Posted on 21 November 2019

Discovering the APEEE bus transportation service

What if you were offered a ride to your work by a bus filled with joyful people singing and having fun? To have a professional driver taking care of the route, and a “hostess” being attentive to your well-being on board? Pia Pistol, a member of the APEEE board took a test ride with the children on a school bus on Wednesday 3 June. Read below about her impressions.

It is a cold and rainy Wednesday morning when I step out of the front door of my home. Everything is grey and I miss the warmth of my bed when I hold tight my umbrella and walk towards the bus stop. I reach the stop at the same time with the bus, and impatiently wait for my turn to enter the vehicle. However, I make sure everybody else has boarded the bus before I climb the stairs to the bus. After all, this is a school bus, and I am today the only grown up passenger allowed on board the vehicle filled with pupils that all have the same destination: the European School Brussels II in Woluwe Saint Lambert.

In the bus I am, like everybody else, greeted with a radiant smile by Fatoumata Barry, the bus supervisor, and a kind word of welcome by Christophe, the driver. I fold my wet umbrella and take a seat on the front row of the bus. I take a look back at the children that have sat down and are buckling up their seat belts with the help of Fatoumata. The bus is filled with children’s chatter and giggling and all of a sudden the day feels quite a bit less grey and more joyful.

Fatoumata, or Fatou, tells me that she is a bus supervisor for two years. It is her first job since she arrived to Belgium from Conakry, the capital of Guinea, in 2015. In addition to her work as a bus supervisor she also works in the school canteen during lunchtime, and as a cleaning lady in the evenings. Her workdays are long and include several gaps in between, but she says she is nevertheless happy to have a stable job. “The best part of this job is being in contact with children” Fatou says, and it is easy to believe it when you see the young woman communicate with ease with the little passengers of the bus who do not always share a common language with her.

Fatou notes every pupil present in the bus in her tablet, using an application that has been tailor- made for the APEEE bus service. The application records the names of the children and the exact time they have boarded the bus. Once the check-in is complete and everybody is buckled up, the bus departs, heading for the next stop of this round. There are a total of five stops on this round, and around 40 pupils board the bus every morning.

The bus ride to school is scheduled to take no more than 45 minutes. However, as often happens in the Brussels region traffic, unforeseen events can cause delays, and today happens to be one of those days. All of a sudden the bus stops in the middle of a tiny crossroads, and is unable to continue due to a roadblock. Christophe quickly assesses the situation and states that it will not be possible to go straight; turning left or right is not a possibility either. Behind the bus other vehicles are starting to queue, and we can hear by the beeping of horns that they are not happy about it. The situation very quickly escalates outside the bus, with commune workers trying to find a solution, a police officer giving orders to everybody, and the unhappy drivers of the cars blocked by the bus expressing their anger in different ways.

Inside the bus the children are asking Fatou what is going on. Some are excited, others anxious, and Fatou deems it necessary to go and speak to the children, sit with them, help them wait patiently. She also exchanges with Christophe and calls the APEEE bus service coordination office to inform the colleagues of the situation and the inevitable delay for this round.

After a 20-minute wait, the situation is resolved and the bus can continue its ride. Fatou is back on the front seat with me and I ask her to describe the ideal person for a job as a bus supervisor. She says that it is essential that the person likes to work with children, and has a security awareness. “The ideal bus supervisor also has pedagogical and team work skills – the supervisor and the driver work as a team after all!” adds Christophe. I decide to ask the children’s views and receive a common assessment without any hesitation: Fatou is “kind and attentive” whereas Christophe is found to be “funny and kind”.

This bus seems indeed to be quite special. When we are getting closer to our destination, Christophe asks the children to sing their favourite bus song, and immediately the bus is filled with the melody of the song “Au feu les pompiers”, but with lyrics that refer not to firefighters but rather to a mysterious “Monsieur Moustache” that sometimes visits the bus. I am also told that it often happens that one very special passenger of the bus pretends to have fallen asleep at the destination, and expects Christophe to pick him up and carry him out of the bus. And Christophe is happy to play along.

