The government has delayed the awarding of tenders to run school buses that carry 40 million passengers a year after First Union raised safety concerns.
Documents show these concerns being raised with ministers, however, neither the ministers nor the Education Ministry have acknowledged that.
The First Union's concerns allege maintenance failings by a major operator, and some drivers back that up.
The tender round was meant to begin last month to pick operators for all school bus contracts, covering 2200 routes and 7000 bus journeys each school day, with about 70 operators. These services were last contracted in 2008 and expire in December 2020.
First Union wrote last month to Minister of Education Chris Hipkins, saying: "We ask that you instruct MoE to refrain from awarding the contracts until ... the school bus tender round addresses ... employment and safety issues that we have raised with you in this letter."
Much of its two-page letter is about safety.
Associate Minister of Education Jenny Salesa wrote back to the union in mid-November, saying:
"I acknowledge the concerns raised by First Union and by members of the bus industry ... The Government and the Ministry have been listening to this feedback.
"The Ministry is now working to incorporate feedback into procurement planning, and as a result, the tender was not opened in October as planned.
"I note the concerns you raise about safety, and I can assure you that safe school transport is a key priority."
Safety was legislated for and there were rules imposed over and above this too, she said.
When RNZ asked the ministry why the tender was delayed, it said it had received industry feedback that the procurement process would favour larger operators over small regional operators.
"No safety concerns were raised with us throughout the consultation period, and there have been no discussions with WorkSafe or NZTA about safety," the ministry said in a statement.
RNZ also asked Mr Hipkins and Ms Salesa specifically what safety concerns had been raised with them.
Ms Salesa's reply did not mention the union's approach to them, but said: "As part of the pre-tender process the Ministry has been engaging with the industry, including operators.
"I am advised by the Ministry of Education that no safety concerns were raised with them throughout the consultation period and there have been no discussions with Worksafe or NZTA about safety.
"I am advised the Ministry has listened to feedback and they are finalising the next steps."
The procurement process was still being planned, she said.
The Ministry of Education's tender notes said that "high-level vehicle specifications" could be considered when awarding contracts this time.
The union said many safety problems stemmed from the ministry picking cut-price tenders.
Documents show it has been telling the government this for more than a year.
The union has been especially critical of, and run an online campaign against, major operator Ritchies Transport.
RNZ has seen copies, provided by First Union, of faults recorded earlier this year by a school bus driver for a Ritchies' joint venture with Murphy Buses in Auckland.
One said: "Brakes applied as I approached stop sign. Nothing happened. At that point I had very real concerns for my safety and that of the children. Straight through intersection about 20 km/hr. Phoned the company and advised them I had no brakes. I was asked how much of my run I'd done and could I complete the run. I politely said no."
Another describes a park brake failing and the schoolbus with children on board rolling towards a 100km/h intersection, before the driver hops back on and stops it.
Several other brake faults were recorded over a six-week period.
RNZ has also seen photos of fault logs of problems with brakes, steering, and gears of city-to-city (not school) buses:
- "Still shuddering under brakes ... passengers making comments asking about safety."
- "Often is in neutral though gear is selected. Shaking steering wheel. I refuse to drive this bus again in this state."
- "All been written up before. Nothing gets done. Repairs if any are temporary. Maintenance is atrocious."
These logs were written in 2017, in the months following the fatal crash of a runaway Ritchies hire bus carrying Tongan students near Gisborne. This was around the time a WorkSafe investigation identified maintenance failings at the company - but which WorkSafe shelved before the case went to court - and before an NZTA audit in mid-2018, which said the six Ritchies depots it checked were "highly compliant".
The Transport Agency said that prior to the December 2016 crash near Gisborne, all of the indicators it used to assess risk "saw Ritchies classified as a low-risk operator".
"Following the crash, compliance officers audited a sample of Ritchies' large fleet and found only minor issues with the vehicles inspected," NZTA told RNZ in a statement.
This was in a period when NZTA has acknowledged its auditing and enforcement functions were neglected and under-resourced.
A schoolbus driver for the Ritchies Murphy's joint venture said he had had problems.
"The state of the schoolbuses are such that I would not allow my children on the buses," he said.
"They are riddled with faults and in my opinion, they're a timebomb waiting to go off. And, in fact, they have gone off twice, as far as I'm concerned, dangerously - the children escaped injury, but it was by pure luck."
A director of Ritchies, Andrew Ritchie, declined to be interviewed or engage other than by email.
"The tender delay has nothing to do with the First Union, they offer no fact, just innuendo, that is their normal stance," he said by email.
"As for the issues with RMTS [Ritchies Murphy buses], we do not agree at all and is simply untrue, based on no fact at all.
"There are continual audits by outside third parties on an ongoing basis and have never found any issues.
"Do not know what you are talking about in regards to maintenance log reports. There is a legal requirement to report faults, so as far as I am concerned, that is compliant.
"As for drivers saying, that it is simply without proof - they may have to appear in court and give examples, that being in the public good, making sure they tell the truth with proof."
Murphy Buses has been approached for comment.