Coach company still operating despite risking schoolchildren's lives

Matthew Wright, of Wrights Coaches based in Wroxham

Matthew Wright, of Wrights Coaches based in Wroxham, has had his operators licence revoked - Credit: Submitted

Schoolchildren’s lives were put at "risk" by a bus company that transported pupils during illegally long shifts of up to 24 hours without a break.

Matthew Wright, of Wrights Coaches based in Wroxham and Norwich, has been banned from operating a bus company after being found to have committed 41 offences in a three-month period.

Speaking to this newspaper he said he was “devastated” by the ban but stopped short of offering an apology to customers or parents.

Five of his drivers also had their commercial driving licences suspended or revoked after committing a further 22 offences, the Office of the Traffic Commissioner (OTC) ruled.

The ban was handed down on September 6 but does not come into effect until October 6.

Yesterday the company was still ferrying children to and from six schools across Norfolk and last weekend they drove a coachload of NCFC fans to the Emirates stadium in London for the Canaries’ fixture against Arsenal.

Wrights Coaches site in Wroxham

Wrights Coaches will continue to operate as a brand but is not entitled to operate its vehicles after October 6 - Credit: Archant

Wright and his drivers were found to have falsified, withheld, or aided in the falsification of information held by vehicles’ tachographs, the units which record whether haulage and coach drivers have driven too many hours without a break.

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Marian Kitson, director of enforcement for the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA), said: “Customers had placed their trust in this operator to deliver passengers, some of who were children, safely to their destinations. 

“Instead, they deliberately broke the rules, risking their lives and the lives of others.”

PTS Group Ltd, trading as Wrights Coaches, provides day trips and outings for groups of pensioners and tourists, football fans and youth teams, and holds the Norfolk County Council contract for Hellesdon High, Sprowston High, Broadland High, Aylsham High, and Gt Witchingham and Lyng Primary schools.

The council said it was aware of the ruling and would be sourcing new contracts. A spokesman said the OTC had the power to order immediate cessation of provision but had chosen in this case to give a month until the order comes into force.

He said: “Our contracts clearly state that it is the bus operator’s responsibility to ensure their service is run in line with the relevant laws and regulations, much like any road user.

“While some bus routes will see a change in provider, parents and children can rest assured that this isn’t an uncommon process and they will be able to get the bus to school as normal.”

Wrights Coaches site in Wroxham

Wrights Coaches site in Wroxham

The offences were discovered following an unannounced visit from the DVSA in September 2019, which prompted a detailed examination of drivers’ hours and maintenance records.

Fifteen tachograph records had been falsified by Wright or his drivers, and drivers had used other drivers’ names on records to conceal illegal dangerous practices of taking insufficient rest.

Records for more than 4,500 miles of journeys were missing completely.

On one occasion Wright himself drove a coachload of children home from school then went on to drive a rail replacement bus service when he should have been resting, during a shift which totalled 24 hours on duty.

Investigators also discovered that there was no forward planning system in place for coach maintenance, safety checks were not being undertaken within the required time interval, and there was an ineffective system in place for reporting and rectifying roadworthiness defects. 

At the hearing in Cambridge on September 6 Wright had his Public Service Vehicle (PSV) operator’s licence revoked, effective October 6, and was banned for six months from driving professionally, effective September 6.

Wrights Coaches is still advertising online and intends to continue trading. The company’s Facebook page is promoting trips to the Thursford Christmas Spectacular.

Matthew Wright told this paper: “I’m absolutely devastated to be honest, this has been a lifelong goal since I was eight years old. To have that taken away is very upsetting.

“The 30 offences, the biggest amount, were for me taking the vehicles home, which I would have thought was classed as private use. I’ve realised the error of my ways. What I was doing was taking the vehicle home and because I didn’t have my driver card in, it’s an infringement.”

He said he intended for the company to continue to operate, taking bookings and subcontracting to “reputable coach companies”. He said the school runs are “out for re-tender as we speak”.

The company did not hold the school route contracts at the time of the offences, he said, but “helped out when other companies were short”, including on the occasion he worked a 24-hour shift.

He said none of the staff involved in the ruling were still working for the company, which had doubled in size and improved its systems since the time of the investigation.

Asked whether he felt he or his drivers had acted dangerously, or whether he had a message for customers and parents, he said: “In hindsight we would have planned better.”

Do you have a story about Wrights Coaches? Contact our investigations reporter Joel Adams on joel.adams@archant.co.uk.
 

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