Brexit and the legacy of covid are fuelling a crippling shortage in bus drivers across Scotland.
Industry chiefs have warned services may be cancelled due to drivers simply not being available. The bleak picture was set out in a briefing to politicians by the Confederation of Passenger Transport.
They laid out a series of challenges facing the bus industry, including an average vacancy rate for drivers of around 12 per cent.
CPT estimated that bus usage is around 70-80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels and flagged up that a vital network grant for firms ends in October. If the grant does end, CPT warned that bus firms will not be able to protect passengers from route closures, service changes or higher fares.
Surging costs include fuel rising by 30 per cent, utility prices soaring by up to 250 per cent, tyre inflation running at 20 per cent and spare parts costing more.
The alarming briefing described driver shortages as one of the most “persistent and serious” issues facing the sector: “The main impact of driver shortages is short notice cancellation of services or routes, leading to frustrated bus users. Buses need drivers to run and if there are not enough drivers on a particular day to run all registered services, operators need to make difficult decisions on which routes and services to prioritise.”
CPT cited various reasons for the shortages, such as HGV drivers getting paid more than before.
On Brexit, they added: “Many operators note they have numerous EU drivers who used to work for them, sometimes seasonally, who would like to continue to do so but are unable to because bus driving is not included in the Skilled Worker Visa list and bus drivers are not considered a “Shortage Occupation” by the UK Government.
“Operators across the UK are calling for this to change so they can fill the posts they have been desperately trying to fill for close to 2 years now.”
Industry chiefs also said the pandemic had changed the way drivers perceived their quality of life and work life balance: “With so many people realising the benefits of being at home and/or working family friendly hours, many people have changed profession to take advantage of this opportunity.
“Many operators have noted that numerous drivers put on furlough took the time to retrain and/or realised that they could survive on 80% of their pay and have a better work life balance. This has resulted in many drivers leaving the sector.”
Scottish Labour MSP Neil Bibby said: “Bus services in Scotland have been left to decline for years under the SNP, and now they are on the brink of collapse.
“Right now we need to be rebuilding bus networks so we can meet our climate targets, but instead the SNP are letting them go to the wall. If the SNP-Green government fail to act passengers will be hit by spiralling fares when they can afford it least, and entire communities will be cut off as routes get cut to the bone.
“We need to help Councils run services and cap fares so every community in Scotland can benefit from a green, affordable bus network.”
His colleagues Monica Lennon said: “The Scottish Government will fail to meet its targets on reducing car journeys unless it gets serious about investment in bus services that meet the needs of people and local communities.
“Tackling driver shortages and ensuring good working conditions is a vital part of the solution.
“Initiatives to give more people access to free bus travel are welcome, however, reliable and convenient bus services are becoming a rarity in many parts of Scotland. This needs an urgent response by SNP and Scottish Green ministers, so that we can meet our climate obligations and run bus services that are good for people and the planet.”
Lib Dem transport spokesperson Jill Reilly said: “This report suggests that bus services could close, prices could rise and off-peak and rural services are likely most at risk. The Scottish Government is failing to adequately support councils to run local bus operators. That will mean fewer options and more hassle for commuters and passengers.
“Scotland needs to be pressing onwards in building a sustainable and eco-friendly public transport network and buses are the backbone of that transport system.”
Scottish Tory MSP Graham Simpson said: “Many local bus services and routes have already been slashed on the SNP’s watch and more will be at risk if this crucial funding ends next month.
“Bus operators have not been immune to rising costs over the last year meaning they need to be supported in order to protect passengers from fare increases or routes being lost.
“The UK Government are continuing this funding scheme for at least another six months and have recognised the huge challenges facing the industry.
“By contrast, the SNP are asleep at the wheel as this fund prepares to close. They need to step up and support future bus services, in order to encourage people onto public and greener transport and return passenger numbers to pre-pandemic levels.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The bus sector continues to face the challenges presented by Brexit in terms of staffing shortages, and in relation to fuel costs. Many of these matters are reserved to the UK Government and while we welcome the introduction of a business energy cap, without substantial reform to the energy market there is a real risk this temporary measure will prove to be inadequate.
“The Transport Minister has convened meetings with large and small bus operators over the summer recess which will formally re-establish the bus task-force. The Minister has made clear her intention to engage the UK Government in this work – noting the reserved competencies in relation to Brexit impact on the labour market and fuel costs.
“We will continue to engage with bus operators and local government to find mitigations where we are able to, by monitoring patronage and considering support in line with the Scottish Government’s Emergency Budget Review.”
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