Gardiners NMC formally warned by TC

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Gardiners NMC provides holiday and day trips, as well as school bus services for Northumberland County Council. SARAH CARTER
Gardiners NMC provides holiday and day trips, as well as school bus services for Northumberland County Council. SARAH CARTER

After a PI triggered by a bus breaking down on a level crossing, operator voluntarily reduces fleet allowance from 35 to 10 over concerns with financial standing

A Public Inquiry into a the licence of Gardiners NMC of Morpeth has resulted in the company being given a formal warning by Kevin Rooney, Traffic Commissioner (TC) for the North East.

The Northumberland Gazette reported that the PI followed an in which a bus carrying schoolchildren broke down on a level crossing.

On Wednesday, January 27, a coach was taking around 30 to 40 middle school pupils  home from school in Alnwick, travelling on the 423 route.

The driver – James Moffatt – had stopped at the crossing to allow a train to pass. When he took the brake off and pressed the accelerator, nothing happened, but because the bus was in gear it rolled down onto the level crossing.

He opened the door and made sure all of the children got off the bus, directing them to stand in a layby so they were off the road as well as away from the tracks. He strongly denied allegations made by a parent of one of the children on-board that the door failed to open at first.

James called from the crossing’s emergency phone to warn the authorities, while an apprentice fitter, who was getting a lift home, called the Transport Manager, Adrian Smith, who told the mechanic to check the linkage cable connected to the throttle pedal at the rear of the bus. The PI heard that within five minutes, the bus had been driven off the crossing and the children were back on board.

After the incident, an inspection of the fleet was carried out by the DVSA. A report found only minor defects with the buses.

Kevin Rooney indicated that the company’s financial was causing him some issues. The Gardiners NMC’s licence allowed it to operate up to 35 coaches, but Mr Rooney accepted an offer to ‘voluntarily’ reduce the fleet size to 10 – the number of coaches that the firm currently runs from its Coopies Lane Industrial Estate base.

While he did also have concerns about the how the incident itself had been handled, he concluded that to do anything further to the licence would be ‘disproportionate,’ and so issued a formal warning.

“Overall, the fleet isn’t a bad one,” the TC said. “Where I have concerns with the operator is we don’t know what caused the incident.”

Earlier in the PI, mechanic Daniel West, attempted to explain what had caused the incident, but Peter Thompson, a vehicle examiner from the Newcastle office of the DVSA, who had carried out a full inspection of the fleet following the incident, said: “The only concern is how the operator could tell the apprentice how to rectify the issue over the phone and get it sorted within five minutes.”

Kevin Rooney said that he had similar concerns and also asked why the issue hadn’t returned as the bus continued on its journey.

He added: “I’m not seeing this as a plausible explanation. I’m not convinced and this is quite a crucial issue.”

This sparked the TC to ask the firm to bring the bus down to Linden Hall from Alnwick for an inspection and to see if the fault relating to the throttle could be replicated. It couldn’t, and the TC said that the fact the rev counter also wasn’t working raised doubts about how the company was aware that the engine was revving high and therefore how the fault was fixed so quickly.

“My confidence has taken a knock,” he said. “If you can’t tell me why it happened in the first place, then how are you going to stop it happening again?”

Giving his evidence, Adrian Smith, who runs the firm with his father Glenn, described it as a ‘random mechanical defect’, but conceded: “It’s a horrendous thing to happen and it couldn’t happen in a worse place. I can only apologise to the parents of the children.”

Earlier, he had emphasised the efforts made to ensure the coaches were well-maintained. “We always take advice, we always take criticism and we are always keen to make improvements. I check all the maintenance sheets myself and check they are filled in correctly and the jobs are in hand or due to be done.”

The PI also acted as a driver conduct hearing and Mr Rooney concluded that no action would be taken against Mr Moffatt, who ‘acted in a professional manner’. His boss too had no criticisms of his driver, with Mr Smith saying: “It was handled very professionally.”