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Wednesday 4 October 2023 Dublin: 12°C
# broadstone
Bus Éireann staff say problems with northeast services 'have nothing to do with absenteeism'
They’re to do with a lack of buses and too many impractical services, say drivers. And they’re not one bit impressed with the situation.

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. Leah Farrell / Leah Farrell / /

FOR BUS ÉIREANN services in the north-east of the country, it’s been a torrid few months.

Since mid-September services on the Navan-Cavan 109 route corridor (and many others) have been beset by issues, with buses routinely failing to turn up, services being cancelled with little or no notice, and even drivers taking incorrect routes.

The situation has caused havoc among commuters, and led to much wringing of hands on the part of politicians (Social Protection minister Regina Doherty, herself a Meath representative, went so far as to blame the missed services on ‘unsanctioned work stoppages’, a pronouncement that was scornfully dismissed by the unions).

The company, for its part, blamed the situation on the addition of new rosters and new services (on foot of last April’s Labour Court recommendation regarding the future of the insolvent company – that recommendation itself coming in the aftermath of protracted strikes in March of this year), together with “a high level of absenteeism”.

That absenteeism has been consistently cited across the board as the chief factor in the collapse of services on the Cavan route, and it’s a point the company has been able to back up (Bus Éireann says that staff absenteeism in the east of the country is 14% – more than four times the national average).

But a number of company employees have now come forward to suggest that blaming the situation on such absenteeism is to miss the point entirely.

BUS EIREANN WRC TALKS Sam Boal / Acting Bus Éireann chief executive Ray Hernan Sam Boal / /

Multiple sources within Bus Éireann’s Broadstone garage in Phibsborough, Dublin, the starting point for the vast majority of services in the north-east and midlands, have told that the problem isn’t one of absent drivers, but rather one of non-existent buses and unrealistic service demands.

And those long-term employees are less than impressed with the situation that has emerged at the company since the start of this year, to put it mildly.

Lack of buses

“Look, this is all coming from the NTA (National Transport Association),” one source said.”They contact Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus, Luas, etc, and say that Behaviour and Attitudes surveys say we need more services.”

So you get the NX (Navan Expressway, launched on 19 September) launched to great fanfare. They tell us to provide it. But the company hasn’t sat down to see whether or not we actually can provide it. Do we have the buses? Do we have the drivers? The answer is no we don’t, and it’s knocked the whole applecart in the region.

Sources within Broadstone have suggested that Bus Éireann’s north-eastern routes need at least an additional 78 buses in order to provide for the services that are currently in place, a situation that may explain the prevalence of the familiar ‘on-hire to Bus Éireann’ plates seen in the windscreen of private operator vehicles around the country at present.

“At any one time Broadstone is short 100 buses per day,” one source says. “And on a day towards the end of October there were 45 private operators in use.”

That’s why services aren’t happening. If a bus isn’t there or available at the designated time then a service can’t happen. Which leads the driver on the next service to get it in the neck from the public. If you go into Broadstone any day of the week you’ll see two or three buses parked there, and a full defect bay and workshop of about 50 buses. So what does that tell you? It means we’re short 50 buses. Of course services aren’t happening.

The focus of this article is the situation at Broadstone, but sources suggest “there’s no reason why there wouldn’t be similar issues across the board” around Ireland.

Type training

All services are currently governed by what manner of vehicle and what driver is available at the time, one of the reasons why drivers are sometimes unfamiliar with the route they’re driving.

“Let’s say there’s a 4.30 service leaving a depot, and a driver is given a new bus he hasn’t been type-trained on,” one driver says. “Under Bus Éireann rules he must be type-trained. If he isn’t, the service is cancelled. If you’re operating in a scarcity of buses, and we are, the next one free will be picked.”

We have a bus called the LC, new to the Irish market, came in at the start of 2017. Then you have drivers in various depots used to driving a predecessor bus, the LD. There might be 10 buses in a depot, but two of them are LCs. A driver comes in, that bus comes in. If he isn’t trained in the bus the service doesn’t run.

Type-training takes “only about 20 minutes”. “But the problem is you need a driver to be present in Broadstone, at the same time the trainer is, at the same time a bus of that type is.”

All claims in this article were run by Bus Éireann, with the company, for the most part declining to comment specifically.

