31 Jul 2018

Mt Ruapehu shuttle buses ‘not fit for purpose’

From Checkpoint, 5:09 pm on 31 July 2018

Questions are being raised about the suitability of the buses operating on Mt Ruapehu, after one crashed, killing a passenger, a handbrake failed on another and another one's seats were tied together with wire - all on the same day.

All three buses are Mitsubishi fusos, owned by three separate owners. Two are operated by Ruapehu Alpine Lifts (RAL), including the one which crashed on Saturday, which is understood to be a 1994 import.

State of what is believed to be a Ruapehu Alpine Lifts' bus.

 Photos taken inside a bus, understood to be operated by Ruapehu Alpine Lifts, show seats tied up with wire. Photo: Supplied.

The buses are now off the road, with the bus with broken seats in for repair.

Aucklander Hannah Francis, 11, died in the crash and 18 others were injured, three seriously. 

At the same time that bus crashed on the mountain at Tūroa, passengers on the other side of Ruapehu - at Whakapapa - were also boarding a bus to head down from their day's skiing.

One of them told Checkpoint she could not understand why it was almost off the road, in a bank, when she went to get on.

"I looked and I thought 'how the heck am I going to get on this?'. And I got in and I said to him 'fricken hell, you've parked so close to the bank it's hard to get on', and he just laughed and said 'oh, my parking brakes have failed'."

"He used the snow bank to hold him there pretty much."

She said he told passengers: "Sorry guys, I've got no parking brakes".

That bus was operated by Roam Aotearoa, and its director Terry Steven confirmed the handbrake had failed. 

He said he wasn't sure why the driver went down the mountain with a failed handbrake, and he only found out "about the incident when the bus was down". 

"Around that time, [the driver] did report to me what had happened. We took the bus off the road, we did not operate on Sunday out of respect for the family. That's on record and on Monday at the first opportunity the bus was taken to the [workshop] to get those issues addressed."

The bus is still on its side and a salvage team will work to remove it.

The bus that crashed. Photo: RNZ / Gia Garrick

The bus that crashed had failed its Certificate of Fitness nine times. Another RAL operated bus, which has seats tied together with wire, had failed its certificate 18 times.

Sophie Leather, who was a passenger on the bus with the broken seats on Saturday, said she was shocked to see the state of it. Seats were falling apart and hand bars had fallen off the back of a seat. 

"A lady went to go brace herself, and her child, and just going around a small corner the entire handle came off the chair...

"We were pretty horrified at that to be honest and all started talking about how dangerous it was, and then to see there was a crash that same day, that was horrific."

The short shuttle runs up and down the mountain, from carparks down below.

Ruapehu Scenic Shuttles owner Colin Baker runs a smaller, more modern and expensive service. He said safety should always come first. 

"The vehicles that RAL have got, they really should only be used for staff transport. They're not fit for purpose for the public."

Another operator, who wouldn't be named, said the series of incidents was the inevitable result of competing operators trying to keep costs down. 

But Tongariro Expeditions owner Jared Thomas, who has worked on the mountain for decades, said the buses were appropriate for the mountain. 

"I've been around that conversation some years ago and we actually think they're totally appropriate purely because of their layout. 

"They've got wide door openings, so when you've got people hopping in with all their gear, their sleds, the children, one, they're low to the ground so the step in is nice and easy and the opening of the door is nice and wide. 

"So logistically and practically they're a much better bus to use than say, a tour coach for example."

Mr Thomas said it was a case of a tragic weekend on the mountain. 

"It's really tragic what's happened for everybody, especially the family that lost a child. But you know, when you're dealing with machinery and equipment, sometimes it fails."

Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter, who is responsible for transport safety, would not comment as there is an open investigation by police and the Serious Crash Unit.