs that had subsequently become used in the Avalon vehicles. Mr Williams-Thomas vehemently denied it was him, and said that the post didn’t come to the operating centre and was brought over from Colin White’s sister company across the road.

In cross-examination, assisted by Mr Wealleans, Colin White put it to Mr Williams-Thomas that he had needed to request the two additional discs to cover a school-contract that he (Mr Williams-Thomas) had recently won and for which Avalon had specifically bought two 70-seater vehicles – a contract that had previously been run by Mr Williams-Thomas’ previous company. Mr Williams-Thomas denied that he had previously operated those contracts through a different business.

The TC commented: “Mr Williams-Thomas’ evidence appeared coherent and convincing. It was clear that he had suffered health problems that had caused him to leave, and to leave without notice. I could find nothing that would cause me to find that his good repute would be forfeit and, noting that neither did this mean that I had made any adverse findings in relation to the operator, I indicated that Mr Williams-Thomas’ repute remained intact and he was free to leave.”

Another former Transport Manager, Philip Hatherall, had not been called on any concerns in relation to his repute, having been open with the TC in January that he was taking the role temporarily. He said he had previously retired in 2012 or 2013. He left Avalon in May 2017 following Mr Roper receiving confirmation of his examination results.

He said that Mr Roper had implemented what he had learned from his studies during the period from January to May 2017.

The average age of a vehicle in the Avalon fleet was over 13 years.

Current Transport Manager evidence

Mr Roper said he had been the General Manager at Avalon since December 1, 2015. Prior to that, he had worked at Crossville Motor Services.

As of the Monday following the PI, a new senior engineer was to be put in place coming from Colin White Services.

Mr Roper accepted that here were a lot of elderly coaches but also said that the company had just invested £400,000 in two new vehicles. It was his view that the facilities were adequate and definitely not the worst, and the company was looking at investment and redevelopment.

The TC questioned Mr Roper about the recurring issues with the Telma retarder on vehicle N237HWX. Mr Roper said he was told by Mr Lambert that he knew what he was doing and could simply disconnect it. Mr Roper did not know whether any VTP5 application had been made in relation to changing the condition of the coach from its ‘as approved’ state.

Mr Roper explained the process for doing driver gate checks and the refresher training underway with drivers. Asked about the immediate prohibition issued to vehicle P403CTA on July 6, 2017 for a front offside tyre worn below the legal limit, Mr Roper said that the driver should have seen it.

The TC commented: “I asked for the relevant PMi sheet and noted that it showed 6mm of tread on the previous inspection. Mr Roper confirmed that the vehicle did only 50 – 100 miles a day on school runs and could do nothing to explain how 6mm of tread could have worn away in three or four weeks.”

On the subject of ‘missing mileage’ reports, Mr Roper talked through the various systems used and said that while they had previously been unable to produce such reports, that was addressed in the move from Descartes to TruTac on September 1. He claimed there hadn’t yet been time to produce any reports from the new system.

Director’s evidence

Mr White claimed that he had more of an eye for mechanical matters than Mr Roper. He worked six days a week from seven in the morning and had a significant engineering factory employing 25 staff, reduced from a peak of 65. Chisletts Garage was an MoT station and is now used for the Avalon ‘project’ vehicles.

Asked about the vehicle fires, Mr White said that the 2014 event started as a small flame in the dashboard – the drivers had added some wiring themselves to run a TV while they were awaiting pick-ups. His investigations led him to conclude that the cause of the fire was this wiring.

The 2017 fire was on a Volvo B10M vehicle he had owned from new and which was in good general condition. He did not yet know the cause of the fire, but it seemed to have started around the engine – it was a mid-engined vehicle.

He was engaged in renewing the fleet. Two vehicles had been bought at a cost of £245,000 each, and he had spent £178,000 on parts. He was looking at moving site with a new build workshop.

In relation to the apparent misuse of the Chislett’s licence, Colin White claimed he wasn’t aware of what had happened. He believed it was Mr Williams-Thomas who had requested the discs.

During an interval, the TC had produced the transaction record from the O-licence system which showed that the discs had been requested using the self-service facility, using the credentials of ‘Keith White.’ Colin White said that Keith White may have given his password login credentials to Mr Williams-Thomas.

