Dubai: There will be no rush to replace mini school buses as part of new rules by the Roads and Transport Authority, Gulf News has learnt.

With only weeks before schools open across Dubai, companies that offer school bus services will have a further 18-month grace period to phase in full-sized buses to meet new Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) regulations banning mini buses to transport children.

As many as 1,000 minibuses transporting schoolchildren will have to be phased out in the next 18 months, Gulf News can reveal.

Around 4,000 school buses transport as many as 150,000 pupils to and from schools in Dubai, of which around 30 per cent are minibuses.

The move comes following repeated calls from experts and top police officials to restrict the use of minibuses for school transport as they are deemed unsafe.

The new rule is part of the Executive Council’s Resolution No 18 of 2014 issued by Shaikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, which updates the existing school transportation regulations in Dubai.

“The new regulations are an update of the existing school transportation regulations in order to guarantee the safety of the students. A ban on use of 15-seater minibuses as well as increasing the capacity of the big buses are some of the main updates,” said Eisa Al Hashemi, Director of Planning and Business Development at RTA’s Public Transport Agency.

He added that the new rules will come into effect from the new academic year in September 2014; however, transport operators and school administrations will have a grace period of 18 months to replace the minibuses with bigger vehicles.

Elaborating on the increase in capacity of big buses, Al Hashemi said: “In the new arrangement, the bus operators are allowed to have two rows, one accommodating three seats and the other two seats. The 3x2 seating bus arrangement aims at increasing the capacity of the buses without affecting the safety of the children.”

Although school operators have welcomed new regulations that will increase the level of safety on buses, a blanket ban on minibuses has not gone down well with all.

“When we received a notification from the authorities, we were told that the ban is applicable from this year. It became a huge issue for us as we operate 50 minibuses. It’s good that they have given a grace period of 18 months. We will have time to make new arrangements,” said Nausherwan Hussain from Arab Falcon Bus Rental.

Questioning the logic behind the move to ban minibuses for school transport, he said: “If the minibuses are unsafe there should be a ban on the sale of these vehicles. Why single out their operations in schools? They could have at least issued some restrictions such as limiting them to internal areas rather than banning them completely.”

Arab Falcon Bus Rental transports more than 1,500 pupils in 160 buses, of which 50 are minibuses.

Another operator who wished to remain anonymous said that minivans are useful in shuttling a small number of pupils on short journeys, “If there are only six to seven students in one area it’s not feasible to operate a 22-seater bus on that route. Now we will have to combine two routes that will mean students will spend more time travelling,” he added.

He also said they will increase cost of operations by 50 per cent.

Colonel Augustine, Managing Director of School Transport Service, one of the biggest school transport operators in Dubai, welcomed the move.

“Safety is our priority. We will welcome the changes made to the school transport regulations. We only have a few minibuses that we use for any emergency. We will be phasing out these buses soon. What I like about the new regulations is the increase in capacity of big buses. This will certainly help in improving the efficiency of operations as well as reducing traffic on the road,” said Col Augustine.

School Transport Services operates more than 1,000 buses transporting 50,000 pupils from 58 schools in Dubai.

Ashok Kumar, CEO of Indian High School Dubai, one of the biggest schools in town, said this is the right step forward.

“We don’t operate minibuses, but I think it’s a right step forward. Safety of children should not be compromised in any way. I feel RTA has done the right thing by adding to the capacity of the big buses as well. This will be cost-effective for both parents as well as schools, as there will be more students on each bus, reducing the cost of operation,” said Kumar.