Time for a pre Christmas update on buses, in Q&A format. A number of constituents are frustrated that bus services in Gloucester have been cancelled, often at short notice, making it hard to get to work on time, or get back home - with safety concerns (for female travellers especially) as well.
Q. So what's the issue?
A. There seem to be three main issues:
1. Lack of drivers
3. DVLA delays
Q. Can you explain why these 3 issues exist and what's changed?
A. Taking each in turn:
1. As a result of the pandemic some drivers decided to leave front line jobs, particularly those with health conditions or whose family had them. Others took early retirement or decided not to return from furlough. That means fewer existing drivers.
2. Then there's new competition. Some staff left to take advantage of competitive wages offered by HGV companies in the autumn. At the same time Stagecoach say one part of their recruitment pool of eastern European applicants, previously 20% of new applications dry up. Their job opportunities back home have improved. Lastly companies like Amazon have been offering up front bonuses to sign on which may have tempted some away.
3. There have been significant DVLA backlogs, which has meant newly qualified drivers licences took longer to process.
Q. Are they recruiting more drivers?
A. Yes, gradually. In the summer Stagecoach were 11% short of drivers in the West but now think that has reduced to 9%. The direction may not be all in a straight line up though.
Since May, they've introduced 32 new drivers and are currently training 57 new drivers, with a large number of these are due to come to Gloucester. They hope by early 2022 this should make a difference.
Q. When are Stagecoach going to fix the problem?
A. There isn't a fixed date by when everything will be sorted. Winter sickness always poses an issue for businesses and that’s likely to be the case for Stagecoach too, along with possible new covid cases. At the moment sickness (ie drivers unable to come to work) is around three times what they would normally expect. The reduction of the self isolation period should help.
Q. What can government do to help?
A. We brought an end to the 'pingdemic' isolation by allowing people in contact with COVID patients to carry on working and taking lateral flow tests instead: and of course we have ramped up booster jabs to increase immunity. We've also made mask wearing on buses mandatory to protect passengers and drivers more. Lastly are the wider changes on self isolation from 10 to 7days, with negative LFT testing on days 6 and 7.
Q. How is Stagecoach reacting?
A. They have tried to focus on reducing the frequencies of the main routes (e.g No. 10 and 94) and offering overtime to try and cover their normal service, while maintaining other services.
Q. But is it working?
A. Stagecoach are planning service changes to try and improve reliability in January. When these are confirmed and details shared with me, I will share them with you on my FB page. Some aspects may depend on government guidelines after Christmas.
Q. Why are buses cancelled last minute or without notice?
A. The main reason is that drivers can be out of service with very short notice e.g due to a positive LFT which means that Stagecoach cannot always plan for cover.
Q. How are service updates shared?
Q. Can they improve notice of what's happening and what's been cancelled?
A. There are 2 ways to check if a service has been cancelled or delayed:
1. Download their app here
2. Look on their twitter account here (download Twitter for free and 'follow' @Stagecoach_West).
Both are online and I know some older passengers don't like this but unfortunately the screens at bus stops cannot be updated.
Q. Why are the screens at bus stops not updated?
A. The screens at bus stops are operated by the County Council and are programmed to display the standard schedule. There are around 100 bus stops with real time information screens (RTI).
The reason that cancellations cannot be changed at the last minute is because the system holds the ‘scheduled’ times e.g if the system cannot talk to the bus. To change that Stagecoach would have to register timetable changes with the Office of the Traffic Commissioner, which is a 10 week process.
I understand that the reduced service is now in the process of being registered, so that the RTI screens should reflect this soon. That should help.
Q. Do they realise how frustrating this is?
A. Yes: Let's not forget all the humans involved, both passengers let down and drivers who do their best, whatever the situation. One of them, Michael Godfrey, was awarded Best Driver in the West in 2018. And my son witnessed avoid the near certain death of a cyclist by fast action from another driver.
Q. How can I raise my concern or make a formal complaint?
A. Stagecoach MD Rachel Geliamassi and her team are very conscious of these issues and if you have a specific concern or complaint about an issue you have experienced, do in the first instance please email firstname.lastname@example.org so that a manager can investigate and respond.
I know Stagecoach are doing all they can to improve things and meanwhile encourage anyone using their services to check for updates before travelling.
Q. Anything else to be aware of?
A. Stagecoach and National Express have confirmed that they are intending to merge their services next year to create one transport company. The aim will be to create one bigger and better service for customers, as well as greener transport. My experience of mergers is that the systems and people take time to integrate, and there may be teething problems. But it could be good that customers going to eg Heathrow are being looked after by the same people as local bus services. I will share further updates on this next year when I get them.
I hope Stagecoach will do their best to provide better services in 2022 and that passengers will be patient, given the difficult circumstances. Do tell me your stories good and bad so that I know the issues to raise with Stagecoach.
Meanwhile Happy Christmas to all passengers and staff!