Dublin Bus is still short of bus drivers, and services continue to suffer because of it, say drivers, a union rep, and the National Transport Authority.

“Dublin Bus driver numbers remain below the level required to operate their current services,” said a spokesperson for the NTA, which oversees route operators Dublin Bus and Go Ahead.

“Dublin Bus preliminary reliability data remains below contractual standards,” the spokesperson said.

Two Dublin Bus drivers said by phone this week that this was also their impression: the driver shortage persists. The service is suffering “hugely”, said David Murray, who says he’s been driving for the company for 28 years, now on the 37 route.

Dublin Bus has been recruiting heavily in Ireland, running advertising and “open days”. And the government has even changed work permit rules to make it possible to hire bus drivers from outside the EU, apparently with a plan to target South Africa.

“Dublin Bus is running the biggest recruitment drive in the organisation’s history,” a spokesperson said on 8 February.

The problem isn’t hiring new drivers, though, said Murray, the experienced Dublin Bus driver. It’s keeping them.

“New drivers might be lured by the money, but when they see the hours, they leave,” Murray said. “The shifts the new drivers are put on are scandalous, they’re horrible.”

People don’t want to work long shifts, split shifts, night shifts, erratic shifts, said Thomas O’Connor, assistant general secretary of the National Bus and Rail Union (NBRU), last week. But the bus companies are asking for more of those kinds of shifts as, say, more night buses are added to the system.

The unemployment rate in Ireland is low, O’Connor said, and there’s lots of demand for drivers, and so some are choosing to leave the bus companies and take a lower salary for a job with a more family friendly schedule.

Meanwhile, as the NTA pushes to roll out more phases of BusConnects, the need for more bus drivers just keeps increasing. And the lack of drivers is holding back the roll-out of the bus network redesign.

“We will pause delivery [of BusConnects] until we get to the point where at each stage we have sufficient drivers to deliver the expansion of services through BusConnects. That is our plan,” the NTA’s Anne Graham told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications in December.

The Shortage

Last year in Dublin there was a massive jump in the number of scheduled buses that didn’t run, leaving people who were counting on them stuck for ways to get to work, or wherever they were going.

In November, the National Transport Authority (NTA), which oversees the city’s bus network, and Dublin Bus and Go Ahead Ireland, which operate the bus routes, appeared in front of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications.

“I would like to apologise to those customers as the service has not been at the standard that we would all like to provide,” said NTA chief executive Anne Graham.

“We are not keeping pace with the rate of network expansion and very much regret the impact this is having on customers,” said Andrea Keane, acting chief executive of Dublin Bus, which has about 2,800 drivers and operates about 130 routes.

“We apologise to customers who have been negatively affected,” said Andrew Edwards, managing director of Go Ahead Ireland, which had about 400 drivers and operated 30 routes.

There were various factors involved, the three transport leaders said, but the main issue, they agreed, was a shortage of drivers.

“As the country came out of the last wave of Covid in the spring this year, operators were faced with an added difficulty of recruiting and retaining drivers in their companies at a time of almost full employment in the country,” Graham said.

In 2022, Dublin Bus managed to hire 219 staff, which wasn’t enough. In 2023, they’re going to need to hire 280, Keane told another meeting of the committee, in December.

Retention, Retention, Retention

Both Dublin Bus and Go Ahead said at the November and December committee meetings that they were working hard to hire more drivers.

In November, Keane said Dublin Bus had 150 vacancies. In December, Billy Hann, the newly hired chief executive, said they had hired 39 drivers since the previous committee hearing.

Edwards said in November that Go Ahead had 45 vacancies. In December, he said they had hired 50 people.

People Before Profit-Solidarity TD Bríd Smith, at the November hearing, said that recruitment wasn’t the big issue, retention was.

“When you push something into competitive tendering for a process that leads to worse conditions, then you are looking at a race to the bottom,” she said. “I argue and say to all of the established parties who screamed to open up the public services to privatisation that the chickens have come home to roost.”

The NTA decides what share of bus services will be put out for competitive tender. While Dublin Bus continues to operate most routes, Go Ahead won, for example, 24 routes and signed a contract in 2018 for €172 million to operate them for five years – with an extension option of up to two years.

Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell made a similar point about retention.

“The current demand for heavy goods vehicles, HGV, drivers throughout Europe is massive,” he said. “If a company cannot retain the people it has, it must look at its terms and conditions of employment and start paying them what they are worth.”

