Metro services to be cut in winter due to driver shortage - hopes recruitment drive will see improvements for 2021

Metro services are set to be cut this winter because of a driver shortage – but bosses hope their biggest-ever recruitment drive can solve the problem in 2021.

By Daniel Holland
Friday, 11th September 2020, 1:17 pm
It is hoped a recruitment drive will help see problems resolved for 2021
It is hoped a recruitment drive will help see problems resolved for 2021

Public transport officials predict that the number of train drivers on the Tyne and Wear rail network will be up to 13% short the required level to run a full timetable this winter – even without factoring in sickness absences.

And Metro operator Nexus has now confirmed it is drawing up a reduced schedule to avoid passengers having to endure last-minute cancellations, with details to be announced in October.

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Cancelled trains blamed on “reduced driver availability and the pandemic” have become a regular feature in recent weeks, and Nexus chief operating officer Martin Kearney told councillors on Thursday that a new timetable would “provide assurance of services”.

Metro has faced regular problems with driver shortages over recent years, with many staff lured away by rivals offering higher salaries, but the situation was made even worse when a training programme for 16 new drivers had to be cancelled this May because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the network has now announced that it will take on 30 new drivers during September and October – the largest class of new trainees in the Metro’s 40-year history.

While they will not be ready to fill the gaps in services this winter, the new intake will be ready to go to work from March next year after a six-month training course – having already faced a long wait to get going after originally being recruited last year.

John Fenwick, Nexus’ director of finance and resources, told the Tyne and Wear sub-committee of the North East Joint Transport Committee on Wednesday that the future of some Metro services remains uncertain.

A Nexus risk report classifies the danger to frontline services as being of ‘high’ likelihood and having a ‘catastrophic’ impact.

The Metro has received three Government bailouts totalling almost £25 million to offset the huge loss of income from ticket fares during the pandemic, with passenger numbers still only around 50% of normal rates.

Mr Fenwick said: “As long as emergency support we have received from the Department for Transport continues beyond the end of October particularly in connection with the Metro, there is no risk at all to the delivery of those frontline services this financial year. But, quite clearly, looking ahead our resource space in future years is fairly uncertain and the budget cycle will be commencing shortly.”

Metro’s train-crew workforce is predicted to be 10% below requirements in December 2020 and 13% below requirements in January.

Metro Operations Director, Chris Carson, said: “We need to train more drivers and we have been unable to do that for six months. This has had a knock-on effect for our customers, with trains sometimes being cancelled as a result even though we do all we can to avoid this.

“When these latest driver schools are completed by next spring we will be back to where we need to be in terms of train crew numbers.”

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