By David Spereall, local democracy reporter
A West Yorkshire bus chief has admitted his firm is providing its “worst service” in decades.
Paul Matthews, managing director of First Bus’ West Yorkshire arm, said passengers were unhappy with the current state of the network, following repeated cuts and changes to services since the pandemic.
But he claimed operators were in a “no-win” situation and faced criticism regardless of how they reacted to the industry’s driver shortage, which has been blamed for the cuts.
Unite, which represents bus drivers in the region, has called for better pay to help address the problem.
But speaking to Leeds councillors at a scrutiny meeting today (Wednesday), Mr Matthews said it was “not as simple” as just hiking pay.
Bus patronage in West Yorkshire is currently around 80 per cent of 2019 levels.
Mr Matthews said: “During the course of this year we’ve spent about £1m on marketing to try to stimulate the (passenger) market.
“I believe we could get a lot higher than 80 per cent if we were able to run a quality service. I have to put my hand up and say it’s the worst quality of service that’s been delivered in my 40 years in the industry, because of labour availability.”
“If we tailor our network to reflect the resources we’ve got, we get criticised.
“If we run an unreliable service, rightly we get criticised.
“If we put the rates of pay up to what could be argued are market rates, we can’t put up our fares because we’d get criticised.
“So we are in a no-win situation.”
Mr Matthews suggested shift patterns and “negativity” drivers face from frustrated passengers were as much to blame for the labour shortage as pay.
Unite representative Andrew Dyer, a Leeds bus driver of 35 years, told the meeting: “Paul’s right, it’s not just about pay.
“But it’s a massive part of it, because when you’ve got a hard and uncomfortable job and nobody wants to do it because of the grief you get from passengers and the grief you get from management – how discipline is going at the depots now – you should pay people to overcome that.
“People on oil rigs don’t do it for minimum wage. They get paid good money because it’s a hard and dangerous job and they’re well rewarded for it.”
Labour councillor Jess Lennox told the meeting that First had made a profit of £30m in 2020, and then a profit of £45m in the following year.
“If that’s not being used to sustain and improve the service, then what is it being used for?” she asked.
But Mr Matthews replied: “I think it’s unfair to quote the national profits of First.
“In West Yorkshire, during the pandemic we didn’t make any money.
“And certainly at the moment we’re making insufficient margins to be able to reinvest in West Yorkshire.
Transport chiefs were also grilled about “phantom bus syndrome”, where a bus stop’s interactive timetable indicates a service is due to turn up, but then disappears and doesn’t arrive.
Dave Pearson, the West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s (WCYA’s) head of transport services, admitted the issue was a common gripe among passengers, but said technology was being improved to address it.
Temple Newsam Labour councillor Nicole Sharpe said the system needed to function properly for the sake of public safety.
She told the meeting: “We’ve had recent complaints about the real time service.
“A lot of them have been in isolated areas across east Leeds, where for instance young women have been waiting for a bus and they’ve not had the information that the bus isn’t going to turn up.
“Looking at isolated areas out of the city centre for real-time information would be good.”