Planners discuss challenges from increase in fuel prices and shortage of drivers

We recently held a meeting for 19 councils from across the UK with more than 30 home-to-school transport planners taking part.

It was brilliant to hear and see all the comments as they discussed common challenges.

Themes raised during the meeting included contract ‘hand-backs’, the current national shortage of drivers, and the expectations of schools and parents.

Driver shortage ‘biggest challenge’

Most planners felt the biggest challenge to keeping costs down was the driver shortage, closely followed by the rise in the price of fuel. A limited supply of vehicles also made it difficult to be financially efficient.

Assessing the validity of cost increases

Many planners talked about drivers “taking advantage” including an example of a driver asking for a 40% increase.

During the discussion, it emerged that several authorities don’t ask operators for a breakdown in costs. One respondent shared a rule of thumb for costs which attributes 33% to the driver, 33% to the operator, and 33% to the fuel. One participant pointed out that some drivers are also operators.

Exploring alternative models to keep costs down

Survey results showing very few authorities have an internal fleet; about a third have electric vehicles; and about half use fully accessible vehicles.

None of the attendees mentioned having internal fleets. However, QRoutes knows of a couple of councils that are exploring plans to bring in an internal fleet. This is to improve access vehicle utilisation.

We would love to hear what planning teams think about how this could work.

Electric vehicles and PSVAR compliance are reasonably well represented in the vehicles used.

Differences in how councils operate compliance

When talking about compliance, the differences in how each council operates emerged – some have compliance officers, another has a ‘quality assurance officer’, and another council makes their compliance checks when complaints or issues are raised.

One council said they worked alongside their compliance manager and after checking issues would possibly go out to a school and check the situation.

High expectations from schools and parents

The topic which created the most debate was about the expectation of schools.

Comments included schools are overwhelmed with their own challenges; they “have enough to deal with to worry about transport so they don’t engage”.

And that sometimes schools want “immediate changes when sometimes it is simply not possible” due to current vehicle and/or staff shortages.

Most of the planners taking part in the webinar seemed to have experienced similar problems with schools due to their “huge expectations”, with schools often blaming the transport staff.

Suggestion: Some of our customers use QRoutes to explain the implications of transport decisions to stakeholders. The ability to quickly reschedule different solutions and show them on the map can help planners communicate the reasons for choices clearly. This can be particularly helpful when the school stakeholders don’t know the geography of the area well. 

Occasionally planners are accused that they don’t understand the needs of individual pupils. Whereas, on the contrary, planners are trying to accommodate the needs of all the children on the vehicle.

The emotions around SEN transport can run high and a transport planner’s job involves a lot more than working out routes from home to school.

When the family-school-transport relationship works well

Some planners have had a more positive experience and said the schools help by acting as a go-between with the parents. This is particularly helpful where families’ use English as a second language.

Other examples included schools that let the planners know if a pupil is not coming in so they can cancel the transport.

One planner said it helped to be a “visible presence” at the school as they visit regularly.

Do these challenges resonate with you? We would love to hear your views. Get in touch or comment on our Twitter or LinkedIn posts.

QRoutes helps planners find efficiencies in how home to school transport is delivered. Its solutions use fewer vehicles (fewer drivers), less mileage (less fuel), and improve the travel experience for clients. 
Start with a Snapshot report to explore what's possible. 

Deborah Squire joins QRoutes

QRoutes is delighted to welcome senior transport planning consultant Deborah Squire to the team. Deborah has more than 25 years home-to-school route planning experience in mainstream and SEND education.

She has worked for both small and large local authorities and started her career as a transport assistant in Wrexham in 1996.

She then moved to Flintshire County Council where she was transport manager in social services. Her most recent job was at Birmingham City Council, the UK’s largest local authority, where she managed a team of more than 40 transport staff.

Shrinking budgets

Deborah says the role of the planner is “ever changing” with teams coming under more pressure as local authorities struggle with shrinking budgets and a rise in students with special needs.

Referring to the specific challenges planners face in organising home-to-school journeys for SEND children, Deborah says: “Understanding the needs of the pupil and ensuring the correct information is provided is key.

“Especially with children who struggle with change, it is really important to get the transport right first time. Any changes can cause disruption, which could lead to behaviour problems which may result in one-to-one transport at great expense to the council.”

Driver shortage

The pandemic created more challenges for planners who often had to deal with last minute operational changes without warning.

