Driving to a winter crisis

Roads could be left ungritted this winter as the HGV driver shortage takes hold.

And bus companies are facing huge problems in maintaining the ‘fragile’ network with a shortage of public vehicle drivers.

Members of Lincolnshire County Council’s executive were told that it might not be possible to keep all the gritting routes serviced during icy weather.

“While I don’t want to alarm anyone, there’s a potential risk there of not having sufficient gritter drivers during the winter which could have an impact on whether we have to find drivers from elsewhere or, dare I say, even reduce the gritting programme. If they’re unable to take the gritters out that’s obviously a serious consequence,” said Andy Gutherson, executive director of place.

He told members of the executive that council contractor Balfour Beatty had already flagged potential cost increases.

There are rising costs in terms of paying drivers as the demand is high – forcing salaries up.

“With labour shortages there will inevitably be an increase in what people expect to be paid as obviously they can command a higher salary by just moving,” said council leader Martin Hill.

“We don’t know if things will settle down in terms of whether this is a one-off shock or an underlying move towards a different set-up.”

And a report to a different committee outlined potential problems with the bus service – including companies handing back school contracts they are unable to fulfil.

“The market is also reporting a serious shortage of public service vehicle drivers. This is affecting the market’s ability to deliver both local bus services and home to school contracts and service cancellations due to shortage of a driver is rapidly increasing,” said the report which was put before the Highways and Transport Scrutiny Committee.

The after-effects of the pandemic have also had an impact on bus services.

While operators are reporting recovering passenger numbers, currently at around 70 per cent, concessionary pass holders are only around 50 per cent pre-pandemic numbers.

“Without further funding interventions, operators will be faced with an increasing number of routes being no longer profit making,” the report said

“The issue of driver shortages across the whole industry is also impacting on bus networks,” the report added.

The council is proposing to work with Boston College to create a driver training programme as part of a proposed improvement scheme being discussed. The local authority currently supports 142 bus services but reduced fare income is making it more likely some routes will cease to be viable leading to demand for more council support.

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