LCQ6: Provision of school bus services

     Following is a question by the Hon Chan Hak-kan and a reply by the Secretary for Transport and Housing, Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, in the Legislative Council today (July 2):


     Some schools and parents of students have relayed to me that the short supply of school bus services and the discouraging responses to the tendering exercises for such services in recent years, coupled with a surge in the charges for school bus services, have caused inconveniences to schools and parents. In addition, more and more non-franchised public buses (NFBs) with student service endorsements no longer provide school bus services, and instead provide passenger services for visitors, which generates more income. As the results of the central allocation of Primary One places this year show that the ratio of students being allocated places in the schools among their first three choices is the lowest in 12 years, more school children will cross districts to attend school in the next school year, thus boosting the demand for school bus services. Meanwhile, quite a number of school bus service operators have relayed that the profits generated from school bus services are meager, because they not only have to pay high licence fees, but also need to meet various expenses, such as salaries for escorts, insurance premiums and maintenance fees, etc. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) of the number of new student service endorsements issued by the authorities in the past three years; whether it knows the current number of NFBs providing school bus services and the current number of school children using the services of school buses or school private light buses; whether it has assessed the adequacy of school bus services to meet demand currently and in the next school year;

(2) whether it will establish a mechanism to regulate the annual rate of increase in the charges for school bus services, e.g. imposing a cap on the rate of increase; if it will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; as some parents have indicated that they cannot afford the high charges of school bus services, whether the Government will provide additional travel subsidy to school children in need; if it will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; and

(3) as some parents have pointed out that more NFBs are expected to switch to provide passenger services for cross-boundary visitors upon the commissioning of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, how the Government ensures adequate school bus services to meet the demand; whether it has enhanced its communication with the NFB sector; whether it will consider lowering the relevant licence fees; and whether it will relax the conditions for the application for the endorsements concerned, e.g. the validity period required of the school bus service contract which must be produced on application, so as to attract more NFBs to join in the provision of school bus services?



     The reply to the various parts of the Hon Chan Hak-kan's question is as follows:

(1) There are three types of vehicles that can carry school children: (i) school private light buses (commonly known as "nanny vans"); (ii) school private buses operated by schools or school sponsoring bodies direct; and (iii) non-franchised public buses (NFBs). There are currently 1 769 "nanny vans" and 71 school private buses. These two types of vehicles can only be used for carriage of school children and not for any other purposes. NFBs may carry different types of passengers in accordance with the endorsement(s) issued by the Transport Department (TD). Those NFBs used for carriage of school children have to be issued with student service endorsement (SSE). At present, there are 3 419 NFBs with SSE.  

     NFB operators may, in response to different service demand and operating conditions, apply to TD for a single or multiple service endorsements, i.e. an NFB may have SSE and other service endorsement(s) at the same time. Multiple service endorsements allow an NFB to provide different types of service on the same day having regard to market situation to enhance operational and cost efficiency. Some NFBs with SSE may thus provide services other than school bus service on certain days or during certain periods on the same day. This allows flexible deployment of the vehicle fleet, thereby sharing out the operating cost and helping to lower school bus fare.

     In the past three years (i.e. 2011 to 2013), the number of the three types of vehicles that can carry school children mentioned above is set out at Annex. Based on the number of the vehicles concerned, the number of seats available for carriage of school children in 2013 has increased by about 3.5 per cent when compared with that in 2011. Meanwhile, the number of students has dropped by about 1.4 per cent during the same period. Since the schools make their own arrangements for school bus service direct, TD does not have the statistics on school children using school bus service. Neither has the Education Bureau (EDB) collected such statistics.  

     As a matter of fact, not all NFBs with SSE provide student service during the periods before and after school. In order to understand the utilisation of NFBs, TD conducts a territory-wide survey every year. As shown by the results of the latest survey, about 70 per cent of NFBs with SSE provides school bus service during the periods before and after school.  

     Having regard to the changes in the number of vehicles that can carry school children and that of students as well as the aforementioned survey results, the supply of school bus service in the market should be stable and can generally meet the overall demand.

(2) The fare of all types of NFB service, including that of school bus service, is determined by the market and does not require TD's approval. In view of some parents' concern over the level of school bus fare, we will liaise with EDB to see if information can be collected from schools to enable the Government to fully understand the market situation concerning school bus fare.  

     As regards student travel subsidy, EDB points out that the Government has put in place the Student Travel Subsidy Scheme to provide subsidies to eligible students. A student who passes the means test and with his/her application approved will be given a subsidy irrespective of the transport mode(s) (including school bus) used. EDB is of the view that this arrangement is adequate to provide appropriate assistance to students with financial difficulties and to allow students to choose suitable transport mode(s) freely.  

(3) To ensure that there is an adequate supply of school buses in the market, TD will continue to monitor the supply of and demand for various types of vehicles concerned. To allow greater flexibility for operators to deploy their vehicles for meeting service demand, TD has since mid-2012 implemented a new measure to allow an NFB operator in possession of SSE to use all vehicles meeting the relevant requirements in his/her fleet for carriage of school children upon application. A total of 418 additional vehicles have been granted SSE through this measure so far.  

     Meanwhile, any person who would like to provide "nanny van" service only needs to submit an application to TD with service details and a recommendation letter from school(s). Besides, schools or school sponsoring bodies may consider operating school private buses direct to provide service for their students. To facilitate tendering of school bus service by the schools, TD has compiled a list of operators with detailed information and distributed it to all schools in April this year.

     TD will endeavour to make appropriate arrangements with respect to the supply of vehicles according to market demand. If it is observed that there is a tight supply of NFBs or new service demand arising from the commissioning of new transport infrastructure (e.g. the opening of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge in the future), the Government will consider with an open mind whether the issuance of new licences for NFB service should be suitably adjusted. TD will continue to maintain close communication with the trade.

     As for the vehicle licence fee, the fee level has not been adjusted since 1991. At present, an operator is only required to provide a service contract of at least six months or a supporting letter from the school(s) when making an application to TD. The validity period of an SSE is generally good for not more than two years. Since school bus service is normally arranged according to the academic year, relaxing the requirement on service contract period will not necessarily help attract more NFBs to provide school bus service. Indeed, TD is not aware of cases whereby the trade was unable to provide school bus service because of the level of licence fee or requirement on the validity period of service contract.

Ends/Wednesday, July 2, 2014
Issued at HKT 18:40