As you know, we have decided to publish articles highlighting members of the school community. This week we meet Hong Ha Nguyen, manager of the School Transport service.
We asked him a few questions, about the challenges the service faces, how the service works, what a day looks like, and more. We thank Hong Ha for his availability and his help!
With the first buses leaving their starting point at 7h00, do you actually get much sleep?
I have to say, during the first days .. weeks of school, we do not get much sleep. We start at 7h, so we need to be there before in case there are any issues, absences, etc. A typical day starts at 7h and ends at 18h and sometimes even later. Therefore, the Transport team takes turns doing morning shifts, for us all to be able to have a balance between morning and afternoon shifts. As you know, our department manages school transport at the Woluwe and Evere sites. We have André and Luz in Evere, and Ferhan, Xavier, Dominika and myself in Woluwe, plus Clémence who also helps us out a lot.
What are the most common everyday challenges and how do you resolve them?
At the beginning of the year, the hardest challenge is to find a balance. Indeed, during the summer, we review every single bus journey, tour, length of rides, and more. As you know we have family departures and newcomers every year, so the stops need to be fairly positioned in the neighbourhoods so as not to create any imbalances between families, the timetables are also theoretically created, we calculated the time it takes for a bus to travel between stops to the school and vice versa. During the first days, pupils also take time to figure out which bus they need to take, … Which is why every new school year, it takes time for our service to settle and to see how in practice the tours are effectively done, to be able to quickly implement the changes and modifications. For 2023-2024 the temporary move has rocked our boat, and we have had to adapt quickly, which we still are! With a school community of over 3800 pupils (Evere and Woluwe combined), we receive a lot of requests every day that we have to respond to – it’s a real challenge! We organise our working day according to urgent and important priorities. We do our best to reduce any risks or issues linked to the Transport operations.
During the year, the challenges vary, this year the digital transformation was quite the challenge, the team worked hard for it not to affect the daily operations, to update and export all our databases (maps, schedules, bus company data, draw routes, etc). The shortage of supervisors, last-minute changes and absences also are hard to anticipate day to day. We have our yearly projects, such as the greening of the buses, we look into new bus companies to counter the shortages, and not to forget the discussions with other European School APEEEs on how we can also better our service !
Managing a network of buses for +/- 3000 (72% of pupils using the bus) students all over Brussels and beyond (covering hundreds of km every day) seems extremely demanding. What led you to take on this job?
What drives me and motivates me in this job is working together with a team to achieve a goal and deliver it. The team’s dedication ensures that we manage to organise a pretty complex service, both logistically and administratively.
But beyond that, I’d like to share a recent experience that sums up why I do this job.
The first Friday was very complicated to organise, with shuttles at 1 pm. A lot of children came back to the Woluwe site instead of staying in Evere. I went down to the bus parking to help and I met a child from P2 who had arrived by mistake on the shuttle. I took charge of her and contacted her parents to solve the problem. The following Friday, I met her on the Evere site and she came up to me with a happy cheerful voice “But I know you!” and gave me a big hug.
I went back to the office with a big smile, telling myself that I knew who I was working for.
Can you walk us through your process of selecting school bus companies and staff accompanying the buses?
We’ve been working for years with most of our bus companies (13 in total), which have a proven track record. We work with companies that put children’s safety first. Working with so many different companies gives us a great deal of flexibility. We select them based on the condition of their vehicles, their reputation, and above all their responsiveness and availability.
Since COVID, some companies have gone bankrupt, and we have had to find new companies that have vehicles and drivers available. We’ve been facing a real shortage of drivers in the sector for almost two years now.
In terms of our supervisors, we work with a stakeholder who sends us people. We then interview them to determine whether they are suitable to work with children first and foremost, with one aim in mind: the safety of the children.
At the beginning of the school year, a training is organised for all the bus supervisors to prepare them for the school year.
We aim to fill all our buses with supervisors, which is already the case in the afternoons for all nursery and primary school children.
Which points do you take into account when you draw the bus map for a new school year?
In order to draw bus routes, we start one month into the registrations, to be able to base our routes on the next year’s demand. Every year we receive emails from parents, new and old, to review the bus stop locations available in their Secured Zone. We try to satisfy all the demands without causing prejudice to parents who are happy with their stops, we have tried to paste our stops onto already available and current public transport stops. Also, and quite importantly, we receive instructions from the communes, during these last couple of years the Woluwe Saint Lambert, Woluwe Saint Pierre and Kraainem communes instructed us that the buses could no longer take certain streets due to their large and heavy vehicle. We also have a list of criteria such as a stop needs to have a couple of requests, the entire journey should not be too long, be located on main axes (when feasible),…
What were the biggest additional challenges when preparing for this school year?
As mentioned above, for the school year 2023-2024 and up to November, after the shortened move, the temporary move has been up until now, our main challenge. From the outside perspective, parents must think the delays, wrong buses, etc are higher this year, but in reality, no! This year, we were able to settle after 2 weeks to absorb the delays and rearrange quicker than the previous years. This of course does not mean that a couple of buses in the morning are not late and do not accumulate delays if they encounter traffic or roadwork for which we were not informed etc. But at the end, the situation is better this year than last year at the same moment despite all the changes we’ve encountered.
Another major challenge is being able to work with a brand-new IT system, which is still in its very early stages, with all that this implies such as the lack of communication at the start of the school year (impossibility of sending text messages to parents in the event of a bus delay).