Rail replacement: Affected by driver shortages – or not?

Driver shortages and rail replacement services

Ongoing driver shortages have led at least one rail replacement provider to undertake an in-depth examination of how it resources services. That work comes amid concern from elsewhere in the sector that it can now be “challenging” to provide sufficient capacity, and that driver availability at some operators is affecting the ability to deliver sufficient PSVAR compliant vehicles.

Arriva Road Transport Services (ARTS) says that it has engaged with several suppliers “to understand the various factors resulting in the current lack of availability of coach and bus drivers and vehicles for rail replacement services.”

‘Country cannot function without rail replacement’

In January, Under-Secretary of State for Transport Baroness Vere controversially described rail replacement as one of only two workstreams undertaken by the coach sector that she regards as “essential” and that “we as a country cannot function without.”

ARTS Managing Director Rob Hutchings says that feedback suggests that driver shortages have been created by staff moving to other sectors, a shift away from antisocial working hours by some operators in a bid to retain drivers, and some staff seeking to work less as part of lifestyle change, where in some cases reduced hours and less overtime is made up for by increased rates of pay.

Mr Hutchings says that ARTS has introduced several measures to mitigate those difficulties, including “dramatically” increasing its supplier base, work that is ongoing. Collaboration with other rail replacement providers is also underway, “ensuring that resource is pooled where possible and that passengers are not inconvenienced.”

ARTS does its utmost to provide PSVAR compliant vehicles for rail replacement work, in accordance with instructions from ministers that they must be sourced before non-compliant examples. “However, especially of late in the current climate, if there is not the number of PSVAR compliant vehicles available to match demand, other avenues such as exempt coaches, accessible minibuses and taxis can be sought,” says Mr Hutchings.

While doing that is a last resort, he adds that it is a mitigation that is explored if “traditional” rail replacement vehicles are not available. All ARTS procurement is in accordance with relevant legislation.

‘Rates are the key to provision’: Operator

However, one operator that is familiar with rail replacement work has countered suggestions that insufficient coach and bus industry resource is available. A senior source within that business says that it has no problem covering either planned or emergency work. It has sufficient drivers to undertake those duties at short notice, but it will only do so when its rates are met.

As a result, one recent emergency blockade went uncovered after the operator refused the rate offered by a third party. “The train operating company (TOC) announced that because of the national shortage of drivers it was unable to find replacement services. That was incorrect, but it was the story the TOC was given, so it believed it,” says the source.

Some TOCs contacted by routeone said they have no issue with resourcing rail replacement. Others would not be drawn and instead referred the matter to the Rail Delivery Group. It acknowledges that sourcing such services “can sometimes be challenging,” particularly during unplanned disruption.