The TC then turned Mr White’s attention to a letter which he had written to Ms Kirstie Brown in the Central Licensing Office in Leeds on December 1, 2015.

In it, he said: “Avalon Coaches had an inspection by Wayne Wealleans of Total Fleet Management in April and by VOSA two weeks ago and all systems were approved.” Mr White was then shown the summary and conclusion of the PI brief of DVSA Vehicle Examiner Richard Hollinshead, following his visit to the operator in November 2015 and which stated the following: “The operation was operating without a transport manager in post. I found the transport office in discord with no person in overall control. The vehicle maintenance and maintenance recording and filing had been left to the now departed mechanic to deal with.”

Mr White said he ‘had been led down the garden path’ by numerous transport managers. He said Clayton Roper was a competent person for that role. He needed help, particularly on the mechanical side, but he had the passion.

He said the fitters clearly hadn’t been doing their job. When asked about the apparent dramatic downturn in MoT passes identified in Mr Wealleans report, Mr White said this coincided with the loss of a fitter following a falling out with a previous transport manager.

Post-Inquiry Submissions

After the PI, the TC received a letter from Colin Roper enclosing a copy of a maintenance contract with C L Transport Ltd along with a number of training certificates for Paul Ashwell, Nigel Derrick Saunders and one for Mr Lambert.

The letter stated that Mr Ashwell was now working full-time at Avalon Coaches with Mr Lambert reporting to him. Mr Saunders was to stand in for Mr Ashwell or Mr Lambert in their absence.

Prohibitions were being issued to Avalon Coaches vehicles with increasing frequency. MIKE SHEATHER

Consideration of evidence: tachographs

Considering the evidence, the TC said: “Vehicles have been used with defective tachographs on three occasions, in 2012, 2013 and 2016. There has been one roadside encounter identifying a weekly rest offence in the five year period. These findings do not give cause for serious concern, but the operator’s own evidence in the audit report and supporting evidence do.”

The TC described the infringements of driver ‘Norman,’ seen in a letter from the operator to him. These included five examples of insufficient breaks, two examples of driving for more than four hours with no break at all, two examples of insufficient daily rest and one instance of the maximum daily driving time being exceeded by one hour and 12 minutes.

“These are serious infringements jeopardising the safety of passengers and other road users,” the TC continued. “They deserve close scrutiny and early eradication.

“The letter setting them out to Norman was dated July 29, 2016. There is a follow-up letter to Norman Hacker dated November 7, 2016, saying that he must attend just a two-hour drivers hours refresher course. That is not the sort of response I would expect of a transport manager or operator in relation to that level of offending.

“There was, of course, no transport manager in post during the relevant period with Mr Roper acting as operations manager but unqualified.

“More recently, I learn from the audit conducted by Mr Wealleans that Mr Roper had not mastered the tachograph analysis software and it was not replaced until a few days before the PI. The rules on drivers hours have not been kept.

“Driver Huxtable was convicted of careless driving following the crash in June 2015. It is possible that the company could have done something to prevent this through a better induction. Mr Huxtable told me in his separate driver conduct hearing that he had been a local bus driver and that was his first longer trip.

“He was also unfamiliar with the controls which contributed to him being unable to demist the windscreen. I had directed that the company be invited to attend that driver conduct hearing but I heard from the director Mr White that they had not been. The evidence of Mr Huxtable, genuine as I believe it to have been, has not been able to be tested by the operator and I afford it no weight. It follows that I make no adverse finding against the company in relation to that conviction and the crash which led to it.”

Catalogue of prohibitions

“Prior to the most recent DVSA investigation which started with the checks at Wells Blue School, 11 separate prohibition notices had been issued to the company’s vehicles over the past five years,” The TC stated.

“One of those prohibitions was endorsed as being, in the issuing officer’s opinion, a significant failure of the operator’s maintenance system. That was on July 25, 2016, when a door was found not to be closing completely such that the retaining catches were not locating properly.

“On April 19, 2016, a vehicle was presented for annual test with two defective brake hoses. The inspector noted ‘bulge getting bigger with every depression of brake pedal’ and an immediate prohibition was issued. We now know that this is because the company ‘engineer,’ Mr Lambert, inspected brake hoses without placing them under pressure.

