The Coach Tourism and Transport Council (CTTC) lodged a formal complaint to the authority in recent days, arguing that the Department of Education’s longstanding arrangement with Bus Eireann was anti-competitive.
The CTTC, which represents 64 independent coach operators in 20 counties, said the state transport company should be made compete for the contract in an open competition with all other interested bus and coach firms.
Many private coach operators are subcontracted by Bus Éireann to provide vehicles and drivers for the school transport scheme, which costs the state some €180 million a year.
But Bus Éireann also get an administration fee of around €17m annually to coordinate the services.
The CTTC claims that fee — and the overall cost of the service — could be reduced by millions annually if the service was open to competition.
Chief executive Gerry Mullins said the department was instead trying to cut the cost of the service by reducing the number of children who are eligible to use it.
“Thousands of children are being forced out of the School Transport Scheme as the Government tries to introduce €17m in cutbacks. Most of this money would be saved if the contract was managed by an efficient private company rather than a grossly-inefficient state one,” Mr Mullins said.
Last week, Junior Education Minister Ciarán Cannon, who is tightening eligibility requirements from this September, said that Bus Éireann was the only company with the capacity to run the school transport service. “A single national organiser with a regional dimension to operate the scheme is required,” he told the Dáil.
However, he has also told Bus Éireann to start providing audited accounts of its school transport scheme operations, saying such a move was in keeping with the Government’s commitment to transparency in the public sector.
“This is public money that it is being spent on providing school transport and the public needs to see every detail of that expenditure,” Mr Cannon said.
Mr Mullins disputed the claim that only Bus Éireann was capable of providing the service. “You can’t know who else is able to do it until you put the contract out to tender,” he said.
He added that if the contract was opened to competition on a phased basis, province by province, it would enable some of the larger private firms or groups of the smaller firms to put together plans to organise a smooth takeover from Bus Éireann.
A Department of Education spokesman would not be drawn on the matter yesterday.
“As this is a matter for the Competition Authority, it would not be appropriate for the department to comment at this stage,” he said.