By Andria Kades and Iole Damaskinos
Schools and commuters descended into chaos on Monday, after more than 500 buses were taken out of service amid fears they were not safe for use.
As a result, almost all high schools and lyceums across the country were affected, translating to around 6,000 students, with hundreds turning up late or not attending at all, Education Minister Athena Michaelidou told the state broadcaster.
The decision was taken after a school bus abruptly caught fire in Nicosia on Friday, marking the third such incident.
Amid fears of a repeat fire, Transport Minister Alexis Vafeades said there was no other choice if the public’s safety was to be ensured. Paphos in particular was hit the hardest, with almost no routes operating.
“Unfortunately, we could find no other solution but to remove buses that are not properly equipped in accordance with their contracts,” Vafeades said, speaking on CyBC’s morning programme.
Worsening the situation was the lack of clarity of how long the buses would be out of operation for, with Vafeades saying the situation was expected to last for at least 10 days.
Meanwhile, Michaelidou said the schools were being understanding over marking students late or absent if they were affected by the commute, while the ministry is contemplating reintroducing remote teaching, so as to ensure students do not fall behind in their learning.
In Limassol, all Emel buses with more than 22 seats that carry students were pulled off the streets from Monday until such as time as they are outfitted with automatic engine-fire extinguishing systems.
The withdrawal includes buses subcontracted by bus companies to transport public school students from primary age to secondary, without affecting other activities of the same buses.
Despite the companies’ disagreement, the buses had to be suspended to ensure student safety and their record does not inspire confidence, Vafeades said.
“One incident [of fire] might be considered an accident but after the third one it is clear that the safety environment is weak, and you can expect a fourth,” the minister said.
Chairman of the secondary education parents’ federation Loizos Constantinou told AlphaNews they heralded the minister’s decision, putting their full weight of support behind it, as it concerned safety.
Nonetheless, bus companies “knew of the decision since Saturday” but left communicating the impact to the public till late on Sunday, with two companies doing so after midnight.
This left scores of parents and commuters confused as some companies conveyed more information than others.
“I found out on Sunday evening at 8.20pm that there would be no bus. No explanation, just a message from the school that following a ministry announcement there would be no buses on Monday,” one mother told the Cyprus Mail. “My son goes to a regional school which is more than 5km away so he can’t just walk. Other kids come from more than 20km away.”
One passenger who uses the Intercity buses told the Cyprus Mail she saw the company’s Facebook post shortly after midnight saying routes would be cancelled but was confused because there were no details on which ones.
“I thought I would check in the morning before going to work, but there was still no information and the customer service opens long after I’m supposed to get my bus.”
Intercity then issued another statement dubbed ‘urgent’ saying there would be cancellations after noon on Monday but again failed to specify which routes or times. A subsequent phone call to the company’s customer service solicited a response that said: “we know there’s cancellations, we just don’t know for which routes.”
According to Vafeades, inspectors are to be sent out by the ministry to evaluate all premises which certify the suitability of vehicles for circulation, to record precisely where the weaknesses lie.
The problem of lack of updated safety equipment is one of a “difference of interpretation” of the terms of contact with the state, the minister explained, specifying that after the second bus fire incident in October, the ministry had demanded that all buses be upgraded with the system, despite a law allowing any vehicle in circulation prior to 2009 to not require this.
European safety regulations did not come into effect until September 1, 2021 and were not in effect when the buses in question were registered, the ministry elucidated.
Emel buses with over 22 passenger seats which carry out regular intercity and urban routes, are up-to-date and certified according to European standards, which include fire extinguishing systems in the engine, as well as fire extinguishers and sensors inside the cabin, the company said.
The Paphos transport organisation (Osypa) issued an announcement late on Sunday stating that due to the ministry’s decision all buses with over 22 seats would be out of circulation on Monday and will not operate their routes, including school routes.
Due to the very limited availability of minibuses, most routes in the Paphos district will thus not be running.
The company will make updated announcements about routes restarting as the buses get upgraded over the next two weeks, Osypa said.
Cyprus Public Transport (CPT) informed the public that its entire fleet is equipped with the latest technology in terms of safety, and therefore this directive does not apply to its routes. But sub-contracted buses have been pulled from circulation, affecting largely school buses, as they are not up to standard.
Fore more information over routes and times, the public is encouraged to check the social media pages of the respective bus companies.