£190k penalty results from staff shortages and reliability issues


West of England traffic commissioner Kevin Rooney has ordered Stagecoach South West to provide free travel in Exeter for two weekends before Christmas at a cost of £120,000 and make provision for staff to assist and maintain information displays at the city’s bus station at a cost of £70,000 per year for two years.

The move follows a public inquiry that was held over two days in June and October where it was revealed a DVSA investigation found that around 21% of services were not operating, a non-compliance rate that was accepted by Stagecoach South West which said it was battling a severe shortage of staff.

In his written decision following the inquiry, Rooney noted that this was not so much a case of buses running outside the so-called ‘window of tolerance’ of more than one minute early or five minutes late, but one of buses not running at all.

“Reasonable excuse in relation to punctuality would usually be a discussion in relation to roadworks or the lack of bus priority measures,” wrote Rooney. “This is a very different case and the reasonable excuse requires that I balance macro-economic and largely external events with the response to them.”

He said it was clear that the pandemic had had a significant impact on the bus industry with falling patronage and income amid a background of cost pressures.

He continued: “In addition, access to drivers from central Europe has been impacted by Covid and some bus drivers have transferred to freight where the driver shortages were first in prominence, pay is higher and there isn’t the need to interact with passengers.”

“It is a difficult time to be a bus operator

Highlighting the recent collapse of Yellow Buses and HCT Group, Rooney noted: “It is a difficult time to be a bus operator.” However, he concluded the operator had not acted quick enough to tackle its driver shortage. Although mileage had been removed from the network, he noted the operator had supplied 60 drivers to to the Commonwealth Games for a three-week period this summer.

He suggested that operators lacking staff should deregister services to the level that they can support a reliable service with the resources they have. “Many of those who have complained to the operator, to the council or to me would not like the latter course of action but it is a proper course to take if there is not sufficient resource,” Rooney added.

The traffic commissioner welcomed Stagecoach’s offer of free services and staffing of Exeter’s bus station as he did not favour straight financial penalties as “they did nothing to help those directly affected”.

“Taken together, the two measures would exceed the level of financial penalty I find to be appropriate,” Rooney concluded.

Questions over BODS data

In his verdict into severe bus reliability issues at Stagecoach South West, West of England traffic commissioner Kevin Rooney questioned the usefulness of the Department for Transport’s Bus Open Data Service (BODS).

Analysis by a DVSA officer of BODS data suggested that around 40% of Stagecoach South West’s services were not operating.

“Neither the investigating DVSA officer nor the operator considered that figure to be anything like correct,” said Rooney.

The traffic commissioner revealed several potential causes of the discrepancy had been identified. They included some timetable changes that had not been uploaded to the BODS platform and this may have arisen from a ‘discontinuity’ within the wider Stagecoach Group.

Rooney continued: “BODS means that operators now have to provide the information to three separate organisations. I was told that the information was now better but still not right. I do not understand how the BODS data can differ from the operator’s own real-time information which both derive from the same source.

If an operator with the resources and motivation of this business cannot resolve the inconsistency, it would seem that BODS is some way off being able to be relied upon as a means of monitoring bus service reliability

“If an operator with the resources and motivation of this business cannot resolve the inconsistency, it would seem that BODS is some way off being able to be relied upon as a means of monitoring bus service reliability.”

The second hearing of the Stagecoach South West public inquiry was attended by senior Department for Transport officials. Rooney said he was confident they would get to the bottom of the BODS data inconsistency.

It could have been worse, but that’s the impression the government will have wanted to create. Big challenges lie ahead.

This story appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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