Environment Canterbury believes that the shortage of drivers, and therefore reduced hours, could continue for several months.
Christchurch’s main bus operator Go Bus is confident it can overcome the city’s driver shortage and return to normal hours from February, but the man in charge of the network isn’t so sure.
Environment Canterbury (ECan), which runs Greater Christchurch’s public transport network, is not so optimistic, predicting reduced timetables could continue for several months.
He believes strong demand in February and March and the looming threat of Omicron – and a possible increase in driver illness – could see the shortage continue.
Since December, several Christchurch city bus routes have had less frequent schedules on weekday Saturdays, due to a shortage of drivers.
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This has reduced the number of buses running each day by approximately 8%.
ECan estimates that December attendance fell about 6% from the same month the year before, due to the reduced schedule.
Four of the city’s five main routes operate with reduced schedules.
The city’s Orbiter bus had a 10-minute frequency between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., but the reduced schedule had it running from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., skipping the morning peak.
Direct services from Rangiora or Kaiapoi to the city center (and vice versa) were unaffected by the changes. These services only operate during morning and evening peak hours.
Line number 1, which connects Rangiora to Cashmere via the town centre, operates its Saturday schedule on weekdays, meaning its express services no longer operate.
Buses 95 and 97, which run to and from Pegasus and Waikuku, also operate on weekend schedules.
Go Bus, which operates 80% of Christchurch’s buses, has introduced 30 new drivers to its training academy in the past two months, chief operating officer Nigel Piper said.
Environment Canterbury unveiled a new look for Christchurch buses in September 2020.
“[This] would normally be far beyond what we normally need, but these are extraordinary times,” he said.
Piper said that from February 1, Go Bus would have enough drivers to see schedules return to normal.
The company intended to hire 30 additional drivers by May, in order to have enough annual leave and reduce reliance on casual staff.
ECan’s public transport chief executive, Stewart Gibbon, said while he intended to restore normal hours by February, he had a “conservative” view that driver problems would continue.
“One of the things we have learned over the past 18 months is that nothing is a given in public transport at the moment,” he said.
Gibbon said he didn’t want to make any commitment to the community saying the issue would be fixed by February, “because there’s a good chance it won’t.”
He said February and March were the busiest months of the year and he expected “a lot of pressure” on the buses.
“We don’t have too many options, if there aren’t drivers to drive the vehicles, we can’t just fire up more vehicles,” Gibbon said.
He also feared there would be disruption if the Omicron variant of Covid-19 were to spread in New Zealand.
Rising infection rates from Omicron would impact drivers’ ability to report for work, he said.
“I’m not predicting that as a certainty, but we’re kind of starting to think about it now,” Gibbon said.
Driver shortages were not limited to Christchurch or public transport.
Auckland has recently experienced a shortage of bus drivers, while Wellington is struggling to attract garbage truck drivers.
Gibbon thought split shifts and pay rates were contributing to Christchurch’s shortage.
All bus drivers in Christchurch are paid at least $22.75 per hour.
Piper of Go Bus said her experienced drivers, who have gone through all the training and orientation, earn $24 an hour.
He said the shortage of drivers had been caused by the growing availability of other jobs.
Immigration also played a role, he said, as many immigrant drivers opted to return home when no new ones arrived due to the border closure.