The wheels on the bus... don't go round: Long-term fears over driver drought

Norwich had hoped to be awarded millions for transport improvements including buses. Picture: DENISE

A shortage of drivers has affected bus services in Norwich - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015

Passengers face "long-term" disruption on the city's buses as a crippling driver shortage continues to impact services. 

Specified First Bus journeys are currently not operating due to staff shortages and a spate of sickness leaving areas including Sprowston, Spixworth, Old Catton, Dussindale and Hethersett under served. 

Konectbus has also seen employees quitting to drive HGVs or delivery vans but is continuing to run all its buses.

Robin Knowles, 80, who lives in Proctor Road, Sprowston, with his 74-year-old wife, said a recent doctor appointment at Magdalen Medical Practice had to be changed because a bus did not turn up. 

Councillor Robin Knowles wo waited for more than two hours for the ambulance.

Sprowston town councillor Robin Knowles who has encountered challenges due to the bus shortage - Credit: Archant © 2006

The couple, who cannot drive or walk long distances, have also resorted to catching a taxi to travel to the city centre. 

"I have spoken to several people about it who are saying it is very inconvenient," town councillor Mr Knowles said.

Natasha Harpley, district councillor for Sprowston, fears the bus companies will try to "eke out" the reduced services for as long as possible, causing a long-term loss of vital routes. The firms deny this. 

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She said: "They are trying to get away with reduced services and hope no-one kicks up a fuss. Some of these routes are where vulnerable people are living. 

"Linacre Avenue in Sprowston is often called 'Bungalow Central' and those people were left stranded. 

"We are being encouraged to use buses more for the environment but we can't actually use them." 

Norwich South MP Clive Lewis described the situation as a "developing crisis" with Covid, Brexit and ill health being major factors in the shortage of drivers. 

Norwich South MP Clive Lewis. Photo: Antony Kelly

Norwich South MP Clive Lewis. Photo: Antony Kelly - Credit: Archant

Mr Lewis said many EU nationals have chosen to return home, some because of the pandemic.

"I want to see self-defeating visa restrictions relaxed so people from abroad can once again be welcomed back to help in our public services," Mr Lewis said.

"But that’s not enough. It is essential pay is improved and working conditions for drivers stop making them ill.

"Bus companies need to get used to taking less in profit and giving more to the workers who keep their businesses and our bus services running." 

Sprowston bus user Marcus Moore, of Barkers Lane, questioned why the most used rush-hour service times have been cut, while daytime services with less than five passengers continue.

What have the bus companies said? 

Chris Speed, head of operations at First, is confident the issue will be temporary. 

He said the affected journeys have been "carefully identified as having a much lower demand meaning their absence should cause less disruption to customers". 

Head of operations at Frist Chris Speed. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Head of operations at Frist Chris Speed. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016

Mr Speed added: “We have an open window for recruiting new drivers and we have several already in our driving school who will very soon be ready to be released into service which will greatly help the situation." 

Jeremy Cooper, Konectbus managing director, said plenty of applicants are coming forward to their training school.

"We have an outstanding team of people at Konectbus, and although we have seen more people than usual leave everyone has rallied round and kept our buses running," Mr Cooper said. 

Jeremy Cooper, Managing Director, Go-East Anglia. Photo: Go-East Anglia

Go East Anglia managing director Jeremy Cooper. - Credit: Go East Anglia

Long delays approving provisional bus driving licenses at the DVLA and increased post-lockdown traffic has increased the pressure. 

Mr Cooper said the operator will continue encouraging more people to use the bus with enhanced cleaning regimes.