Wellington bus company faces serious charges

SHANE COWLISHAW
Last updated 05:00 29/04/2014
Bus inspection
KEVIN STENT

IN A JAM: Police vehicle safety officer Dave Bergeman tests a Wellington bus's door pressure.

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Serious charges have been levelled against a Wellington bus company, including allegations it removed safety devices from its vehicles.

Police have laid 11 charges under the Health and Safety in Employment Act against Wellington City Transport Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of NZ Bus, which operates Go Wellington, Valley Flyer and Airport Flyer services.

They include seven counts of failing to take action to avert serious harm, two of obstructing a health and safety inspector, one of failing to provide assistance to an inspector, and one of failing to comply with an improvement notice.

It is understood the charges, which relate to investigations undertaken between 2012 and 2013, include claims that safety devices which prevent the back door closing on a passenger were removed from some buses.

Last year a series of random spot checks undertaken by the police resulted in dozens of the city's buses being hauled off the road because of serious safety problems.

The company will appear in Wellington District Court tomorrow. If convicted it could face fines of up to $500,000 on each of the serious-harm charges, and up to $250,000 on each of the other charges.

NZ Bus southern chief operating officer Rachel Drew confirmed the charges but said they "lacked substance" and would be strongly defended.

They related to incidents of "alleged entrapment" in the doors of some vehicles and the subsequent police investigation into those incidents.

Improvements had been made voluntarily that were over and above current transport rules requirements, which was consistent with the company's commitment to zero harm, she said.

Police declined all comment while the matter was before the court.

Wellington Tramways Union secretary Kevin O'Sullivan said that about a dozen drivers were interviewed late last year as part of the investigation.

The union and its members had held serious safety concerns about the buses "for ages", he said.

Greater Wellington Regional Council public transport portfolio leader Paul Swain said the fact police were laying charges against the company was of serious concern, given the council had several contracts with it for public transport services.

"We expect all contractors to be fully compliant with all the relevant road safety requirements and to be fully aware of their responsibilities," Swain said.

"This is clearly a matter between the police and NZ Bus so we can't make any specific comments on the charges, but we'll be watching the proceedings with great interest."

PINK STICKERS

In May last year, thousands of Wellington commuters were stranded during rush hour after police stings saw several buses ordered off the road.

Toxic exhaust fumes creeping into buses was the main issue and 20 Go Wellington and Valley Flyer buses received pink stickers.

Police repeated the surprise checks again in August and another 27 buses were ordered off the road, resulting in more delays. Problems included leaking oil.

One of those buses had leaks in four places while another had flammable "buildup" on its engine, fuel tank, hydraulic tank and hydraulic fan, as well as an anti-freeze drip.

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The first 10 months of 2013 saw police pink sticker 67 buses in the region, with all but six belonging to NZ Bus.

The company was forced to hand back almost $150,000 to Wellington ratepayers following the service delays.

ALSO READ: Update of city bus services long overdue, says regional councillor Paul Swain

- The Dominion Post

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