Monday 27th September 2021
It was inevitable.
As soon as Ministers appeared in the media on Thursday afternoon telling us “there’s no need to panic buy petrol as there’s no shortage” you just knew Friday would see motorists queuing at their nearest garage to top up their tanks and by Saturday filling stations would have run dry.
It’s just human nature.
Ministers are technically right. There is no shortage of fuel. It’s just all in the wrong places. Either in quick thinking motorists’ petrol tanks or at the terminals. It’s just no longer at petrol stations where it’s needed. And that’s not a good place to be when the very problem kicking this whole thing off was a lack of qualified drivers to shift the stuff around the country.
Still, the upside is it might put a brake on the explosive return to motoring our roads have experienced since Covid restrictions eased. It might even persuade some petrol heads to revert back to ‘working from home’ mode and keep the roads congestion free as they ration their own petrol use or, dare I say it, think about catching the bus as an alternative.
You know, the kind of thing motorists were extolled to do last Wednesday – the rather oddly designated ‘Car Free Day’. Whereas a one-off day is never going to cut the mustard of modal shift, a self imposed restricted supply of fuel for a few weeks could make a real difference. Is there an opportunity beckoning?
So I do hope it’s taken as read fuel companies will be prioritising fuel tank filling at bus and coach garage sites so they maintain an uninterrupted supply of diesel during this period of disruption and there are no problems keeping public transport on the road for lack of fuel. I’m sure behind the scenes Government will be piling on the pressure to get fuel dry petrol stations open again as soon as possible, so let’s ensure buses are prioritised by those delivery drivers still at the wheel.
Smaller bus and coach companies which rely on local filling stations need to be given priority of supply too, or work collaboratively and negotiate a price with neighbouring bus companies to share their supply. The industry needs to work together to ensure there’s no shortage for buses and coaches during this hiatus which looks set to continue for a few weeks.
It’s concerning Go Coach Hire have cancelled all daytime bus routes today for lack of fuel.
However, there’s another crisis bedevilling the bus and coach industry and that’s it’s own tribulations from a shortage of PCV drivers. It doesn’t make the same headlines as the HGV driver shortage but it’s impact is even more immediate for passengers waiting for cancelled bus journeys than any issues from missing milkshakes in McDonalds, chicken in Nando’s or beer in Weatherspoons.
I get the feeling the bus industry hasn’t been shouting about the shortage almost all bus operators are experiencing because they don’t want to discourage passengers from returning to buses from negative headlines highlighting unreliability, not least because Government Covid revenue support in the form of the new Bus Recovery Grant (BRG) from 1st September is both uncertain and unlikely to be sufficient. Bus companies need all the revenue they can get in the coming weeks.
I also hear there’s an unintended consequence from the way BRG is claimed incentivising operators to maintain ‘scheduled’ (as opposed to ‘operated’) mileage as high as they can. So companies reducing timetables and schedules to better match fewer drivers available rather than ad hoc cancellations each day will lose out.
But passengers need certainty. Thameslink and Northern Rail found that big time in 2018 during their timetable meltdown. Angry train passengers soon persuaded those companies to implement emergency timetables which called for less drivers and offered certainty until things began to improve again.
I noticed on my recent trip to North Yorkshire that Transdev Blazefield have done just this on its flagship route 36 between Leeds, Harrogate and Ripon. Far better to be realistic about the level of service that can be operated by temporarily offering a reduced timetable than inconvenience passengers with unexpected and inconvenient longer waits every other day. That’s no way to encourage passengers back to bus, far better to be upfront with passengers as Transdev Blazefield have been.
Surely it’s time the Confederation or Passenger Transport was making similar loud noises about the PCV driver shortage as the haulage industry has been doing for the last six months and more. My impression talking to colleagues in the industry is the shortage of bus drivers is just as severe as lorry drivers and is going to need a series of actions including full prioritisation at the DVLA to process PCV licence applications, no delays on test dates as well as relaxation of visas for EU drivers with PCV licences to return to work and live in the UK.
It’s ironic at a time of Government promises for the future of the bus industry with Bus Back Better and the supposed £3 billion hand out, there’s never been a more uncertain time for buses right now with doubts on current funding (even though BRG was due to start four weeks ago on 1st September- no one knows yet what funding they’ll be receiving) never mind funding after next April which is all dependent on local authorities getting their Bus Service Improvement Plans submitted for the beauty parade of acceptance, or not, after the upcoming 31st October deadline.
Meanwhile more drivers are leaving for the green grass of inevitable higher pay from driving non human cargo around or other careers. It’s reported the company Gist, which supplies drivers for Tesco and M&S, is offering a salary of £56,674 plus a £5,000 bonus while Waitrose is offering a starting salary of £53,780.
Demands for higher wages in the bus industry are an inevitable consequence which as sure as panic buying follows a plea not to panic buy will mean higher bus fares, and an impact on passengers’ budgets and numbers travelling.
Much welcomed improved timetables with more buses running in evenings and Sundays was promised in Bus Back Better, but where are the drivers who are going to work these unfriendly shifts coming from? Let alone the money that’ll be needed to run them. It increasingly seems to me that magic £3 billion has already being spent a few times over.
As one bus company owner said to me last week “who’d want to own a bus company at the moment”.
It looks like Stagecoach have called it right once again.
I suppose one upside of petrol stations running dry of fuel is it might accelerate the drive to more electric cars but as the weeks go by, despite Ministers at pains to assure us this is all pandemic related with all countries suffering shortages just like us, it feels uncannily like we’re living out a ‘Project Fear’ kind of lifestyle to me.
Still at least Sunday Express readers were reassured yesterday our Prime Minister is working hard to “save Christmas” (…..once again).
Meanwhile I’m off out doing some more obscure and quirky bus journey riding …. while stocks still exist. But I’m not panic buying.