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”, reports Bristol 24/7.
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.”
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.”