Northants passengers left stranded as bus driver shortages continue
Disruptions to bus services have become the norm in recent months
By Natalie Bloomer
Bus service disruptions caused by driver shortages show no sign of improving as Stagecoach continues to cancel journeys.
More than 70 services in towns across the county were cancelled yesterday including in Kettering, Daventry, Corby, Northampton, Rugby and Wellingborough.
This included some routes which don’t run often even without the cancellations. There are only four buses a day on the Raunds to Kettering route - a service which some people in the area use to travel to the general hospital. Yesterday the 11.13am bus was cancelled meaning there were no buses making the journey at all between 06.55am and 14.55pm.
Brexit, Covid and the national HGV driver shortages have all played a part in the problem. In November the Unite union conducted a survey of members across the UK. It found that there were driver shortages at 99 per cent of bus garages with 79 per cent of respondents saying vacancies had increased since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
As well as bus operators facing staff absences and problems with recruitment, Unite says drivers are also leaving 'in droves'. Almost half of the survey respondents said their garage had lost 20 to 40 drivers, 18 per cent had lost 40 to 60, and four per cent said their garage had lost between 100 and 200 drivers.
Speaking at the time the survey results were published, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said:
"This survey reveals that bus drivers are leaving the industry in droves due to low pay, poor working conditions and long hours. Bus companies have got to stop trying to sweep driver shortages under the carpet and start tackling the fundamental problems in the industry.
"That starts with eradicating low pay. If this isn’t swiftly addressed, shortages will only get worse. Unite’s campaign fighting for a better deal on jobs pay and conditions includes action to get better pay for bus drivers across the UK."
NN Journal has previously looked at Northamptonshire’s bus strategy plans. At the time we spoke to Palden Dorje who cares for her autistic son. He takes a bus from Northampton to the Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal for work. The service has been interrupted several times making him late and causing him to become anxious.
“The number of different bus routes affected is across the county and must be having a devastating impact on businesses whose staff can’t get to work, people attending medical appointments, kids getting to school, loss of income to those late for work, not to mention the negative impact of the mental health of people already suffering the consequences of Covid,” she said.
“There are safeguarding issues with leaving school kids abandoned at the road side, and ill people trying to attend appointments that if missed will be difficult to reschedule due to the current NHS crisis. This is a massive problem, as important as the lack of HGV drivers and carers, yet there seems to be nothing happening.”
Councillor for Duston East Nigel Hinch runs the community bus service ABILITY which was launched in 2019 to help fill the gaps left by permanent bus service cuts in the South Northamptonshire area. He says the impact of unreliable and reduced bus services can be devastating for vulnerable people.
"It means increased loneliness and can lead to people becoming isolated and it's not just people in rural areas - there are urban areas in Northamptonshire that don't have good bus services. If a bus route is cancelled it means people have to rely on family and friends and sometimes pay out for a taxi.
"They [the bus operators] are in the same boat as the health service and councils in terms of staff absences due to Covid. But in terms of vacancies there is no quick fix because when people apply for the roles they then have to go through the test process before they're out on the road. It's different for us because we use mini-buses so our drivers don't need the same licenses as on the buses and our drivers also include some volunteers - which we’re always looking out for across West Northamptonshire."
A spokesperson for Stagecoach said:
"As is the case with other transport operators and many other organisations, we are seeing a continuing impact on our staffing levels as a result of the pandemic.
"Our teams are working very hard to continue running our planned services for customers. However due to the increasing numbers of employees impacted by the virus, we may not be able to run every service as planned and there may be some changes to services. Where this is the case, we will ensure customers are updated through our customer channels with as much notice as possible."
You can read more about Northamptonshire’s plans to improve bus services here
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