One in three seats on €1m-a-day school bus network is left empty
School buses costing the State €1m a day are only half-filled with pupils who are entitled to a seat.
Even when students who hold concessionary tickets are included, one in three places on the nationwide network is left empty.
Concessionary passengers are those who are granted seats once all eligible passengers have been accommodated.
Ironically, the network is running with 35pc spare capacity while families up and down the country complain their children can't get a seat.
That is because the eligibility rules for the scheme changed at the height of the financial crisis making it harder to qualify.
A suggestion that the fleet should be replaced with smaller buses to reflect the stricter eligibility rules is a political hot potato, and has been ruled out.
The scale of the overcapacity is highlighted in a special report from the State spending watchdog, the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG).
The report also reveals that Bus Éireann, which operates the scheme on behalf of the Department of Education, built up a surplus of €11.2m over a four-year period to end of 2014.
The C&AG attributes this to the department not checking what it was actually costing the transport company to run the school bus network. The excess was reduced to €6.7m by the end of 2016. A Bus Éireann spokesman said in the three years since the C&AG examination started, some of its recommendations had been implemented, including a new service level agreement with the department, with key performance indicators and regular reports.
In 2007, the school bus network had capacity to carry 165,000 pupils - and there were 127,000 eligible ticket holders.
By 2015, the number of eligible pupils had fallen to 89,000, but the system still had a capacity of 165,000. Between 2007 and 2015, the level of spare capacity increased from 28pc to 48pc, reduced to 35pc when concessionary passengers are included.
"The decline in the number of users of the scheme has not been matched by a similar decline in overall costs," the report states.
The growing number of children with special educational needs being catered for, such as with individual taxis, is a significant factor in the rising costs.
The scheme, which cost €173m a year in 2015 - about €1m for each school day - is heavily subsidised, with 8.4pc recouped from fare-paying pupils.
The C&AG put the average annual cost of carrying eligible pupils at €1,800 each in 2015. In that year, 48,000 ticket-holders were exempt from charges, while fare-paying pupils paid an average €200 for their annual ticket.