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LEEDS: Difficult winter ahead for bus passengers, as industry leader claims driver shortage due to ‘headline-grabbing’ logistics sector

LEEDS: Difficult winter ahead for bus passengers, as industry leader claims driver shortage due to ‘headline-grabbing’ logistics sector

A First bus outside Leeds Kirkgate Market, Image: Google Maps

A leading bus industry figure has blamed a shortage of bus drivers on the “logistics sector” and the media attention around its need for drivers during Covid lockdown.

The comments came during a discussion on bus services in West Yorkshire, during which it was also claimed that the future was “uncertain” after March 2022 – the date Covid-related government subsidies for bus companies are set to come to an end.

Other industry figures also warned bus passengers faced “a challenging December”, due to the ongoing driver shortage and its impact on services.

It follows the well-documented heavy goods vehicle drivers shortage, which had seen the UK fall short of an estimated 100,000 qualified HGV drivers by the autumn.

Speaking at a meeting of Leeds City Council’s infrastructure scrutiny board, First Bus WY managing director Paul Matthews said: “The staffing position is impacting currently on service delivery, and as operators we have all taken our individual stances about how we address the position, which has really come about because of the headline-grabbing logistics sector which has attracted the media attention.

“That has had an effect on movement of staff into that sector from bus driving. But also it is about the economic mobility of staff and has been seen in many employment sectors.”

He said that to mitigate this, a “significant pay settlement” had been given to bus drivers in Leeds, along with incentives for new recruits.

Mr Matthews added: “We have had to take some difficult decisions to cut back some of the high frequency services to try to save some resource.

“That position is stabilising and the pipeline of new drivers coming through remains very strong. We are seeing car traffic volumes on the roads have probably increased up to about 100 per cent – that impacts on punctuality and reliability.

“Hopefully that is a short term thing and a legacy of the discouragement of travel by bus, but as we begin to recover we can hopefully shift that balance to bus travel.”

His comments follow a report which went before the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) last month, claiming bus operators currently had vacancies for around one in ten drivers’ jobs – twice what they would normally have – and that recruiting new drivers was proving “challenging”.

Speaking in this week’s meeting Transdev chief executive Alex Hornby added: “We are heading into a challenging November and December, when you combine the increase in congestion, and it will be more difficult to manage punctuality when you have got a driver shortage.

“The way we are dealing with this is by being upfront with our customers. We have also had to step back and reduce timetables, but we have seen customer numbers grow and had very few complaints.”

Dave Pearson, WYCA’s director of transport, said the Covid-19 pandemic had a “significant effect” on economics of services, adding that service numbers were “back to 2019 levels”.

He warned those buses are only seeing about three quarters the number of passengers they would have expected before the pandemic, meaning the Government and WYCA had to plug some of the financial gaps with grants and concessionary schemes.

While talks are ongoing with Government, it is not yet known whether the same subsidies will be available to support bus services after the current funding agreement ends in March 2022.

Mr Pearson added: “There is a process to close that gap, but there is a reality that we are unlikely to see it return to 2019 patronage levels in 2022. People’s travel habits have changed.

“We also have to be upfront with the fact that bus operators are dealing with a shortage of drivers at the moment – that is impacting on services.

“There is some indication that there may be some Government funding into the next financial year.

“It is a challenging financial position generally – we can’t lose sight that the pandemic and the reduced demand that has caused is a factor. But neither can we use that not to have ambitious plans to build a better bus service.”

Words: Richard Beecham, Local Democracy Reporter


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