“I note that in November 2012 an immediate prohibition notice was issued to vehicle AC02AVA for an exhaust system with a pipe completely fractured such that exhaust fumes were likely to enter the vehicle. The second item was the exhaust system being contaminated with oil and constituting a fire risk. Two of the operator’s vehicles have caught fire. The first appears to have been caused by a driver tampering with the electrical circuits to power a TV.

“The most recent maintenance investigation appears to show the operator on a downward trajectory. A further eight vehicles were issued with prohibition notices in a period of five weeks. Out of 11 vehicle inspections, this is an appalling outcome.

“Vehicle Examiner Ford found that many of those defects were longstanding and should have been identified either by drivers, through routine safety inspections, or both. Vehicle P403CTA was issued an immediate prohibition on July 6, 2017 for the front off-side tyre worn to beyond the legal limit and with cords exposed. That is the sort of defect that any driver should find on a walkround check.

“It is also highly alarming that a safety inspection conducted three-four weeks earlier recorded the tyre tread depth as 6mm. I was offered no explanation for this and I find it a further clear indication of the total lack of competence of the fleet engineer Mr Lambert. That safety inspection sheet appears to border on fraudulent.”

Recklessness with retarders

Returning to the issue with Telma retarders, The TC continued: “Telma retarders are an additional braking device fitted within the vehicle driveline. They offer three main benefits.

“The first is that, being electronically controlled and engaged with the driveline, they provide a smoother brake operation particularly suited to passenger vehicles. In doing so, they achieve the second benefit which is to significantly reduce the wear of foundation brake components such as brake shoes and drums.

“The third benefit is, from my perspective, the most important. Retarders are often fitted to vehicles to enable compliance with the Type Approval brake requirement relating to brake fade. Brake fade on an air-brake system generally occurs when the braking shoes heat to such an extent that the resin that bonds the braking material together becomes liquid and then acts as a lubricant between the brake shoe and the brake drum, leading to a dramatically increased stopping distance.

“Additional braking devices dissipate a significant proportion of the vehicle’s energy and so reduce the amount of energy that the brake shoes and drums need to absorb and then dissipate. Not all coaches require an additional braking device such as a Telma to achieve the Type Approval standard and whether or not a particular vehicle does is recorded on its Type Approval or Certification documentation. Mr Roper told me that he was unaware whether Mr Lambert’s decision to disconnect the retarder had been notified to DVSA in the way that is required, such that an expert assessment can be made about whether it can safely be removed.

“Rather, the transport manager and company has relied upon the opinion of an unqualified fitter and have chosen to disconnect and potentially remove this troublesome device rather than repair it. Such an act can be described as nothing short of reckless.”

Unsuitable facilities

The TC described the maintenance facilities at Avalon as wholly unsuitable for the maintenance of a significant fleet of elderly buses and coaches in 2017.

“The evidence of Vehicle Examiner Ford indicates that it was difficult to conduct an effective vehicle inspection in such confines,” he said. “As someone who has previously managed heavy vehicle inspections in both Government and private sector sites, I concur and I find the Avalon facility almost Dickensian.

“The latest investigation found that eight out of 11 vehicles were either immediately dangerous or on their way to becoming dangerous. That is a horrific statistic and I have no hesitation in finding that vehicles have not been kept fit and serviceable.

“Two fixed penalties have been issued to drivers of company vehicles, one for an issue with a defective exit door and another for a weekly rest offence in 2012.

“I have considered the operator’s submission of a maintenance contract with C L Transport. C L Transport is a truck operator. Trucks are very different to buses and coaches, both in fundamental construction and in the issues that need to be checked to ensure passenger safety. I have no evidence of the competence or otherwise of the staff at C L Transport to maintain buses and coaches. It does not appear to be an appropriate maintenance provider or inspection service.

“In any case, outsourcing vehicle inspections will not in itself resolve all the issues leading to the prohibitions. Many of the defects are those that a driver should identify. So, absent any evidence of the competence of the staff at C L Transport to inspect public service vehicles along with any convincing proposals for dealing with the defects that occur between inspections, I find no comfort in what is proposed.