Deborah says: “Due to Covid especially, there is a driver shortage as contractors struggle to retain and recruit drivers. This has had a significant impact on contractors, resulting in increased costs.

“This is where QRoutes benefits to maximise the use of vehicles, reduce the demand for drivers and bring down expenditure.”

Managing relationships

She says she has seen many things over the years – including a day when she was monitoring vehicles arriving at a day centre and to her “amazement” a saloon car arrived with its boot flapping up and down due to a wheelchair wedged in the boot. Or the time when she had to deal with children upset by their bus driver holding up a dead rabbit. He thought they’d be interested in “some recent roadkill” he was taking home for his dinner.

Deborah’s tips for a smoother ride when managing relationships between local authority planning teams, politicians and contractors involve being open and realistic about what can be done.

“In previous roles working in transport, expectations would need to be managed between parents, contractors, councillors and schools.

“My tip would be to be honest about what can be done and what can’t be done but be open to ideas and options within certain parameters.”

A fantastic addition to our expert team

QRoutes’ CEO David Stewart says: “We’re thrilled Deborah has joined us. Customers tell us that one of our strengths as a software supplier is that we understand school transport. And Deborah’s wealth of experience makes her a fantastic addition to our expert team.”

See About Us to find out more about QRoutes team

Driver shortage impacts school transport

The national shortage of HGV drivers has been well publicised and it’s also impacting on school transport. 

Kent, North Somerset, Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Bridgend

The lack of bus drivers has disrupted many home-to-school routes for both mainstream students and those with special needs, who may need a taxi or specialist vehicle. 

Costs are going up

Some local authorities have told us their costs are increasing as operators charge double, and sometimes triple, compared to previous contracts.

When we calculate the savings QRoutes finds our customers, we estimate the cost of a contract at £20k, but we’ve heard stories of new contracts costing in the region of £70k.

The increase in fuel prices is also having an impact on budgets. 

Distress for children

Parents of children with special needs have been sharing stories on social media about the distress caused by the disruption and uncertainty. 

One mum said her autistic daughter relied on a routine and familiarity. She said the confusion at the beginning of the school year had caused upset at an already stressful time. 

“She’s had tears, meltdowns and mental health issues and it’s just not acceptable. Parents are fuming, we are very angry.”

Nationwide shortage

The Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) estimated there was a national shortage of 4,000 bus drivers and suggested areas hit the hardest were Scotland, the north east of England, Bristol and the South West. 

CPT said: “It is having an impact across the country. More bus drivers are quitting than we can recruit and talk of higher-paid jobs in road haulage is adding to the problem.

“Some have unquestionably been attracted to lorry driving by all this talk about wages increasing.”

Covid makes things worse

Bus operator First West of England said they were short of about 70 drivers in Bristol and Bath. And said the situation had been exacerbated by some existing drivers having to self-isolate or take time off sick after testing positive for Covid-19.

Efficient routes help

QRoutes route optimisation helps our customers find ways to deliver journeys which often need fewer vehicles than other solutions. With the shortage of drivers pushing costs up, this is more important than ever.

Get in touch today to explore how QRoutes can help you

The school run & the climate emergency

Tackling the threat to the planet’s climate means making fundamental changes in the way we all live and work. It’s a global issue. The earth’s temperature is rising with the past seven years being the warmest on record. 

Every local authority has been set a government target to cut carbon emissions – and more than 200 councils across the UK have declared a climate emergency. And Climate UK has created a council climate league table.

It’s time to take action

Many councils have already started consulting residents to create strategies looking at how to make transport, buildings, energy, food and farming greener. 

It’s a huge challenge as they come under extreme financial pressure with budgets and services being cut. 

The school run’s impact on the climate

Looking at transport, estimates suggest 25% of cars during peak hours are on the school run. One simple way to reduce emissions is to encourage children to catch the bus, walk or cycle.

This is also important in addressing the unsafe levels of air pollution.  

According to a recent Unicef report, “The Toxic School Run”, one in three children in the UK are growing up in areas with toxic air, with the majority of it coming from vehicle emissions.

Public Health England’s 2019 report stated “working with children and their parents to implement no-idling zones outside schools, make it easy for children to walk or cycle to school and increase public awareness in relation to air pollution and children. This will reduce air pollution in the vicinity of schools and reducing children’s exposure accordingly.”

The cost of the school run

School transport is a substantial part of any local authority’s budget but the rising demand for transport required by children with special needs is putting more pressure on budgets which are already under strain. 

