Stock official apologizes for safety violations, blames former manager

The school-bus operator and charter company is back before Nova Scotia's Utility and Review Board as part of the continuing investigation into safety violations, and attempts by the company to hide the problems or thwart provincial inspectors.

Former Stock GM Troy Phinney 'shouldn't be working in this industry,' Matt Ashley tells UARB

Matt Ashley, the president of North American operations for National Express, testified Monday at the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board. (Robert Short/CBC)

The most senior executive for North American operations of Stock Transportation's parent company is apologizing to the Nova Scotia's Utility and Review Board for the way Stock was run when it racked up a slew of violations.

"I'm sorry that this happened," Matt Ashley, the president of North American operations for National Express told Nova Scotia's provincial regulator Monday. "Clearly, it's no fun for you and it's not the sort of thing you should be having to worry about."

Stock is the province's largest school-bus operator, running buses for the Halifax Regional School Board, the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board and the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial.

The UARB will decide the fate of those licences after it hears from the company about the changes it has made since the regulator handed down a scathing report on Stock's charter-bus operations late last year.

That report highlighted safety violations, and attempts by the company to hide the problems or thwart provincial inspectors.

In November, Stock was found to have committed eight violations, including operating a charter service without a licence, resisting or willfully obstructing inspectors, demanding drivers work beyond the driving hours permitted and falsifying records.

Stock's breaches included carrying hockey teams to games within Nova Scotia and out of province as far away as Boston. Some of those trips came after Stock was specifically warned it did not have a licence to carry out those charter operations.

Stock Transportation has blamed its numerous problems on former general manager Troy Phinney. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Ashley was forced to admit Monday that National Express only learned about it all when it received a copy of the regulator's ruling.

"It's an uncomfortable truth, but I became aware of it when I received your report in November," he told the hearing. "I had not heard about it before then. And candidly, was shocked when I read the document. It didn't make for happy reading."

As Stock officials have done previously, Ashley put the blame squarely on former Stock general manager Troy Phinney.

Ashley repeatedly told the board Phinney left the company last July for a competitor, First Student. He did not specify whether he had been fired, although he did say Phinney should not be running a bus service.

"Based on this file he shouldn't be working in this industry," said Ashley.

Terri Lowe, the chief operating officer of Stock Transportation, at a Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board meeting on Fe. 12, 2018. (Jean LaRoche/CBC)

Ashley told regulators Phinney treated the "company assets as his own." 

The person now in charge of Canadian operations, Terri Lowe, who joined the company in June, shared her boss's assessment of the way Phinney ran the operation in Nova Scotia, particularly at the Dartmouth base.

In testimony during the initial hearings, Phinney was evasive or told the board paperwork didn't exist. Lowe told the board that just wasn't true.

"It was shocking to see what was said because there are numerous ways in which we validate what is done and you literally have to purposefully go around those processes to not be caught," she said.

'He had taken his computer with him'

She said when she was hired by Stock last June a number of "red flags" were raised about the way Phinney was running the Nova Scotia operation.

Most notably, she said, during her first visit to Nova Scotia she noticed four motor coaches in the yard reserved for school buses. She said until then, she knew nothing about them.

After Phinney left company in July, Lowe said she returned to his office. "There was not much left," she testified at Monday's UARB hearing. 

"Very little files, very little tracking of information," she said. "His computer, he had taken his computer with him. His phone was missing.

"It was hard to find anything."

The UARB previously ruled the company tried to force drivers to work beyond their legally mandated time restrictions and subsequently tried to cover up the violations. 

Although the safety issues identified by the UARB were related to the company's charter service, the current hearings focus on school bus operations.

The board wants to reassure itself that service is being run safely and properly.