28 Sep 2018

Girl's death prompts upgrade of ageing Ruapehu shuttle buses

From Checkpoint, 5:10 pm on 28 September 2018

The ageing shuttle bus fleet at Mt Ruapehu is being replaced after the death of an 11-year-old girl in a crash two months ago.

A 14-year-old two-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Fuso imported from Japan, carrying 31 people, flipped on its way down from the Tūroa skifield at Mt Ruapehu in July.

Passengers and first responders described carnage - the road covered in glass and metal, and people bloodied and with broken bones.

Hannah Francis, an 11-year-old Auckland girl, died from her injuries.

Police are investigating and early reports were that the bus' brakes weren't working properly - it had failed its Certificate of Fitness nine times.

But in advance of that investigation, Ruapehu Alpine Lifts (RAL) - which owned the bus that crashed - has announced it will retire all buses older than 10 years and replace them with six new four-wheel-drive buses.

"We have undertaken a complete review of our transport operations… [and] have been working with leading alpine transport operators since the accident to develop vehicle standards and guidelines," RAL board chair Murray Gribben said in an email to shareholders last night, in advance of the company's annual general meeting tomorrow.

The retiring of its fleet comes as former staff members at RAL speak out about the company's maintenance practices.

"Most of the exhaust brakes didn't work on the two wheel drive buses. Often the handbrakes didn't work. Sometimes the horns didn't work. They weren't up to Certificate of Fitness standards most of the time I was driving them," Lucy Conway, who drove buses for RAL in 2011 and 2012, told Checkpoint.

"They tried, the mechanics tried, constantly, to fix the exhaust brakes. But nobody could.

"I don't think two-wheel drive Japanese import buses are suitable for that road, quite frankly, and that's basically why I left. It was just too scary."

RAL had previously said - in the days following the crash - it would resume services once its buses passed mechanical checks.

But it is yet to resume any services with its ageing bus fleet, and two of its old shuttle buses sit unused in its yard on the outskirts of Ohakune.

Checkpoint understands one of those buses is for sale.

RAL chief executive Ross Copland declined repeated requests for comment from Checkpoint in the two months since the crash.

He has issued statements defending RAL's maintenance policies and bus fleet since the crash, but has refused to answer follow-up questions, citing the police investigation.

The Ruapehu District Council said it did not believe the road played a part in the crash.

"The actual road itself was upgraded a couple of years ago, so we're reasonably confident it wasn't a fault in the road that contributed to it," council chief executive Clive Manly said.

"There's no good side to an accident," Mr Manly said, when asked what the council has learned from the crash.

"However, it does make us look with a much sharper mind to the things you can do. 

"Some of those older buses, are they the best ones for the environment? 

"That's what's being looked at at the moment. What kind of buses should be the ones?"

RAL said its six new four-wheel-drive buses were expected next month.