The impact of a nationwide bus driver shortage is being felt in Hamilton and forcing Waikato Regional Council to postpone its new Meteor bus service that was due to launch next month.
The council-owned BUSIT regional network is short 15 drivers already for its existing routes and needs another 15 to operate Meteor services.
The council announced the new east-west Hamilton bus service late last year but has now made the call to delay the launch of the Meteor route until May.
When it does start, the new service will run every 15 minutes on weekdays east and west across the city, linking Hamilton's western suburbs with the schools in the east of Hamilton. It will also replace the two Silverdale and eight Frankton bus routes.
Regional Connections Committee chairwoman councillor Angela Strange says the new Meteor service was meant to launch last year but was postponed due to Covid-19 and major road works on Ruakura Rd. Now the launch will be postponed again.
"There is a massive bus driver shortage. We are 15 bus drivers short [as it is] and to launch the new Meteor service, we would need another 15. We wouldn't have enough time to recruit and train them in time for the anticipated February launch."
She says the bus driver shortage was a nationwide problem. "With Covid, public transport bears a bit of a risk and we can't mandate vaccines since it is an essential service. For some people, bus driving is just not a career they see themselves in and unemployment is very low at the moment, so people can be a bit more choosy with their jobs."
However, she says that the New Zealand Bus Driver Association is currently advocating for the industry trying to get more drivers. In the meantime, the council was also looking at timetable changes to prioritise busy bus routes as a backup in case the shortages can't be filled until May.
The new Meteor service is one part of Waikato Regional Council's plan to make public transport easier and more reliable.
Strange says: "We want to give people certainty, they won't have to worry about bus schedules as much, because the next bus will just be 10 minutes away.
"We also hope to incentivise parents to put their kids on the buses to go to school which will hopefully reduce school traffic on these roads."
With the high number of students expected to switch from Orbiter to Meteor, the 7.35am anti-clockwise and the 3.20pm clockwise Orbiter school assist will be removed.
Another change involves certain bus stops. Hamilton Boys' High and Peachgrove Intermediate students heading to or from the west of town will need to walk to the Meteor bus stops on Clyde St.
Also, some bus stops along the two Silverdale and eight Frankton routes will be removed, including stops on Wellington St, Fox St, Bartholomew Dr, Aberdeen Dr, Rifle Range Rd and Weka St.
Instead of driving into the Transport Centre, the new Meteor will use stops on Bryce St to ensure travel times are kept to a minimum. A new bus stop has already been installed on the Kmart side of Bryce St.
For more information on the new Meteor service click here.