x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

'Coffins on wheels' used for Dubai school run to be phased out

Take our poll: Minibuses, which seat 12 to 15 children, are to be phased out of use as school transport in Dubai after serious concerns about their safety were raised.

The RTA has asked school transport providers and schools to begin phasing the use of minibuses from the start of the next school year. Pawan Singh / The National
The RTA has asked school transport providers and schools to begin phasing the use of minibuses from the start of the next school year. Pawan Singh / The National

DUBAI // School minibuses described as "coffins on wheels" are to be phased out in Dubai after a spate of crashes.

Two people were killed and 63 injured in 30 minibus collisions in the first few months of 2013.

The Roads and Transport Authority has now asked school transport providers and schools to stop using minibuses from this year.

"The issue was raised two months back during our meeting with schools," said Yousuf Al Ali, chief executive of the Public Transport Agency. "We have communicated our concerns to the operators and do not recommend the use of minibuses for school transport." The RTA, which says the vehicles are coffins on wheels, will work with Dubai Police to enforce the ban.

"These buses are very small, many not equipped with safety measures," Mr Al Ali said. "If there is an accident, the exit from the bus is difficult and chances of injury are higher."

Minibuses with 12 to 15 seats are banned from use in schools in the United States because of their high centre of gravity, heavy rear axles and tendency to lose control at high speeds or with heavy loads.

The RTA said operators would be given time to replace their minibuses with 22-seater buses and have asked for feedback.

School transport is generally outsourced to bus companies in Dubai and costs between Dh600 and Dh1,000 a month. At schools where very few children are picked up along a single route, minibuses are common.

The transport company STS, which operates in 42 schools, have already started replacing their small buses.

"We have been given till next September," said Col M?L Augustine, the managing director. "But we have already ordered new buses for replacement."

He said upgrading buses to fit new regulations was costly and justified a slight fee increase every few years. "It is after five years that we have increased the fees by Dh25 every month," he said.

Arab Falcon Bus Rentals have 60 minibuses and have ordered several more for the nine schools they operate in.

"We are a door-to-door service," said Nosherwan Hussain, the senior manager. "If there are only seven or eight children in an area, you cannot put a 22-seater bus in that area."

He said they would have to reduce the number of buses and join routes together. "Children will be picked up earlier and dropped off later because the route will be longer."

Mr Hussain, whose company provides transport to all Taaleem-run schools in Dubai, said they contract many private minibus owners, which are part of their service fleet to schools.

"There are more than 20,000 such drivers who have minivans. They will all be out of a job," he said. He has written to the RTA to ask for another solution. "We will need at least two years before we start replacing these buses."

Fatima Ahmad, whose seven-year-old attends a British school, said it did not make sense to ban minibuses.

"If they are unsafe, then why sell such buses here to begin with?" she said. "Then they should be banned for adults as well."

She does not want her daughter to have long journeys, which would be inevitable if bigger buses were used.

"It will be a huge expense to run 25 to 30 seater buses to transport a handful of pupils. My guess is they will have to take children from different localities as well."

Jagruti S, a parent of a 10-year-old at an Indian school, also worried it would increase the cost of transport.

"My child takes the minibus right now," she said. "I haven't heard of any accident so far.

"I understand the need for safety and support that. But it isn't the bus but the driver that makes it unsafe for the children.

"Ultimately, in the name of safety, parents will have to bear the high cost."

aahmed@thenational.ae