Upon our arrival to school with a 20-minute delay, we are welcomed by supervisors that gather the children and escort them safely to the school grounds. While Fatou proceeds to a checkout of the passengers on her tablet, another supervisor goes inside the bus to make sure nobody has stayed in. I collect my belongings, thank Fatou and Christophe for the good company, and follow the children.

Now that I am on the spot, I decide to go and take a sneak peak in the APEEE transportation coordination service. A team of four persons, working in shifts, is in charge of the bus transportation service that has a yearly budget of 3,5 million euros. When I enter their office,  located in the prefabs, the atmosphere is dynamic and friendly. At 8h30 the work is in full swing with phones ringing and team members exchanging info in the open space office. I am welcomed by Reggy Du Moulin, manager of the transport service, and by his deputy Ferhan Pelister, who both kindly agree to talk to me about their work.

“We see our job first and foremost as a provision of a service, with an important focus on customer service” says Reggy.  There is a lot of contacts with the parents both by e-mail and over the phone. In addition to calls relating to the daily operations, the office receives requests for the creation of new stops, responds to complaints and so forth. Another important task is the coordination with the bus companies that the APEEE has contracts with (changes concerning the drivers, bus stops or routes).

According to Ferhan, there is no such a thing than a typical day in the coordination service. There are however peaks in the phone activity, and those are at around the times when the buses are on their rounds; between 7h and 8h30 in the mornings and 15h and 17h30 in the afternoons. The rest of the time is spent dealing with the rest of the business, including dealing with e-mails, invoicing and administrative work, and most of all, managing the daily schedule of the bus supervisors.

Indeed, the management of the bus supervisors’ schedule is no lightweight task when providing a service to a school of 3000 pupils. Currently, the APEEE employs around 80 bus supervisors that are each allocated either in a bus or in the bus terminal of the school. There are 48 buses, provided by 14 different bus companies, taking children to school every morning, and a total of 63 buses leaving the school in the afternoon for different destinations, including 5 buses in the direction of the after-school centres of the Commission.

The coordination team is very aware of their heavy responsibility in coordinating a school bus service. Reggy points out: “Our service is a critical function for the APEEE because it is in charge of transporting children”. Any transportation service must have a very high notion of security, and even more so when the passengers are not grown ups but children. While riding a bus to school is proven to be actually safer than riding in the family vehicle or walking, bus transportation-related incidents are among the biggest risks to a pupil attending school. Therefore it is of utmost importance that both the bus drivers and the supervisors are regularly trained for on board and driving safety. APEEE coordinates this training for the supervisors and bus drivers in cooperation with the FBAA (Fédération Belge des Exploitants d’Autobus et d’Autocar). Furthermore, 40-minute learning shots are organised every year for pupils on the school site in order to create awareness and prevent risky behaviours linked to riding the school bus such as getting on and off the bus in a safe manner.

Another perceived risk linked to the transportation of children is the risk of disappearance. And what is more scary for a parent than the thought of not being sure your child is in the right place at the right time? “For me, the most stressful part of this job is dealing with anxious parents that call us on their missing children” says Ferhan who remarks that all disappearances linked to the bus service have always been resolved very quickly. All missing pupils have always been found, be it on the school site, on the school bus itself after falling asleep during the ride (and missing the stop), or even at the Woluwe shopping mall…This is rather a remarkable achievement, considering that the bus service transports 5000 children per day!

However, Ferhan and Reggy are far from complaining about their responsibilities. Quite on the contrary, as Reggy remarks: “We have a nice atmosphere in the office, and very much enjoy the diversity of the activities”. The good team spirit certainly helps to deal with the stress of the everyday urgencies.

My time is up, and I have to leave Ferhan, Reggy and the rest of the team to their work. I feel reassured and, frankly, quite impressed by the professionalism of the people I have met today. I will definitely not hesitate to continue enrolling my children in the bus service – and if I could, I would actually prefer to take such a bus ride myself too rather than drive my own car to work!


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