Fewer staff required to self isolate but staff retention and recruitment remain challenge to UK tram operators

“This service has been cancelled because of staff shortages”. Anyone who has attempted to travel on the UK transport network in recent weeks and months probably can’t help but be aware of the challenges all transport operators – whether that be tram, bus or train – have been suffering in being able to fully crew their advertised services. Staff shortages came to a head in the summer before the track and trace self-isolation rules changed with some operators – including Manchester Metrolink – having to introduce temporary timetables to run a guaranteed level of service. UK Tram’s HR Group have recently reported that there has now been an improvement in staff absences but there does still remain a challenge over staff retention and recruitment and this is leading to further service disruption with the most high-profile system being affected now being Blackpool.

Members of the UKTram HR Group have reported that staff absence levels are now returning to close to the pre-pandemic levels after the guidance of self-isolation changed during August meaning that those double-jabbed no longer have to self-isolate if “pinged” by the NHS Covid app and not testing positive.

But the lasting effects of 18 months of disruption are still being felt by most operators with both staff retention and recruitment proving to be by far the biggest challenge.

Jamie Swift, UKTram Marketing and Commercial Manager, said: “A buoyant jobs market has meant that some staff were leaving the sector. Filling their roles, especially in customer-facing jobs, was proving difficult, Members of the group indicated that there is now so much competition from the retail and hospitality sectors for some roles that candidates are thin on the ground, although a number of operators say they have waiting lists for people wanting to become drivers. As a result, they have now ramped up their training programmes to ensure successful candidates can start work as quickly as possible.”

Some operators are said to now be reviewing selection and assessment procedures and making changes to shift patterns and rotas, to appeal to new recruits who may not be fully flexible.

Manchester Metrolink are continuing to increase services on their network although have yet to return to a full normal service while Stagecoach Supertram are also carrying on with their reduced timetable on the Blue route which only sees four trams and hour instead of five.

It does now appear though that the operator struggling the most is the Blackpool Tramway – at probably it busiest time of the year. Although the full published timetable is being attempted to run a number of services are being cancelled outright with warnings of disruption to potential passengers. It is now just affecting the tramway with revised bus timetables introduced and ad-hoc cancellations also being seen on various routes. The Prom no. 1 bus service has been particularly affected including complete suspension of the service on some days and significant cancellations on others – this has pushed more passengers onto the tram service and with that also running on a limited basis at times it is leading to more overcrowding.

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