As a result ‘discretionary’ home-to-school transport (where authorities choose to provide it rather than must by law) has declined 27% since 2015. 

But there are practical steps authorities can take to address costs and reduce emissions.

Infrastructure improvements for safer active travel to school

Infrastructure improvements (e.g. a zebra crossing or improved street lighting) can deliver returns on investment by making active travel (walking and cycling) safer for children travelling to school. 

Studies show that active travel improves health, wellbeing and academic achievement.

Optimised routes

And optimising shared routes (buses, minibuses or other vehicles) for SEND and mainstream home to school transport can also reduce costs, CO2 emissions, and reduce traffic congestion around schools.

What our customers say

More than 35 local authorities have signed up to use either QPaths, QRoutes or both because they’re accurate, easy to use and deliver demonstrable savings. 

Some councils have even used it to help with wider strategic planning such as working out the best location to build a new school. 

QRoutes helps authorities reduce CO2 and air pollution caused by the school run improving the environment for generations to come.

Helping you green the school run

To explore how we could help you reduce the environmental impact of the school run and improve air quality around schools, let’s talk

Thinking outside the ‘back office’

By Andrew Fish, QRoutes Customer Success Manager

Words like ‘excited’ and ‘delighted’ are sometimes overused in business, but how else to describe how we feel about our latest case study?

Perhaps it is because it shows a genuine step forward in the approach local authorities are taking to procuring systems.

Last year, Central Bedfordshire Council embarked on an ambitious project to streamline their applications process for home-to-school transport.

They’ve built a process that works for them by combining products from QRoutes and three other software suppliers.

Faster and more accurate

As a result, they’re now processing 53% of all applications automatically; a further 38% need only a light-touch review. Only 9% of all applications need full manual reviews.

This improves the client experience, with faster, more accurate responses through self-service online access. And it gives the planning team more time to focus on the cases that need their attention.

This modular and partnered approach marks a step-change from the cumbersome back-office solutions that have been prevalent in the industry for the last twenty years

The way things were

Typically, one central database with a rich and accurate dataset along with all-encompassing functionality on top seemed like a great idea.

The market became dominated by a few specialist suppliers who understood the business domain thoroughly and would adapt their systems by adding layer upon layer of fantastic new features.

But there were technical downsides…

Large information systems can be difficult to adapt quickly to the changing needs of an authority and technology advancements.

Organisations now want more agility, to be ready to respond to their customers using modern digital technologies.

All-encompassing solutions can take a long time to implement and onboard and are expensive to customise. Many authorities then found themselves locked-in for many years with a single supplier because the cost of change is so prohibitive.

But not any more…

Central Bedfordshire’s approach

Integrating multiple products that supports a variety of business services, such as education and transport, needs a fresh mindset. – Thinking outside the back office!

It can involve multi-supplier relationships, something which council IT and Procurement teams have been wary of in the past but, increasingly, are more comfortable with because software technology makes it easier.

Playing to partners’ strengths

This approach helps authorities build process and customer experiences that work for them. It combines the best partners’ strengths for a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.

The modular model provides more flexibility for the council to adapt and evolve systems and, importantly, to have more control over products and investment costs.

The arrival of subscription-based pricing models further increases this flexibility.

Rebalancing the power

And, finally, this approach helps authorities ensure they are getting the best quality and service.

If they are not happy with an element, they can replace it with another service provider’s solution without having to overhaul the whole system.

This places greater emphasis on the software supplier to innovate and provide value for money, putting the power back into the hands of authority.

So, yes, we are excited about this latest case study. If you can think of a better word, let me know…

Read the case study here

QRoutes features in INNOVATE Bristol & Bath

QRoutes has been listed in the latest INNOVATE™ BRISTOL & BATH, from Global Village Publishing.

This 380-page premium coffee-table book showcases Bristol & Bath’s innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“We’re thrilled to be included in this year’s edition” says Liz Davidson, CMO. “The West of England is one of the most dynamic regions for tech. It is an exciting to be part of it.”

“Every single one of the stories has been carefully chosen to guide you on a journey across the region and offer you a glimpse into the future.” says Natalia Rodríguez Novás, Publishing Partner for Global Village Publishing.

And QRoutes is one of them. Based in Future Space, QRoutes is the UK’s leading many-to-few routing engine for passenger transport.

