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What on earth is going on with Bus Éireann services (or the lack of them) in the north east?

It has been a rough six weeks for commuters on the Dublin-Navan-Cavan 109 Bus Éireann route.

File Photo. Absenteeism at Bus Éireann has doubled, leading to cancellations of services 12% - at a time when absenteeism is falling elsewhere in the economy. End. Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

SINCE MID-SEPTEMBER Bus Éireann has been struggling to keep services in the north-east (particularly on the Navan-Cavan 109 route corridor) on track.

Services running late (or more often not at all) have become the norm between Kells and Dublin on weekdays.

The situation has led to an outpouring of criticism on the part of local politicians, as commuters find themselves stranded more often than not with many services cancelled without warning.

On Thursday, Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection (and Meath TD) Regina Doherty had her say, declaring (following a meeting with company CEO Ray Hernan) that non-sanctioned work stoppages are to blame.

Last night National Bus and Rail Drivers Union (NBRU) chief Dermot O’Leary struck back at Doherty saying that such a pronouncement “on behalf of a government minister is nothing less than shocking and outrageous”.

Doherty herself wasn’t having any of it. In return she said:

“The fact of the matter is that thousands of my constituents have been left without bus services in recent weeks, owing – in part – to an absentee rate of 14% locally in Bus Éireann.”

I understand that last week alone, 299 replacement services were required of private bus companies, at a cost to Bus Éireann in excess of €150,000. This was to fill gaps where drivers had not presented for work.

https://www.facebook.com/reginadoherty.ie/photos/a.677428902390336.1073741828.677425502390676/1147753962024492/?type=3

Both sides are standing their ground. So what exactly is going on?

Labour Court

The dispute has its roots in the company’s dire financial straits, which led to a series of strikes by drivers last March with headline after headline suggesting Bus Éireann was on the verge of going to the wall.

A subsequent intervention and recommendation by the Labour Court led to an agreement regarding the implementation of new, more efficient rosters which unions gave their backing.

Those new rosters are due to make their debut in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, Bus Éireann launched a number of new services, including the new NX Navan Express, in mid September. And the provision of those services has led to a situation that dictates 13-hour shifts for some drivers, according to the unions.

Since those services have come online, other local services have suffered.

File Photo. Absenteeism at Bus Éireann has doubled, leading to cancellations of services Source: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

Geraldine Lee runs a National Council for the Blind of Ireland shop in Navan. She’s registered blind herself. Every day she takes the 109 from her home in Kells to Navan and back. Except recently, the service has become less than reliable.

“It’s changed completely in the last six weeks,” she told TheJournal.ie. “There’s a drama every day now with buses showing up 50 minutes late. Other buses haven’t been showing up at all.”

Back to the 1970s

I’m registered blind, I can’t drive. I need the bus. Yet every day there’s 50 or 60 people waiting to get the Kells bus. It’s 50 minutes late. It’ll be winter soon and I’ve no night vision. When the clocks go back I’ll be left sitting in the dark. It’s like being back in the 1970s.

Geraldine says that her “heart goes out to the drivers”. “They’re only doing their job, and it’s thankless at the moment. And this is supposed to be the busiest route in the country.”

They said it was going to be a trial for a few weeks, but a driver told me the other day that this is it, this is what we’ve got for the foreseeable future.

The suggestion from the unions is that the new services shouldn’t have been brought online before the new rosters were in place.

“These new services have basically been shoehorned in by the company before the rosters were ready,” O’Leary told TheJournal.ie.

Our lads have accepted the Labour Court recommendation that there needs to be more effective rosters. But Bus Éireann have imposed new services on a roster that just isn’t ready. And that leads to stress for drivers.

That aside, there may be deeper issues afoot.

Staffing issues

As at end September, the company’s absenteeism rate was 12%. That’s nearly four times the national average. Bus Éireann employs about 2,500 people.

Currently, the company says its figure is 8.5% (at end 2015 it was 7.2%, 2016 was 9.6%).

So a slight improvement, but still more than twice the national average. Which isn’t a particularly good sign for staff morale.

However, the rate for the east of the country at present is an eye-watering 14%, according to the company. A spokesperson told TheJournal.ie:

“In recent weeks, there were some delays and cancellations to services in the east of the country – of which we operate almost 1,000 services daily – due to several factors including a significant change in timetables (to provide more frequency over longer operating hours), new driver rosters, and a high level of absenteeism.”

BUS TALKS 7149_90508143 Dermot O'Leary Source: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

However we have still operated the vast majority of these services, and are now back to over 99% of service provision. We apologise sincerely for any inconvenience that has been caused to customers.

But what about staffing levels?

At year-end 2016 driver numbers were 1,401. Currently they’re 1,359. Voluntary redundancies this year currently stand at just four. That’s a loss of 38 drivers in just nine months. Not a good sign.

Internal problems

Sinn Féin TD for the area Peadar Tóibín says the issue is one of “serious internal problems” within Bus Éireann.

“Drivers tell me that current management are developing unrealistic rosters along with impossible timetables. I am being told that route training is not happening. I have learned that it is also being told that the it’s becoming increasingly difficult to recruit to Bus Éireann due to wage rates, routes originating from Dublin and the increasing cost of living in Dublin,” he said.

I myself have waited at bus stops for over 90 minutes waiting for up to three scheduled services fail to arrive. This is happening regularly in Meath at morning and evening rush hours. What this means is that people are late for work again and again. This is intolerable.

O’Leary, however, says that normality is “hopefully just weeks away”.

“The new rosters will be coming in two or three weeks, that should bring some normality back to the Broadstone depot (in north Dublin, from where the Navan buses originate),” he said.

At the end of the day absenteeism affects a lot of companies. But the story here is that services have been placed on a roster that isn’t able to handle them.

Read: Cork bound Aer Lingus flight forced into diversion after ‘full emergency’ declared

Read: Unions hit back at Regina Doherty over ‘unofficial labour dispute’ Facebook claim

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