You can’t panic buy bus journeys

Monday 27th September 2021

Temporary reduced frequencies in Harrogate with fewer journeys than on display in the timetable case.

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.

Roger French

19 thoughts on “You can’t panic buy bus journeys

Add yours

  1. There is the same amount of delivery drivers last week as there is this week and there was no shortage of deliveries being made then so what has changed?
    Absolutely nothing apart from the BBC have gone into panic mode and caused people to panic buy fuel


  2. I think one issue that isn’t talked about is the fact that in 10-15 years time buses and train drivers (and many other workers in industries facing shortages) potentially could be replaced by autonomous machines. Therefore, as a teenager I am not going to choose to become a bus or train driver because by the time I’m 30 my work might become obsolete.

    But isn’t it great that we finally got rid of all those migrants stealing our jobs


  3. A bold government would suspend or abolish the driver CPC for domestic work. I believe there are thousands of drivers who are put off coming back by the 35 hour “welcome back penalty” of virtually pointless training.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Unfortunately Transdev aren’t being so open about driver shortages elsewhere. I was in Huddersfield a couple of weeks ago and noticed their 324 to Meltham wasn’t running. The Team Pennine website timetable was showing just two late night evening journeys (presumably tendered) instead of the half hourly daytime frequency that had been shown a few days earlier. There’s still no apology or explanation on the website and I don’t recall seeing a notice in Huddersfield Bus Station. First runs a parallel service on the 324 at a 15 minute daytime frequency and that seemed to be running normally, so they obviously cut that service to save others which is understandable, but passengers should be told.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The shortage of bus drivers will inevitably lead to an increase in bus drivers pay. Not before time, of course, as many operators are only paying £10-£11 an hour in the provinces.
    Unfortunately this will lead to marginally profitable routes being withdrawn especially evening and Sunday buses.
    Yes, you can keep putting the fares up, but this will drive yet more people away from using buses leading to more service cuts.
    I think the era of deregulated commercial bus operation is coming to an end, we will have to see how committed to green transport the government is as to the level of subsidy provided to keep a reasonable bus network going
    I am not holding my breath!


  6. I was chatting to a driver for one of the major groups in my big city (anonymity preserved) the other
    night).His garage is about 15% short of here it should be. Drivers were under pressure, he said, to work what he felt were crazy hours,up to the legal limit….and occasionally beyond. At the same time, evening custom has declined substantially since the pandemic and hasn’t recovered- it seems inevitable that cuts will be happening here.


  7. I absolutely agree with Steven Salmon above . . . I’m one of them!! I surrendered my PCV licence in 2018 for medical reasons, and could easily get it back, but the 35 hours CPC course means I don’t see the point. In 2012 I undertook the 35 hours (which was actually about 25 hours in the classroom!!) and learnt pretty much nothing new . . . indeed I tried to correct one of the instructors on drivers hours rules, but was told I was wrong and he was right!! As I’d been driving buses since 1979, and scheduling since 1995 . . . that pretty much removed any faith in dCPC that I had. {In passing . . . is that why getting more/new HGV drivers is difficult??}

    I fail to see how many drivers can work overtime before/after a duty in many cases nowadays . . . with driving hours up above 8 hours on many duties; there is limited ability to cover any extra work without exceeding 10 driving hours.

    I fully agree that evening buses should be cut before daytime buses . . . why cut those trips where passengers actually travel?? Announce that all buses will cease after 20:00 each day, and wait for the (one) complaint!! {Obviously trips serving hospitals should remain, but there won’t be many such trips}.

    I hate to say it, but with lower passenger numbers that seem to struggle to get above 80% of pre-pandemic numbers and what seems to be a worsening driver shortage across the country (not just the South West, but I believe that London is now starting to see significant shortages with some operators) . . . this looks like a “perfect storm” coming.
    Perhaps we should let Government / local government have a go now?? This may seem like throwing in the towel, but . . . if continuing to bang your head against a brick wall hurts . . . stop banging!!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Sadly we live in a motocracy and it’s rule by the car for the car so motorists will be given fuel priority not small bus companies.The fuel shortage doesn’t seem to have stopped them driving to walk their dogs and joy riding around wherever they fancy.Strange how Boris,or so the media report,wants to bring the army in to distribute fuel for cars but no talk of them being used to distribute food.Food for cars first people second.Of course motorists are too stupid to realise where this fuel comes from and it can’t go on forever as it’s running out plus the motorist,with some help from other sources,has caused a significant alteration in our climate not that they care business as usual!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. @Kiran. I realise you were just being ironic. The trouble is the use of foreign labour from the late-1940s onwards is what helped destroy the status, wages and conditions of UK bus workers, which historically had been high quality, well-paid and secure blue collar jobs.


  10. Another issue is the shocking performance at Swansea. Over two months since I sent my licence for renewal following my 5 year medical and still waiting. No chance of doing my CPC locally without it, so no chance of doing any casual driving.


  11. With the fuel distribution issues it is down to a whole raft of isues/ Lack of workforce planning with the HGV companies. Failure of HGV companies to train people. Covid and self isolation , suspensuion of HGV tests . ECO protests. Media causing panic buying


  12. Well a ;lot is happening. National Express bidding for Stagecoacg. RATP and Iower Transit forming a joint venture and nowSouthEastern forfeit franchise


  13. Some areas are much worse affected than others, with the South West being one of the worse areas for bus driver retention and recruitment. Whilst First have been badly affected, the worse affected operator seems to be Stagecoach in Devon, with over 600 individual journeys being reported as cut on some days. Am not really sure how they can get themselves out of this, especially as it appears the union plan a strike and an overtime ban. Some of the cut journeys are finally being listed on their web site, but vary on a day to day basis. So far the only route to have had a reduced timetable is Falcon, which became two hourly from last weekend. Clearly the public need special timetables to be introduced on other routes, the way it is going, most people will otherwise give up waiting for buses that are not going to arrive, and getting them back should the position ever improve, will prove extremely difficult.


  14. One small bus company has already had to cancel their bus service yesterday (Tuesday) and probably at least tomorrow, because of inability to get fuel. Little Jim runs between Berkhamsted and Hemel Hempstead, and is the sole service in the village of Potten End.


  15. You mention electric cars as being good. Of course they are, for the environment anyway, but the downside for the bus industry is that no longer will buses have the upper hand in reducing pollution, either through use of green fuels or that one bus takes so many cars off the road.


    1. Is stripping the sea bed for lithium good for the environment?plus an electric car takes up as much space as an internal combustion one.An electric car can kill a pedestrian just as dead as an internal combustion one.Good for the environment? just as bad but in a different way is how I see it


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