However, a management source did make it clear that as far as the company is concerned absenteeism among staff is the key factor regarding the issues currently being seen – this, along with the implementation of new staff rosters, has consistently been one of the company’s chief explanations for the disruption in service.

It’s something that staff aren’t impressed with.

“There are people absent who shouldn’t be absent, but that’s part of a public service, you’ll see it across the board,” says one driver. “But the percentage touted in the media (regarding Bus Éireann’s north-eastern services) of 14% is very unfair.”

They’re using those on long-term sick (greater than one year) leave to bolster that figure. These people aren’t ever going to work for the company again, so it’s a bit misleading to say they’re contributing to absenteeism.

Bus Éireann did provide an answer to this claim – the company says that nine (just under 3%) of the 308 drivers currently based out of Broadstone have been absent for more than one year. This figure is a deal smaller than that suggested by drivers, but nevertheless would have some bearing on the rates being quoted.

New rosters

The bigger issue (and one of the reasons for the high levels of absenteeism being seen), they say, are the new rosters that were brought in for services in recent months.

Those rosters resulted from April’s Labour Court recommendation, which suggested (along with the need for 120 voluntary redundancies) that drivers’ shifts would have to meet 84% levels of efficiency – ie, that each driver should spend at least 84% of his or her paid time driving a bus.

This has led to a situation where a driver may be paid for just under eight hours of work, but will spend 12-13 hours with their bus – including a 2.5 hour unpaid break.

ross 234_90528808 Sam Boal / Transport Minister Shane Ross Sam Boal / /

“What are you supposed to do?” says one driver. “It’s not like you can take the bus home with you on your break. The Labour Court made this recommendation but it can’t possibly have envisaged how it would be used. We were told it would be sparing, well it’s being used across the board.”

And of course it’ll lead to absenteeism – guys are exhausted. There was one accident with two buses hitting each other on Abbey Street (Dublin) recently and one of the drivers was just wrecked – he’d been working through the night. And there’ll be more. It’s an accident waiting to happen. Drivers are floating around like zombies.

The new rosters, samples of which have been seen by, suggest among other things that drivers are frequently working until the early hours of the morning, having two days off, and then recommencing work at just past midnight – which by anyone’s standards doesn’t leave very much room for recovery.

“Lads are doing 12-14 hour shifts and then being told to walk back to the depot. Fellas are starting to walk out on the job. There’s no work life balance now,” says one driver.

“The company says it wants efficiency,” says another. “Well, so do we. But it’s all very well aiming for 84% efficiency in driving. That leaves no room for efficiency in family life. There’s no work/life balance. What are the younger drivers with families supposed to do?”

Leaving the dispute to one side, both sides can agree as to the original reason why this is happening however, and what’s at stake. The company declared insolvency at the start of 2017. It needs to get back in the black to remain in existence. In 2019 many of its routes will be up for tender.

“That’s what they’re building towards. The NX, the 109A, they’ll all be up for grabs, and they’ll be packaged off. It just seems set up for privatisation,” says one source.

What has happened comes down to bad planning, and bad planning comes from bad management. We all want to do our best. None of us want to cause the public pain – we’re not masochists. But if all this comes at the expense of family life then what’s the point?

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

“Bus Éireann are focused on the best interests of our customers, and to raising quality standards,” a spokesperson for the company meanwhile told “We must be more competitive and efficient – to reverse our insolvency and secure a future for the business.”

This involves eliminating outdated work practices that the business can no longer sustain, given the imminent direct award of 10% of our routes. We have high regard for the welfare and safety of our staff but must ensure that is balanced with customers receiving more value for money via efficient, quality services.

Regarding the new rosters, the company insists that all are in compliance with Ireland’s Working Time Act legislation.

“This is about the big picture,” a management source said. “The company was insolvent, that’s just fact, and optimisation is needed to fix that. We can’t afford to lose 10% of our routes in a year’s time. There was always going to be a level of resistance with the new rosters.”

“Is it solvable?” asks a driver. “It should be. We need to look at the company’s public service obligation. We need the NTA to agree on the most important social routes. And forget about Expressway (Bus Éireann’s express services commercial arm – one that consultants told the company needed to be jettisoned in order to keep the company viable last January). It doesn’t deserve the support.”

Both the company and its employees agree that the big picture is everything in this situation. Unfortunately they can’t seem to agree on what that picture is.

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