Business

Bus driver ranks are dwindling, and it’s leading to cancellations on the South Shore and Cape Cod

Driver Robert Jaeger took tickets before departing South Station.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Driver Robert Jaeger took tickets before departing South Station.

Russ Shirley has to fly about 30 times a year for work, and typically takes the Plymouth & Brockton bus service to and from Logan International Airport.

But that’s been a less reliable ride in recent months, the Plymouth resident says. As cancellations have piled up on the line this year, he’s been forced to adjust his plans.

“I’ve had to drive to the airport and pay to park for three days because a bus was canceled,” he said. “And I’ve had to wait an extra hour at the airport for the next bus.”

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The 121-year-old Plymouth & Brockton Street Railway Co., which runs buses between Boston and Cape Cod, has been dealing with a shortage of drivers in recent months. That’s resulted in scores of canceled trips, and prompted a torrent of complaints from customers about being left stranded with little or no notice — many of whom have few other commuting options.

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“It’s not the service we want to put out there,” vice president Chris Anzuoni said. “It’s just not.”

The lack of bus drivers isn’t limited to Plymouth & Brockton — it’s become endemic to the industry. Blame it on a combination of younger workers being uninterested in driving careers, and a healthy job market that gives them more options for employment that doesn’t involve spending long hours in traffic for relatively low pay. Plymouth & Brockton pays drivers about $21 an hour, but just half that in between runs. Mark Richardson, chairman of the Massachusetts Bus Association — which represents private bus carriers — said Plymouth & Brockton’s rate is close to the industry average.

In general, bus companies’ workforces are aging out of the job, said Brian Antonlin, a transportation consultant who closely monitors the bus industry.

Long hours, middling pay, ever-increasing traffic, and a demanding schedule are a turnoff to many workers, and especially younger ones, said Antonlin, who at 26 is something of an industry anomaly himself.

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“Of the hundreds of drivers I’ve worked with, maybe there have been 15 that were remotely close to my age, under the age of 30,” he said.

The staffing issue extends to other driving professions. The ranks of long-haul truckers have also been depleted, and school systems across the country have struggled to hire bus drivers.

In Massachusetts, the number of drivers with commercial licenses that allow them to carry passengers has fallen from nearly 62,000 in 2007 to about 46,000 this year, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles (though not all drivers with such licenses use them professionally).

One notable exception is in public transit. The MBTA attracts so many applicants for bus-driving jobs that it awards open positions by lottery. Earlier this year, a lottery attracted nearly 18,000 candidates for about 180 positions. The reason, Antonlin said, is public transit’s generous benefit packages — including a pension — and shorter days behind the wheel than what private companies require.

Some other private bus companies say that while they, too, struggle to find enough drivers to cover routes, they don’t cancel trips as frequently as Plymouth & Brockton has this year.

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Peter Picknelly, president of Springfield-based Peter Pan Bus Lines, which runs buses up and down the East Coast, said his company began hiring on a year-round basis a few years ago — rather than seasonal — to address shortages. Peter Pan also has a flexible schedule that allows its more than 300 drivers to select the routes they want. Those who choose to work a lot can earn more than $100,000 a year, Picknelly said, though most probably make $50,000 to $60,000.

A Peter Pan bus ready to a departure to New York.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
A Peter Pan bus ready to a departure to New York.

As companies struggle to find new workers, the age of the existing workforce is becoming a serious issue, since older drivers are more likely to have health issues. When they’re forced to take time away from work it further depletes an already understaffed roster, said Antonlin, the consultant. High-frequency commuter-bus companies like the Plymouth & Brockton, which runs more than 40 trips a day, are hit especially hard, he said.

“One person being out can lead to a whole cascade of issues of trying to fill the position,” Antonlin said.

For Plymouth & Brockton, the driver shortage has been compounded by a troubled rollout of new electronic ticketing system, compounding delays as drivers cope with finicky scanners.

Last month, the situation got so dire that the hiring of one new full-time driver and three part-time drivers prompted Plymouth & Brockton to issue a celebratory press release. The company also has brought on a new recruiting chief to double down on hiring efforts. It now has about 40 full- and part-time drivers, but needs another half-dozen full-timers to be adequately staffed, Anzuoni said. In the meantime, the company is scrambling to use office staff, mechanics, and other employees to cover some runs. Those efforts may be making a difference. Several customers at the South Station bus terminal Thursday said their commutes had been smoother this week, without any cancellations or long delays.

The Plymouth-based company’s workers are unionized, and received a pay increase in a new contract last year, Anzuoni said. That contract is due to be renewed again in the spring, but Anzuoni said he is focused on making the work more attractive through strategies unrelated to pay and other contract stipulations.

Driver Stoyan Asenov helped a passenger find his luggage after arriving in South Station.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Driver Stoyan Asenov helped a passenger find his luggage after arriving in South Station.

For example, the company is hoping to provide workers with more scheduling flexibility, and to reduce “layover” time between trips.

Plymouth & Brockton also is looking for employees from an unusual source: its customer base. The company is offering to train commuters who work normal hours in Boston to drive buses, and hire them for part-time work. It’s an old P&B tradition that has gone by the wayside in recent years.

“They can get paid to commute to work,” said Anzuoni.

Charles Ryan, the head of the drivers union, said Plymouth & Brockton would have an easier time recruiting and retaining workers if it paid overtime. But Anzuoni said he’s hesitant to make any changes that could lead to higher costs for customers who already are displeased with the service.

Those passengers include some who abandoned MBTA commuter rail after the snowed-in winter of 2015, when the trains were plagued by cancellations and delays. For Scott Inman, a Plymouth & Brockton passenger from Rockland, the unreliable bus service feels like deja vu.

“You can only take so much of it,” he said.

Driver Stoyan Asenov checked a ticket before departing.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Driver Stoyan Asenov checked a ticket before departing.

Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.