Bus driver shortage crisis forces cancellations across Bristol region – Bristol Live

A severe bus driver shortage is forcing operators to cancel services, with West of England metro mayor Dan Norris branding it a public transport “crisis”.

First Bus and Stagecoach are having to take drastic action, while campaigners say rural communities are being “cut off” across Bristol and South Gloucestershire.

The boss of First West of England says the problems are “unlike any other the UK transport industry has faced”.

Read more: Stagecoach bus drivers to strike over pay dispute

Covid-19, Brexit, strike action at the DVLA, sickness rates three times higher than normal, stored-up staff holidays, social distancing restrictions preventing learners from completing training and even HGV companies “poaching” bus drivers with higher wages have all been cited as causes.

The bus companies are redeploying drivers or hiring agency staff as short-term cover to keep less frequent services and the day’s last buses running, as well as “working round the clock” to recruit and train employees.

But both admit they cannot deliver full timetables for now, more cancellations are inevitable and the end is not yet in sight. Mr Norris, mayor of the West of England Combined Authority (Weca), the strategic transport authority for Bristol, South Gloucestershire and Bath & North East Somerset, said: “A lack of strategic planning over the last decade means we are now in crisis.

“The transport industry has been issuing dire warnings about the driver shortage for many a year.

“But we are where we are and it is clear that there is a shortage of drivers across the economy.

“The latest issue we are seeing is bus drivers being poached to become HGV drivers, and the ongoing pandemic and Brexit issues continue to impact many businesses.

“We will do all we can to recruit and retain drivers in these challenging conditions. They are vital key workers and we need more of them.

“The positive here is there is a strong demand for jobs. But it is clear we need urgent action from government, not sticking plasters.”

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Stagecoach are cancelling some services because of the bus driver shortage

Public transport campaigner and Bristol One City transport board member Dave Redgewell told a recent South Gloucestershire Council meeting that the driver shortage was initially affecting Stagecoach services in particular.

He told scrutiny commission members on Wednesday, September 29, that “a lot of buses are being cancelled” including services that day to Yate, Kingswood, Severn Beach, Bristol Parkway, Southmead, Avonmouth, Shirehampton, Cribbs Causeway, Thornbury, Tytherington and Chipping Sodbury.

“Stagecoach is a good operator but we need to get a grip on this because it’s cutting off the rural areas.

“Passengers need buses to turn up as an essential part of our public transport network for journeys to school, college and universities, for work, hospitals, shopping, journeys and of course leisure travel in tourist areas.

“This shortage of bus drivers is now affecting the economy of the West of England in the cities of Bristol and Bath and our rural communities.”

What Stagecoach’s boss says

Stagecoach West managing director Rachel Geliamassi said afterwards: “We are continuing to run over 95 per cent of our timetabled services and have firm plans in place to return to full services as quickly as possible.

“However, as is the case with many organisations and sectors in the economy, the pandemic is continuing to impact our business in the short-term.

“Other issues beyond our control, such as Brexit and the DVLA taking significantly longer to process bus driver licences, have also added to these challenges.

“We are working round the clock to recruit people into our team and train them in the roles that we need, and we are seeing a strong demand for jobs.

“However, it takes an average of 10 weeks for a professional bus driver to be fully trained and delays outside our control in the processing of licences means we cannot get them on the road on our network as fast as we would like.

“Whilst this recruitment and training is taking place, we are also arranging for more drivers to cover services in rural areas from this week to help prevent cancellations to less frequent services.

“We apologise to our customers who have been affected, and we would like to thank them for their patience with our frontline teams whilst we work to get our new drivers on the road.”

What First’s boss says

First West of England MD Doug Claringbold said: “Due to the current national driver shortage that is affecting all transport sectors, from supermarket supply chains to public transport, First West of England is, regrettably, currently experiencing some reliability issues in its registered timetables.

“There may be a need to temporarily suspend a small number of journeys until this situation is fully resolved.

“However, over the coming weeks, we are looking to plan and publish any cancellations in advance, avoiding busy buses, less frequent services such as those in rural areas, and last buses – we want to make our services as predictable as possible.

“We will also be working with Weca to try to provide improved information on ‘real time information’ boards at bus stops.

“In deciding which journeys should be temporarily suspended we have taken into account a wide range of factors including detailed analysis of ongoing passenger data for each journey in order to minimise the inconvenience caused and to ensure that we are able to accommodate additional passengers on the journeys either side of those that will not run.

“We are working harder than ever to recruit and train new drivers, however in common with bus operators across the UK we are experiencing a severe shortage of staff.

“This situation is exacerbated by a number of other factors, including an increase in staff sickness, up three times normal levels in the West of England, an increase in drivers having to self-isolate due to family members contracting Covid-19 and staff holidays and accrued holidays resulting from long periods of furlough for some staff members.

“On top of this, due to Covid-19 restrictions placed on us earlier in the year, we have been prevented from close contact training with Passenger Carrying Vehicle learners, causing a backlog in training.

“Delays in getting licences back from DVLA due to industrial action has also had an impact although we’re pleased to see that this situation is starting to improve considerably.

“There are a number of things we are doing to address the problem, such as bringing in agency drivers to minimise service disruptions as much as possible in the short term.

“For the long term, we are investing heavily in retention and recruitment, including engaging with wider communities to show that a career as a bus driver is not only very worthwhile and rewarding, but you are also joining a larger company focused on playing its part to build a sustainable, carbon-zero transport system.

“We are also addressing changing demands for flexible and part-time working within our recruitment offer.

“We also echo Dan Norris’s comment that bus drivers are key workers who have done a brilliant job through Covid.

“This is a challenge unlike any other the UK transport industry has faced. Rest assured we will get on top of this and in the short term we are doing everything possible to ensure the effects of the driver shortage are minimised and we thank our customers for their continued patience.”

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