Lothian Bus driver shortages revealed as major contributor to Edinburgh's bus congestion hell last summer

New statistics obtained following a ten month transparency battle highlight the most impacted bus routes in the city.

Thursday, 9th July 2020, 7:00 am
Lothian Buses were hit by large driver shortages last year around the festival.

More than 30,000 miles were lost on bus routes across Edinburgh in just three months due to driver shortages, the Evening News can reveal.

The news follows a ten month transparency battle with Lothian Buses to release the figures which highlight the Capital’s bus routes which were worst hit by congestion, mechanical failures and driver shortages.

It comes almost a year after drivers threatened strikes during the Festival period which were called off for the last minute, only for Lothian Buses to suffer one of their worst periods of disruption due to congestion, with the bus operator at one point admitting “we can’t cope” and that meeting festival timetables was “impossible”.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

However, new statistics show that driver shortages were at their worst during August and September, further exacerbating the problems and the pressure on the bus network in Edinburgh.

In September last year, the Evening News reported drivers were saying it was “totally out of order” to blame congestion, instead claiming the company was short around 200 drivers, a claim backed up by the statistics.

In August and September in 2019 alone, more than 13,000 miles were ‘lost’ to driver shortages compared to just 102 and 28 for the equivalent period in 2018.

Overall, 2019 saw driver shortages be responsible for more than 40,000 lost miles, 40 times higher than the 1,130 recorded in 2018, with congestion causing more than 340,000 lost miles, three times higher than the previous year.

Lost mileage is a measure used by transport operators to record when buses are off the road for congestion, mechanical or driver shortage reasons and is in relation to the number of miles scheduled by the bus companies when they decide to establish a route.

The worst hit bus routes in Edinburgh include the 26 which runs between Clerwood and Seton Sands, the 16 between Colinton and Silverknowes, the 7 between the Royal Infirmary and Newhaven, and the 11 between Ocean Terminal and Hyvots Bank.

Longer and more regular routes will have higher lost mileage due to the nature of running more buses further than other routes.

Cllr Kevin Lang, the Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson, called on Lothian Buses to “properly explain” what they will do to make services more reliable.

He said: “Lothian has been quick to point the finger at wider congestion issues in the city and the impact it has on services. However, these figures show that driver shortages and mechanical breakdowns got worse when compared to the year before, resulting in tens of thousands of lost miles.

“Worse still is the fact that communities served by the 7, 16 and 26 services appear to bearing the brunt. Lothian Buses needs to properly explain what they’ll do to make these and other services more reliable. Otherwise, there’s a risk that passengers move away from buses and back to private car use.”

Cllr Susan Webber, the Conservative’s transport spokesperson, said the figures were a “cause for concern”.

She said: “Looking at the figures, it is a cause for concern given all of the circumstances that were occurring at this point in this business.

“Whatever may or may not have contributed to the excessive driver shortages, something has happened and it should be cause for concern as to what might be behind that number.

“Last year we had roadworks across the city centre and on the outskirts and it shows the impact of the need for joined up thinking with our public transport operators when we are doing major schemes such as the trams.

“If we are not going to consider the impact on the businesses like Lothian Buses when we do major roadworks, that then puts pressure on the drivers and we would hate to see that driver shortage rate go up.”

Transport and Environment Convener Councillor Lesley Macinnes said: “Lothian Buses provides an extremely valuable service to the city , covering over 26 million miles every year.

“There are, of course, various factors that can affect the reliability of routes, and we are always looking at ways of improving conditions to help deliver fast, efficient journeys, as part of a truly joined-up public transport network. This is more relevant than ever as we look towards the city’s ‘green’ recovery.

“Our efforts to reduce reliance on private car journeys, through improved active travel and public transport infrastructure, will of course have an impact on congestion and journey times.

“We also want to look at ways of better integrating our public transport offering to reduce traffic build-up, particularly in the city centre. Our ultimate goal is to create a seamless system, with faster journey times, encouraging more and more people to consider bus and tram as a practical, attractive alternative to private car journeys.”

A spokesman for Lothian Buses said: “Like all bus operators, Lothian records lost mileage to ensure we are delivering the best possible service for our customers – our combined lost mileage for 2018/2019 was consistently lower than the industry average.”

Lothian Buses breached Freedom of Information laws

The Evening News faced a ten month transparency battle to force the release of the lost mileage figures, with Lothian Buses criticised by the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) for initially withholding the information from the public.

The initial request was made using Freedom of Information laws in September 2019, with Lothian refusing to disclose the information, claiming it was prejudicial to its commercial interests.

Following a review and a further appeal to the SIC, Lothian Buses initially released part of the data to the Evening News, but claimed they did not have a break down of lost mileage by route.

However, in her decision notice, head of enforcement at the SIC, Margaret Keyse, wrote that the SIC discovered Lothian were required to hold the information.

Criticising the bus company, she wrote: “The Commissioner is unable to accept that thorough, adequate and proportionate searches were carried out by Lothian Buses when it received the Applicant’s information request.”

Lothian Buses had argued the release of the information would lead to competitors being able to identify unmet demand or help a competitor hire drivers, but the SIC concluded that the council-owned bus operator also had no right to rely on commercial sensitivity as a reason for withholding the information from the public.

Finding that Lothian Buses had failed to comply with Freedom of Information legislation, the SIC said: “In terms of competitors having the ability to add new routes or alter existing routes, Lothian Buses has already explained that a competitor could gain an advantage over it by reviewing existing timetable frequencies and/or altering ticketing pricing immediately.

“The Commissioner does not accept that it would be necessary for a competitor to be aware of lost mileage statistics if they wanted to undertake such an exercise.

“The Commissioner is not satisfied that disclosure of the withheld information relating to the amount of lost mileage incurred by Lothian Buses would, or would be likely to, prejudice substantially the commercial interests of Lothian Buses.”