Coach boss says sorry to public

Shoreline Suncruiser bus leaves The Spa for trip along the seafront.
Shoreline Suncruiser bus leaves The Spa for trip along the seafront.

A coach travel boss has apologised to Scarborough for risking passengers’ lives – with faults in every bus checked.

Tom Stephenson, transport manager of Shoreline Suncruisers, was labelled “incompetent” and “woefully short of the mark” as he was disqualified from his senior role for allowing the firm’s fleet to deteriorate.

Inspectors found an enormous list of faults with every bus they checked in 
the wake of contractor Neil Brown’s tragic death at its Queen Margaret’s base.

Veteran deputy traffic commissioner Miles Dorrington, who imposed the punishment on Mr Stephenson, said it was “the worst case I have ever seen”.

He oversaw the public inquiry in Leeds, which was called to air the findings of safety investigations carried out following the mechanic’s death in which a vehicle he was working under collapsed.

He said there was “no inference” that the firm was to blame for the tragedy in April, which was followed by a snap inspection of the firm’s buses to ensure they were safe.

Of the eight vehicles tested by DVSA (Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency) inspectors, all of them had faults which Mr Dorrington said were not superficial.

He added that in seven years of covering inquiries, he had never come across a firm with a perfect failure rate.

Mr Stephenson appeared at the Leeds hearing alongside his parents - and Shoreline’s directors - Jack and Rosemary Stephenson.

But it was the son who bore the brunt of the firm’s failings, with the inquiry hearing how despite long-standing concerns about Mr Brown’s workmanship he still kept using his friend to look after their fleet.

First brought in as a teenager, he had become a friend to the family over the years - but that made it difficult to cut ties with him.

“We had known Neil Brown since he was 18, and up until 2011 we didn’t have any serious issues with Neil,” said Tom Stephenson.

“He had financial difficulties at his previous firm, and it was around that time alarm bells started ringing with some of the work carried out, especially in regards to paperwork.”

He said those alarm bells had prompted the company to start looking elsewhere prior to his death, adding: “We were not happy with the level of workmanship that we were receiving at the time.

“There were a lot of times when we didn’t receive an invoice - we were coming to the point of going elsewhere.”

But the inquiry heard that Tom Stephenson couldn’t ditch his long term friend, fearing it would put Mr Brown out of business.

But his reluctance to do this, said Mr Dorrington, was leaving the firm with faults across its mainly-Volvo fleet which the inquiry heard could have potentially lead to a serious accident on the borough’s roads.

And Mr Dorrington repeatedly slammed the now shamed transport manager throughout the day-long hearing.

He said:

• Stephenson allowed mistakes to be made on his watch

• His actions had “dented the pride” of his family, who had worked tirelessly to establish the business, and that he had “catastrophically” let down his father.

• He hadn’t kept close enough tabs on the work that had been carried out, despite that taking up the majority of his working week

• Asked why he didn’t think it was an issue that he “hovered” over staff carrying out repairs - rather than planting random faults to ensure they were picking them up.

Established in 1991 for seafront tours, the firm has since expanded and become one of the biggest local bus companies, offering services across the borough.

Founder Jack Stephenson was awarded an MBE for his community service and he told the hearing he was “proud” of his business.

“I do feel that we have moved heaven and earth to make ourselves a respected operator,” he said.

But at the inquiry he broke down while talking about Mr Brown’s death, and the subsequent investigation was called a “massive wake up call” for both his son and the business.

Since the inspection, Tom Stephenson claimed they had acted quickly to bring its fleet up to scratch, implementing stricter safety checks and contacting two firms with “excellent” reputations to carry out repairs.

Two new independent firms had been contacted to carry our repairs, and new stricter fleet checks had been implemented along with thorough audits.

And speaking of DVSA’s findings, Tom added: “We were all appalled, nobody more than me.”

But in a damning assessment, Mr Dorrington said it was “utterly inconceivable” that the firm’s unprecedented failings were brought on by anything other than the failings of Tom Stephenson.

Flustered and sombre-looking, he hung his head as Mr Dorrington asked: “What’s more important, people’s lives travelling on your vehicles or a friend who has got into financial difficulty.”

He replied “People’s lives”.

A DVSA representative spent several minutes reading out all the fleet’s faults, for which Tom Stephenson said he “can’t apologise enough” for.

And he issued a public apology to the whole town after Mr Dorrington claimed he’d put his passenger’s safety at risk, adding: “You brought this on yourself - your failings, your actions and your scant regard.

“(At that time) you wouldn’t have caught me on your vehicles for love nor money.

“If the public had known that they wouldn’t have gone on them either, and that’s because of you.

“Thankfully, for the love of god, nothing happened.”

Tom Stephenson was disqualified from his post for at least six months - although he will still continue to work at his family’s company.

The businessman, who could have faced a five year ban, will undergo training while still on the payroll to bring his skills up to scratch.

The firm, which could have had its licence revoked, has been granted a three month stay of execution and won’t face any further action unless Tom Stephenson isn’t replaced within three months.

Jack Stephenson, who was praised at the meeting, avoided any individual reprimand, but Mr Dorrington told him: “If there had been a more competent transport manager, I don’t think you would be here.”

An inquest into Neil Brown’s death is due to be held in Scarborough at the end of September. See page 31 for more on Mr Brown.