Shortage of bus drivers in Yorkshire as up to 10 per cent have left since pandemic - many to retrain on HGVs - and Arriva cuts services

A local councillor and bus driver has told a committee that there is a “massive shortage” of bus staff - with many drivers reconsidering their careers due to the pandemic.

First buses in Leeds city centre
First buses in Leeds city centre

At a recent meeting of West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s Transport Committee, members heard that West Yorkshire is currently short of around 250 bus drivers - around 10 per cent of the workforce.

It is down to a mixture of drivers being tempted to switch to high-paying HGV haulage jobs, stagnant conditions and the strains of front line work through the pandemic.

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One member, himself a bus driver, said much more needed to be done to make the industry attractive to not just potential new drivers, but also to existing drivers who may be reconsidering their careers.

The committee was discussing West Yorkshire’s Bus Improvement Plan - a document that will set out how bus services will recover from Covid and which needs to be completed by the end of next month for the region to be eligible for millions in funding.

Bradford Council Leader Susan Hinchcliffe, also chair of the committee, said the plan needed to improve bus services, not just return them to the pre-Covid status quo.

David Pearson, director of transport services, said bus journeys were currently around 65 per cent of what they were in 2019.

He said: “There are now more young people travelling to school and college by bus which is a healthy sign. But there still hasn’t been a major return to patronage.”

Members heard that local bus users had experienced services being dropped at the last minute, which Coun Taj Salam (Lab, Little Horton) said was partly down to staff shortages.

Coun Salam, also a bus driver and branch secretary for the Unite Union, told the meeting: “There is a massive staff shortage at this moment in time. There are services being dropped.

“A lot of drivers are rethinking their careers. A lot of operators are finding it difficult.

“When we talk about making the career attractive to new applicants is one thing. We also need to make the industry more attractive for people already employed in the industry. If we don’t make it attractive to them, they’ll leave.”

He said that driving buses during the height of Covid, and all the pressures that caused, led to many drivers rethinking their careers.

Mr Pearson said West Yorkshire bus operators were currently short of around 250 staff - roughly 10 per cent of their total workforce.

He added: “This is having an impact on the passenger experience due to cancellations and short notice changes.

“The industry does have a regular staff turnover that tends to fluctuate. Normally you’d expect to see a staff turnover each year between five and 15 per cent. Currently we are seeing double that.”

He said pressures on the haulage industry meant many people who drive for a career were switching to becoming HGV drivers. He added: “The pandemic is playing a role, causing sickness, isolation and changes to people’s personal circumstances. Add to that delays to licensing and testing and it makes it very difficult for bus operators to get new people into the industry.

“I spoke to one operator the other day, and they were saying that by the time someone signs up to be a bus driver, the time it takes to get tested and get a licence, they have often moved on to another job.

“Driver shortages will be the issue of the autumn, although hopefully only the autumn.”

Coun Hinchcliffe said: “It is important to stress that despite all this we won’t accept a reduction in services. There has never been a higher level of public subsidy for operators, so we still expect a decent service for our residents.”

Meanwhile in Wakefield, Arriva has come under fire after announcing three of its bus services will be axed amid a raft of timetable changes.

The operator said it had no choice but to make the cuts, amid a nationwide shortage of bus drivers.

The 103, which links Stanley and Wrenthorpe to Wakefield, the 104, which goes to Alverthorpe and Eastmoor and the 112, which serves Kirkhamgate and Alverthorpe, will be withdrawn next month.

The 110 meanwhile, which runs between Kettlethorpe and Leeds, via the centre of Wakefield, will be split into two separate services.

The impact of the cuts on passengers will be partly offset by route changes and new services to ensure those areas will still be covered.

But Matthew Morley, Wakefield Council’s Cabinet member for transport, said he was “very disappointed” by the news and suggested the changes risked “confusing” the public.

He also said he was unhappy with a lack of notice from Arriva, with the alterations due to come into force from October 25.

Coun Morley said: “This has come as a bit of a bombshell to be honest. My officers were meeting with Arriva on Friday about unrelated matters and it was just mentioned to them right at the end.

“We’re trying to set up an emergency meeting now to see what we can do. But I think the process could have been handled a lot better by Arriva.

“There needs to be more of a dialogue from them with the local authorities in West Yorkshire.”

Arriva said it did engage with the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) about the move and added that under “normal circumstances” it would have consulted more.

A spokeswoman for the firm added: “The changes are to safeguard jobs by allowing us time to recruit and train new drivers.

“These changes are not commercial decisions, they have been driven by a lack of available drivers as a result of the national shortage.

“These decisions were made quickly because we needed to react urgently, as we acknowledge that delivering an unpredictable level of service is not good enough for our customers.

“We would prefer to deliver a reduced frequency that will turn up rather than make promises we can’t deliver. Our drivers that are continuing to deliver a service are doing a great job.”

The quality of public transport has been a bugbear for many local people for several years.

The Confederation of Passenger Transport said there is “no shortage” of people wanting to become bus drivers, but that staff were leaving too quickly for new employees to keep up with demand.

They said a backlog at the DVLA and DVSA had led to delays in trainee drivers receiving the provisional licences they needed.