Crucial safety inspections on school buses were ­abandoned just weeks before an accident in which 26 pupils were injured, a Sunday Mail ­investigation reveals today.

Transport bosses in charge of ­hundreds of school buses ditched the routine “pit” checks which took place at approved premises every six months.

Instead they opted for random ­roadside checks, which sources claim are cheaper.

The change was approved by Scotland’s largest public transport group – Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) in November.

Less than three months later, 26 ­children were taken to hospital after their bus overturned in Cumbernauld. The crash – blamed on a possible mechanical fault – ­happened ­outside Our Lady’s High School.

26 children were taken to hospital after their bus overturned in Cumbernauld

Remarkably, no one was seriously injured but one pupil ­suffered a broken leg.

The cause of the crash is still being probed.

SPT manage school bus contracts on behalf of North Lanarkshire ­Council.

Our investigation also found buses built as far back as 1988 being used to transport school pupils.

The F-reg ­Leyland ­Olympian double decker spotted, started service 29 years ago. The bus involved in the ­Cumbernauld accident was 18 years old and owned by JD Travel.

An SPT spokeswoman said: “We now carry out random checks on vehicles used to carry children and these are undertaken at schools, rather than at operator premises.

“Random checks provide for a more dynamic inspection regime, enhancing safety as they place the onus on the driver and the operator to ensure that the drivers are qualified to drive the vehicle and that road-worthiness checks have been carried out before the vehicle leaves the operator’s premises.”

But one operator, who holds an SPT inspection contract, said: “One of the stipulations was that you would have your vehicles inspected twice a year at your own premises or a premises of your choice.

“All the vehicles have to go through an MoT – but SPT have always had their own mandatory testing to check vehicles are fit for purpose.

“I was told last November I would no longer be receiving inspections twice a year. Instead, the private-hire vehicles will just have to pass an MoT, which is lawful.

“The inspections always went over and above that. They were very rigorous with the vehicle on a ramp and over a pit. The inspectors still reserve the right to pull your vehicle for testing but it’s clearly a cost-cutting exercise. The school bus that left the road in ­Cumbernauld may have been a ­coincidence but you can’t be too careful when it comes to schoolchildren.”

SPT oversee public transport for the west of Scotland and are responsible for arranging school bus services.

Police at the scene of the crash

The operator added: “Now all that happens is that an inspector can turn up and do a visual inspection by the roadside with a torch.

“This will probably happen at schools when contractors are waiting to collect children. The SPT inspectors will be forced to put their name to a brief check at the ­roadside to say that a bus or car is safe – a long way from the ­thorough ­overhauls that used to be necessary.”

The AA led criticism of SPT’s decision.

A spokesman said: “We would ­prefer a ­regular inspection regime where the vital ­elements of a school bus are checked and it’s ensured they are ­maintained correctly.”

Jack Kushner, spokesman for road safety charity Brake said: “It’s crucial that thorough checks are in place to ensure that ­vehicles are safe for use. It’s concerning to hear of any move that could potentially put the safety of ­children at risk. It’s vital school buses are kept in a good state of repair.”

Scottish Conservative transport spokesman Liam Kerr said: “Anything that reduces the thoroughness of these checks cannot go ahead.

“If these changes are to take place, the authorities must show they are as extensive as the ­previous ones.”

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla), who represent all the affected councils except Glasgow, Renfrewshire and South Lanarkshire, said: “The safety of children is of ­paramount importance to councils.

“We cannot comment on the ­specifics of the SPT decision because this is rightly an operational decision for them to take based on local need and ­circumstance. Also, three of the ­councils are not members of Cosla.

“However, such operational decisions in relation to child safety are subject to full risk assessments.”

The AA criticised the move saying a more regular inspection regime is needed

Jamie Hepburn, SNP MSP for ­Cumbernauld and Kilsyth, said: “I’ve written to North Lanarkshire Council setting out my expectation that ­lessons learned from the incident at
Our Lady’s High School must lead to action and minimise the risk of such an ­accident occurring again.

“Having learned of the changes to their practices for inspecting vehicles, I’ll be writing to them again ­expressing my concern and demanding answers.”

SPT bosses say bus operators are legally responsible for the safety of their vehicles and the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency – an ­executive agency of the Department for ­
Transport – regulate this.

North Lanarkshire Council said: “All council school ­transport ­contracts are managed by SPT.”

Glasgow City ­Council said: “The safety of pupils is paramount. The DVSA are responsible for regulating bus operators and ensuring they meet statutory standards on safety – and SPT are responsible for ensuring ­contractual standards are met.

“Our understanding of the new inspections is that they should be more rigorous – dropping scheduled checks of buses presented by operators in favour of targeted spot-checks.

“This should give a far more accurate picture of the vehicles in use and who is driving them. Inspections can also now be ­carried out far more regularly.”

Renfrewshire Council and South Lanarkshire Council did not comment.

Jacqui MacDonald, chief education officer at East Dunbartonshire Council, said: “The safety of our pupils is always our top priority. We will contact SPT as soon as possible.”