Wellington commuters should brace for ongoing disruptions to bus services, with figures showing the current shortage of 100 drivers could increase threefold in coming years, the Herald can reveal.
The Transport Minister has hinted the Government is working on plans to address the nationwide shortage, saying developments would be confirmed in the next month.
Wellington ratepayers have stumped up $240,000 for recruitment campaigns but this has done little to fix the problem, with Greater Wellington Regional Council chair Daran Ponter warning of a "seemingly intractable shortage".
The situation persists even after the council made the call to reduce peak hour services in July 2021, with no return to normal timetables in sight.
The region is already about 100 drivers short, and it's estimated at least 300 new drivers will be needed over the next 10 years to plug the current shortfall and meet growing patronage projections.
One bus operator - NZ Bus - has lost 25 drivers over the course of four months, leaving it 60 drivers short as of September.
This compares with Tranzurban Wellington, which has reduced its shortage from 46 to 35 drivers over the same time period.
The figures were released to the Herald under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act.
Information beyond this time period was unavailable as reporting on bus driver numbers is not required under partnership agreements with bus operators, but Metlink is now asking for it.
Two recruitment campaigns worth $240,000 were rolled out in 2019, with one poster saying: "Don't just get a job, get a career as a bus driver".
Metlink's acting general manager Tim Shackleton said it was difficult to evaluate the success of these campaigns, given the turbulent and rapidly changing circumstances brought on by the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown.
A new base rate of $27 an hour to retain and attract drivers has also been set by Metlink.
Ponter said in a proactively released letter to Transport and Immigration Minister Michael Wood that Wellington was facing a "seemingly intractable shortage".
He warned of the need for 300 more drivers - a number which would only increase when factoring in mode shift targets, Ponter wrote in July.
Ongoing competition from other sectors added to the pressure, as more lucrative pay rates could be found driving the likes of trucks, he said.
The Government should change immigration settings so bus drivers were considered skilled under the Skilled Migrant Category, Ponter said.
Wood told the Herald the difficulty in recruiting drivers was driven by a model that forced operators to lower pay and conditions in order to compete commercially. He said the Government has already moved ahead with reforms to the public transport operating model, as well as introducing Fair Pay Agreements, and has set aside $61 million in this year's Budget to improve terms and conditions for drivers.
"I look forward to confirming further developments over the next month," Wood said. A bus driver working at NZ Bus, who spoke to the Herald on the condition of anonymity, said drivers were increasingly asked to work overtime because of the shortage.
She claimed this has resulted in pay errors, which drivers were spending months chasing up.
"The people who get really frustrated are the people who are trying to feed their kids, and they're doing the overtime to pay for that, and then they're not getting it."
The driver believed there was a zero tolerance approach to minor incidents, like broken wing mirrors or tail swing incidents, and employees were put on final warnings too early.
"At the moment, it's definitely the most stressful it's ever been."
NZ Bus was owned by Next Capital and has recently been acquired by a company called Kinetic.
Next Capital founding partner John White said if there had been any administration errors with pay, he assumed NZ Bus would deal with them thoroughly and professionally, as it has done in the past.
White said the claims about minor incidents were also inconsistent with their approach to drivers over the years.
"Drivers are essential to the business and in high demand, so the company went out of its way to ensure a safe and respectful work environment which, in conjunction with leading terms and pay rates, should make NZ Bus the preferred employer in the industry, as driver retention is key."
He said the Tramways Union representing drivers advocated often and vigorously on their behalf.
Both Next Capital and the union agreed NZ Bus drivers in Wellington have the best pay and conditions of any drivers in the country, including what White described as generous overtime rates.
Union secretary Kevin O'Sullivan was confident the situation would improve under Kinetic.
He said management changes have already been made, and he believed there was an acceptance that more investment was needed in Wellington.
It's understood Kinetic intends to introduce new wellbeing programmes, invest heavily to lift driver numbers, enhance training, and review rosters to help alleviate pressures.
O'Sullivan said a new payroll system initially "caused a lot of grief". In Kinetic's view, these problems have long been resolved.
Kinetic's head of New Zealand, Calum Haslop, said acute staff shortages were hitting industries across the country because of current immigration settings and the lasting impacts of Covid-19.
"The attractiveness of our profession has been impacted due to relatively lower wages which have not kept pace with inflation due to the way operators are funded through their contracts with councils."
Haslop said they were already working with management and the council to improve the performance of the Wellington bus network.