“The transfer of a technician from Colin White Services has merit, but it comes only after the PI. I have concerns that Avalon is the poor relation in the family of Colin White’s enterprises and the manufacturing facility will always take precedence, being the element that actually makes money. I do not doubt Mr White’s sincerity but I have no confidence in his ability to sustain the arrangement proposed. In any case, none of the qualifications held by, or training evidenced for, Mr Ashwell are relevant to the inspection of PSVs.”

Avalon Coaches recently purchased a pair of Irizar i6 Integral coaches, which were delivered in the summer of 2017

Considering competence

The TC continued: “I turn now to consider the professional competence of the operator. In doing so, I note that the current specified transport manager, Mr Roper, was not called to the PI in relation to his repute. I cannot therefore make any finding in relation to him.

“There is, of course, a difference in any case about whether an individual is of good repute as a transport manager and whether the engagement of that individual as the sole transport manager in a specific business with its own characteristics is enough to establish professional competence. That is why TCs will often, in larger businesses, look for more than one person. It may also be why an individual can satisfy professional competence for one operator but not another, where perhaps the challenges to be faced are different.

“Mr Wealleans very helpfully provided an age profile of the fleet, showing the average fleet age as 13.66 years. 17 vehicles are more than 10 years old. Eight vehicles are more than 20 years old. Professional competence in running a fleet such as this requires an ability to understand whether and how vehicles are being kept roadworthy.

“Mr Roper did not properly investigate the very straightforward issue relating to the illegal tyre found at Wells Blue School in July. It was caused by significant failings both in the safety inspection process undertaken by Mr Lambert and by failings in, it would appear, multiple driver walkround checks. To his credit, Mr White appeared to understand the issue as soon as I read the contents of the previous PMI. Mr Roper has not been able, in the current circumstances, to take control of the engineering part of the operation such as to prevent the sheer amount of dangerous, or soon to be dangerous, defects identified in the most recent DVSA investigation. In that regard he has not satisfied, and does not satisfy, the operator’s need for professional competence.

“Professional competence has also been lacking in the operator’s inability to produce reports relating to missing tachograph mileage and in the inability properly to investigate and to correct drivers hours infringements. I do not hold Mr Roper at fault for this given his timeframe in post, though he will wish to reflect on his role as operations manager.

“I find that neither vehicle maintenance nor drivers hours have been effectively managed. The operator has had eight transport managers in seven years. It is difficult to see how that squares with the requirement of a transport manager to have continuous and effective control. It was without a transport manager from October 2015 until January 2017.

“Finally, I consider the good repute of the operator and, in doing so, its sole director and shareholder Colin White. Inevitably, all the findings above will fall upon the operator.

“I am deeply concerned that he has relied so much on others without apparently properly putting in place checks on their work. He has been to a PI previously where his good repute as a transport manager was forfeit. The company has received a warning letter. There was significant correspondence between OTC and he about the failure to have a Transport Manager and it was only when I proposed licence suspension that Mr Hatherall adopted that role.

“What he wrote in his letter of December 1, 2015, to my PSV licensing caseworker was quite simply untrue. He has, as a minimum, allowed O-licensing self-service credentials issued to his licence to be abused or, in the alternative, he was collusive to the use of the discs from one entity being used by another.

“So there are many negatives, but I find a number of positives. Mr White had engaged the support of Mr Wealleans. He has demonstrated that he has sought to recruit transport managers and how that has been problematic. He had investigated the cause of the fire in 2014. He has invested in the fleet.

“I am in an unusual circumstance in that the sole director of this licence is also the sole director of a different entity holding a goods vehicle licence. It is the evidence of DVSA VE Gary Ford that the goods licence, from a mechanical viewpoint, has no identified concerns.

“I find that making a finding of loss of repute of Avalon Coaches Ltd and Colin White as sole director would be disproportionate because of the impact on a much wider business group. Yet I find it wholly proportionate that the PSV operation come to a managed end given the scale of shortcomings and level of public risk it provides. Given the size of the operation and the contracted nature, I make my decision to allow it to be wound down appropriately.” [/wlm_ismember]