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Minimising the impact of bus driver shortages

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Minimising the impact of bus driver shortages

Public transport operators across the UK are grappling with bus driver shortages, with a pre-existing shortfall being aggravated by the impact of Brexit, the Covid pandemic and an ageing workforce. We spoke with Chloe Gray, a CitySwift Customer Success Manager, about this challenge and how data can help mitigate the impact.

The national shortage of drivers is big news in the UK at the moment. Coverage has mainly focussed on HGV drivers – but there is a significant and growing shortage of bus drivers too.

Chloe Gray recently joined our team as a Customer Success Manager. She brings a wealth of hands-on experience gained during a five-year spell with Stagecoach. Chloe started her career with the group as a graduate trainee and worked in various operations roles in England and Scotland before becoming a Commercial Analyst with Stagecoach based in Aberdeen.

Chloe Gray, CitySwift Customer Success Manager

Chloe is no stranger to the challenges operators face in recruiting and retaining a sufficient number of drivers – but it’s a task that has become much harder in recent months. Long-standing difficulties have been exacerbated by new ones, chiefly Brexit and the pandemic.

“Some people I know in the bus industry have been saying that they are losing quite a lot of drivers to the HGV industry,” says Chloe. “Haulage companies are inflating wages because they are also struggling to recruit drivers – a lot of drivers have returned to their home countries in Europe. It's more difficult for bus companies to increase drivers’ salaries in the same way.”

“Haulage companies are inflating wages because they are also struggling to recruit drivers. It's more difficult for bus companies to increase drivers’ salaries in the same way.”

This is a challenge currently faced by many bus operators, with some offering bounty payments to help lure new recruits. “It's everywhere,” says Chloe. “I hear more and more from bus companies who are struggling to fill driver vacancies. You can see it on social media – they are screaming out for drivers. Everyone's recruiting.”

“I hear more and more from bus companies who are struggling to fill driver vacancies. You can see it on social media – they are screaming out for drivers. Everyone's recruiting.”

Chloe acknowledges that recruiting and retaining bus drivers has never been easy. “It's always been quite difficult to keep people,” she says. “A lot of time you’ve got people for maybe a year and then they go. Or you have that opposite end where you've got people who have been there for say 20 years or whatever, so in many depots it's an ageing workforce.”

Brexit and the pandemic have made the problem much worse.

The UK’s departure from the European Union ended freedom of movement of labour, depriving bus companies - and those in neighbouring sectors - of the ability to recruit drivers from other countries in Europe.

The onset of the pandemic saw many foreign nationals return home, further shrinking the labour market. And many of those who remain are reluctant to accept the risks of a customer-facing role.

But there are other significant issues too. Much has been made of the backlog of processing new driving licences in the HGV sector and the bus sector is not immune to this problem. 

In August the Association of Local Bus Managers (ALBUM), which brings together the so-called ‘non-aligned’ municipal and independent bus operators, pressed transport minister Baroness Vere about the problems its members were experiencing with DVSA licensing and a backlog of candidates awaiting driving tests. ALBUM warned that its members expected the shortage of bus drivers would start to have a growing and significant impact on bus networks within weeks.

Meanwhile, this perfect storm is being exacerbated by the workforce getting older. 

More and more drivers retiring has created a vacuum in finding enough new recruits willing to accept the lifestyle that comes with being a bus driver. Operators have been urged to embrace flexible working practices that might encourage more people to consider the job, but it’s difficult to put into practice. “I know there are some companies that are quite forward-thinking and are trying to introduce things like that – but it costs,” Chloe explains.

How CitySwift can help 

Bus operators are doing what they can to plug the gaps in their labour force, but for many it seems unlikely that they will be able to get a full complement any time soon. And in situations where mileage is routinely being lost and there’s no quick fix, there comes a point when bus operators must accept the need for planned cuts to services. No one wants to see services withdrawn or frequencies reduced, but many operators are likely to conclude that if mileage is going to be lost then it must be done in a way that has the least impact on passengers and their business. Our specialist bus data engine can help minimise those potential issues.

Chloe explains: “The CitySwift platform allows you to look at your scheduled vehicle hours versus what's actually happened, so you can see the dropped vehicle hours and establish where exactly you may be losing the hours and the mileage, so you can then speak to your control teams and prioritise, if you have to lose mileage, where it should be.”

“The CitySwift platform allows you to look at your scheduled vehicle hours versus what's actually happened, so you can see the dropped vehicle hours and establish where exactly you may be losing the hours and the mileage, so you can then speak to your control teams and prioritise, if you have to lose mileage, where it should be.”

Dropped Vehicle Hours

It’s much better to properly manage the situation than to lose mileage on the wrong routes and at the wrong times of day, such as an important service to a hospital at early shift time. 

“You can drill down into looking at the demand - where it's spread across a route for example - on a trip-by-trip basis. Maybe there are some trips that aren't busy so you can then start reducing frequencies, if you have to.”

“You can drill down into looking at the demand - where it's spread across a route for example - on a trip-by-trip basis. Maybe there are some trips that aren't busy so you can then start reducing frequencies, if you have to.”

But it’s possible to use the data engine to go even further.

“You can use our SwiftSchedule product to optimise journey times,” Chloe explains. “So rather than reducing frequencies, you can use SwiftSchedule to remove unneeded dwell time from the schedule, rather than making frequency cuts."

“You can use our SwiftSchedule product to optimise journey times. So rather than reducing frequencies, you can use SwiftSchedule to remove unneeded dwell time from the schedule, rather than making frequency cuts."

Harnessing the power of data enables bus operators to prune their networks in the most careful and very considered way, giving them the best chance of growing again when the time is right.

The CitySwift platform can also help operators demonstrate to all parties concerned that any cuts are being made with all due care and attention, with the aim of having the least possible detrimental effect on communities.

“Operators can communicate that they are not just doing changes on a whim,” says Chloe. “They have the data and the evidence to back it up.”

“Operators can communicate that they are not just doing changes on a whim. They have the data and the evidence to back it up.”

The impact of the pandemic on travel patterns is already forcing bus operators to reexamine their service provision, with more people now working from home and a sizable chunk of the population remaining fearful of Covid risks. As emergency support from government subsides, difficult decisions will have to be made.

Our data engine can’t reverse the driver shortage or the impact of the pandemic, but it can help to mitigate its impact on local bus networks.

Learn more about CitySwift’s specialist bus data engine, request a demo or contact us to discover how CitySwift can help you.

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