'We'll keep the county moving' - Bus firms' vow despite driver shortages

Sanders Coaches in North Walsham. The company is running a shuttle bus service to help out people tr

Sanders Coaches in North Walsham - Credit: Archant

It has become a nationwide problem, and now Norfolk’s rural communities are set to be hit hardest following “frustrating” bus driver shortages. 

Passengers could be facing long-term disruptions to many bus routes as driver shortages continue to impact services.  

Already in Norwich, First Bus reported not operating some of its services around the city due to staff sickness. While Konectbus said there had been an increase in employees quitting to drive HGVs or delivery vans. 

Some reasons given for the shortages include long delays to the approval of provisional bus driving licenses at the DVLA and the pressure of increased post-lockdown traffic. 

Charles Sanders, managing director of Sanders Coaches. Picture: Mark Bullimore.

Charles Sanders, managing director of Sanders Coaches. Picture: Mark Bullimore. - Credit: Archant

Charles Sanders, director of Holt-based firm Sanders Coaches, said the company was having to make timetables changes due to driver shortages – an issue which has plagued them “for a while”. 

“Just this week, we have agreed with Norfolk County Council to bring in some timetable changes and these will be coming into place from Saturday, October 2,” he said.  

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“This will get us back on track. 

“The problem is, if our busses do not turn up then often there may not be another bus for an hour. It is important that when we say we are going to run a service that we make sure we are running it.” 

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Mr Saunders assured commuters that although no routes had been cut, the frequency of some journeys had been reduced. 

He added: “The main thing is that we have managed to retain our most important services, such as schools. We will keep the county moving. 

“It is frustrating though as it took us years to rebuild the rural bus routes so to have to take a step back is disappointing. Hopefully it will only be during winter, and we are positive things will improve by spring time and into the summer.” 

Anthony Marett from Marett's Chariots with their new coach.Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Anthony Marett from Marett's Chariots - Credit: Archant

One North Walsham-based coach company reported a “bizarre” bucking of the trend, with more drivers than ever applying for jobs. 

But Anthony Marett, managing director of Marett’s Chariots, explained that the “chronic shortage” of drivers is an issue that has been getting worse for a number of years. 

He said: “We have never had as many drivers apply for jobs as we have had since the beginning of September. We don't know the reason behind this though and I think we are unique.” 

Mr Marett is a board member of the UK Coach Operators Association and described the industry as being in “dire straits” due to shortages. He also claimed that coronavirus “only accelerated what would have happened” over the next decade. 

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". 

A Border Bus vehicle at Beccles. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood

A Border Bus vehicle at Beccles. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood - Credit: Archant

The managing director at Beccles-based company, Border Bus, also reported not being affected by driver shortages but acknowledged that it was currently a national problem. 

Andrew Pursey said: “We are a smaller company of 35 staff in total. We do not have a high turnover of staff, therefore the drivers we have working for us have been with us for a while. 

“So, although we are not short of drivers, we also do not have a surplus of them. We have a stable workforce at the moment and the shortages are not causing us any problems, but we are aware of the issue being a national problem at the moment.” 

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. 

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.

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