Edwards said Go Ahead’s driver turnover rate was about 25 percent. He told the committee in November that his company had taken measures to try to improve retention, “including incentive payments for drivers who stay with us until the end of March 2023”.

Keane said Dublin Bus’s driver turnover rate was about 3 percent. Hann, of Dublin Bus, said, “Staff retention is not an issue for Dublin Bus.”

On 14 March, a spokesperson said by email that Go Ahead now “has sufficient drivers in place to meet its full service and contractual obligations. Dublin Bus driver numbers remain below the level required to operate their current services.

Spreading the Net Wider

Among the solutions to the driver shortage discussed at the transport committee was bringing in bus drivers from outside the EU to fill the vacancies.

“I am pleased to report the company has taken several additional steps to boost driver numbers including … engagement with the Department of Transport on exploring non-EU and EEA labour markets,” Dublin Bus’s Hann told the committee in December.

Graham, of the NTA, said, “We hope to hear very shortly whether the bus drivers will be added to the list of critical skills for work permits.”

The bus companies were “looking for South Africans because they drive on the same side of the road as ourselves. They speak the same language. They appear to integrate very well here,” said the committee chairman, Fine Gael TD Kieran O’Donnell.

In December, Fine Gael’s Damien English TD, Minister of State for Business, Employment and Retail, announced changes set to go into effect immediately, which would make that possible.

Before the changes, people couldn’t get work permits to come to Ireland from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) and drive buses here, said a spokesperson for the Department of Enterprise yesterday.

Now they can, so long as they have the right driving licence, and an offer of a job that pays at least €30,000 a year.

“Once an applicant has appropriate immigration permission and the offer of employment, they may apply to this Department for an Employment Permit,” the spokesperson said.

There’s a quota of 1,500 work permits now in place for bus and coach drivers.

By 8 March, 23 work permits for bus and coach drivers had been issued, a spokesperson for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment said by email.

But a listing of work permits issued to companies in January and February didn’t show any issued to Dublin Bus, and just one issued to Go Ahead.

A Go Ahead spokesperson said in March that “The company is not currently exploring the option of non-EU drivers as recruitment and training, as well as retention levels have improved significantly over the last number of months”.

Improving Conditions

Murray, the Dublin Bus driver, and O’Connor, of the National Bus and Rail Union, said the solution is to make the job more attractive.

Unemployment is low, there’s demand for drivers, and people want to work more family friendly schedules – and they can, at other companies, O’Connor said. “How do you solve that? Bus driving is become a 24-hour job,”

Maybe spending the money to hire more drivers to reduce how much night and weekend work each driver has to take on is the solution. And find ways to make the job less stressful for drivers, like having a dedicated Gardaí unit policing the system, he said.

Murray said similar, suggesting not saddling the new drivers with the worst shifts, as they might leave before they get the seniority to get assigned better ones. “They’re gonna have to sit down and reorganise all the shifts, and make a fairer system – now it’s extremely unfair,” he said.

Another issue, a smaller one, not the main one, is to sort out better toilet facilities for drivers, Murray said.

Right now, male drivers might wait until they get to the end of the route, after all the passengers get off, and pee in a bottle, Murray says. “For a female driver, they don’t have that option,” he says.

O’Connor, of the union, says the NBRU tells its members to just stop the bus and use a toilet. “We do not condone the use of bottles.”

But it’d be great if Dublin Bus installed “comfort pods” drivers could use at the ends of their routes, with a toilet and a sink, O’Connor said. “We’d like to see those.”

On the Road Again

On Thursday about 4pm, five people were waiting for their buses in Lord Edward Street, near the red-painted doorway of the Irish Celtic Craftshop.

Georgina O’Neill was waiting to catch a 123 to her mother’s place. She says there’s been an improvement in the reliability of the buses since the autumn.

“They’ve been coming on time,”she says. She also says her partner had “just passed the licence” and was going into training with Dublin Bus.

“He’s gonna be a bus driver,” she said. The prospect of the shift work involved doesn’t bother them, she says.

Michael Ross, standing under a sign with glowing type showing what buses are due and when, says the opposite about the reliability of the bus services.

“It’s got worse,” he says, as a light rain starts to fall.

He used to take the 40 bus into town, but that route has changed and now it’s the G1 that comes by him – on a route that doesn’t suit him.

Yes, but do scheduled buses run when they’re supposed to, show up when they’re due?

“This sign is a bit of an illusion,” he says, waving dismissively to the real-time information board above him. “Sometimes it shows up and sometimes not.”

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