Reform of coach drivers’ hours for those largely on tourism-related services is coming in the EU via a move that will give those staff greater flexibility. But such a development – which in official terms will apply on “occasional” services, according to the European Parliament – does not automatically translate to the UK.
Nevertheless, momentum is growing for a more significant overhaul here to recognise that coach drivers’ work patterns differ significantly to those in the freight industry. The government has tentatively indicated how it is onboard with that, although momentum has slowed since mid-2023.
In a strong hint that change will follow in the UK, factfinding work by the Department for Transport had been done by that point. Its evolution into a formal exercise is awaited, but the preliminary efforts have led to the coming of independent proposals that are not constrained by the general EU approach.
Trade body RHA has used that to develop a position that it believes should be adopted in the UK. But Operations Manager – Coach Sector Andy Warrender notes that the prospect of such change is not new. It was a topic of discussion some years ago, with dialogue “at length” involving the European Commission (EC).
Little headway was made then. Stuttering further progress saw nothing of note for the passenger sector delivered by the EU Mobility Package of 2020, which majored on freight. But a commitment was given to look again at coach drivers within three years. “That has been delivered,” Andy acknowledges.
Hope for UK to go further than EU in coach drivers’ hours reform
What the EC has now brought forward is diluted when compared to previous aspirations. As a result, compromise proposals that are advancing in 2024 “are not of the magnitude that we would have hoped for before,” Andy continues.
Among aspects of the EU changes for coach drivers are:
- Extension of the 12-day dispensation on beginning a weekly rest period to domestic tours
- Changes to how a 45-minute break from driving may be taken
- Extension of the working day by one hour under certain conditions.
Those will benefit some operators and drivers, but there was scope to do more. However, the change of direction should not be seen as a disappointment, Andy notes. Recognition of the need for a split between coach and HGV in terms of drivers’ hours should be applauded.
More radical overhaul by Brussels could deliver greater benefit to the coach industry in the EU. The existing European position could be adopted in the UK, but RHA wants to see “a greater degree of change” here.
A fly in that ointment is the upcoming general election. No public-facing work on hours overhaul for coach drivers has been forthcoming despite warm words in mid-2023. The likelihood of it materialising before the election is seen as unlikely, albeit not impossible, by RHA. It believes that reform in the UK is more likely in 2025. Because of that, dialogue needs to take place with both Conservative and Labour politicians, Policy Lead for Skills and Drivers Sally Gilson adds.
“The hue of the next government is not something that is critical to this work,” Andy continues. “If enough noise is made, then people will take notice. But the one thing that we must keep in focus is how this is something that will potentially benefit drivers.” Scope to earn more money during busy periods is in play, as is an ability to arrange their schedule more favourably.
Weekly rest deferral is key to calls made by RHA
It has already been said that extension of the 12-day rule to domestic tours would help some UK coach operators, and particularly those undertaking incoming work. However, Andy suggests that it would not be relevant across the sector. Instead, RHA believes that scope to defer standard weekly rests for a longer period would bring the greatest benefit.
“An idea put forward some years ago was being able to defer a full weekly rest for up to six consecutive weeks. It would be replaced by a 24hr reduced weekly rest, with compensation required to be taken within three weeks of the end of that six-week period,” he notes. That would allow a driver in scope of the change to work six days per week for six consecutive periods. Such a position appeals to RHA coach operator members.
“The 12-day rule domestically would be a huge factor for a modest number of operators, and incoming demand is ramping up. But we hear that it is not the key change that operators want.”
In addition to weekly rest deferral, extension of the working day under certain conditions is heard “consistently” from RHA coach sector members. Safety must not be impacted by any change, and the Association is not calling for any changes to current limits on driving time.
Extension of the working day, and exceeding driving limits, is already allowed by law under exceptional circumstances. In the former case, RHA wants what Andy calls “more structure,” rather than the ad-hoc way in which it currently applies. The EU changes will allow extension of the working day, but in a manner that is heavily controlled in both frequency and application.
50km cull and bootcamps alongside coach drivers’ hours reform
Seeking change to drivers’ hours for the coach sector is part of RHA’s wider aspirations. It also wants removal of the 50km, regular service restriction that applies to PSV drivers aged 18 and 19.
Those areas sit closely together, but Andy points out that it is imperative to recognise that they are separate in law. The 50km limit falls under driver licencing. Were a change made to regulations to reduce the minimum category D age to 18 with no conditions attached, the 50km issue would be solved.
Such progress would fall within what he describes as “making access to the coach industry easier.” A further desirable shift is extension of the skills bootcamp approach to category D licence acquisition. It currently applies only to category C, and that has led some coach and bus drivers to move to HGV work. But the freight sector is challenged, with volumes down and bankruptcies up. Sally notes that now is thus an ideal time to port the bootcamp approach across.
“That could have a positive effect on the number of people wanting to learn to drive coaches and buses,” she says. Funded training for category D is awkward to obtain, while for SMEs, the apprenticeship route is difficult. Bootcamps in coach and bus thus tick a big box. As with drivers’ hours reform, some positive noises have already come out of government. Notably, Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education Robert Halfon has shown an interest.
“It is starting to be recognised within the Department for Education that adding category D [to bootcamps] would be a no-brainer,” Sally continues. “There are lots of training schools that do category C and category D. Some tweaks would be required on customer service, but the overall programme is the same.”
Making political capital is a key for industry to drive change
Releasing the necessary government funding complicates expansion of the bootcamp approach, but Sally believes that with the right push, it can be achieved. Data is key, and that has been more difficult to come by in coach and bus than in HGV.
“Everyone is short of drivers, but it is difficult to put a finger on exactly how short,” says Andy. “Almost all coach operator members tell us that they could do a lot more work. The shortage of vehicles is in play, but drivers are the key limiting factor.”
RHA recently held a parliamentary reception that was primarily concerned with haulage’s struggles, but which captured various mentions of coaches. Managing Director Richard Smith notes that similar work dedicated to coach will follow. In the meantime, political capital can be won by operators inviting MPs and potential MPs to their premises, Sally continues.
Key to work on drivers’ hours “is the divergence between freight and passenger,” Andy concludes. “That has now been achieved and it leaves the door open to further change. Politicians have recognised the split. Many coach drivers do around one-third of the driving hours of their HGV colleagues, and that gives a good idea of why separate rules are needed.”