It is primarily used by local authorities for home-to-school transport, including the complex and sensitive area of special educational needs and disabilities.

The company has grown rapidly since its launch in 2016 and now supplies 20% of the UK authorities that provide home-to-school provision.

During the pandemic, it free support to any not-for-profit organisation which found itself facing routing tasks (such as the delivery of food to vulnerable households) as part of their emergency response.

One of those was Manchester City Council. Victoria Harper who as coordinating the response said “The support from QRoutes has been a huge help in enabling efficiencies with daily driver planning.”

In the last year, the company also launched QPaths. This new tool calculates the door-to-door distance of safe home-to-school walking routes faster and with greater accuracy than existing methods.

“With 150 success stories with this publication alone, The West of England certainly has plenty of good news to share. We are immensely grateful to the West of England Combined Authority for making this book possible.” adds Natalia.

INNOVATE™ BRISTOL & BATH is also available as an e-book and an online platform, representing a network with a common goal of ensuring the region’s best innovations and innovation enablers connect and succeed.

How Pax-QR can make managing home-to-school transport easier

We recently hosted a webinar to give local authority transport teams a chance to find out how Pax-QR can help them work out the most efficient home-to-school journeys. 

Pax Systems created the transport data management system which integrates seamlessly with the QRoutes digital planning tool. Phil Dyson, from Pax, said it was a unique product and was designed “very specifically for local authority transport teams”. He explained they were able to do this because he and other Pax team members had worked in local authority transport planning departments.

Pax provides the cloud-based software to manage all the required data  – this includes customer and school details, contract management, financial information and operators. This data is then combined with QRoutes to optimise the routes.  

A flexible approach that integrates with existing systems

Phil said most councils dealt with their educational management and financial information differently and that “one size does not fit all”. Pax is able to integrate data management software with several systems such as Capita, Jalen, SEEMISgroup, SAP and Agresso.

In the webinar, Phil demonstrated how optimisation software offers the best value for home-to-school journeys, as planners can calculate the most efficient route allocation. And to make things even easier, there’s also a visual representation of the journey using maps.

When asked whether the software allowed for different arrival times for students at different times of the week, he said they could build in “any mix of times”. He added they were currently developing a specific timetable design with one of the local authorities who use Pax-QR.

The financial insight authorities need

With council budgets being under constant pressure, another advantage of the software is its financial forecasting system. This has been designed to give a flexible view on transport spend in different ways. For example, it’s possible to look at contract spend against eligibility or even from a seat type or service area. 

It’s also possible to see the forecast in a single report, allowing the authority to compare one month to the next, which can support monthly budget processing. This allows teams to provide a monthly update and forecast to the corporate finance team.

A popular question at the webinar was about compliance workflow and how that could be accessed. Phil explained the system includes a process for recording all of the compliance steps and this can be used on one single issue, which can then be updated. Or if a new issue arises, a new compliance tab can be opened. 

If you missed the broadcast, you can access it by getting in touch or sign up for the next webinar on Tuesday 29th June at 9.30am, when Pax will be presenting again.

Technology firms work together to help council plan home-to-school journeys

QRoutes has teamed up with transport management specialists Pax Systems to provide local authority transport planners with an online data management and routing system dedicated to their needs.

East Lothian Council is the first Scottish local authority to sign up and plans are in place to migrate over to the new system in the forthcoming months.

The council’s transport planning team will be supported by QRoutes and Pax Systems as they import data from Scotland’s education management system SEEMiS and its Click and Go transport module.

Phil Dyson, from Pax Systems, said the collaboration with QRoutes had created a unique and straightforward software package, enabling local authorities to deliver an efficient home-to-school transport service for schools and students.

Before setting up Pax Systems, Phil worked up to the Head of Integrated Transport at a county council and uses this knowledge to provide software that exactly matches local authority transport team needs.

“Councils are driven by customer needs, contract management and efficient use of budgets. For example, this integrated product can give local authorities a monthly forecast of spend and trends in client-demand. It’s easy to use and departments can get real control of route efficiency and a granular understanding of where spend is going,” he said.

“The days of councils being locked into a single software supplier are changing. Cloud technology and modern interfaces mean different solutions can talk to each other.”

Andrew Fish, Customer Success Manager, QRoutes

Andrew Fish, from QRoutes, said: “The days of councils being locked into a single software supplier are changing. Cloud technology and modern interfaces mean different solutions can talk to each other. This provides greater choice and flexibility for councils who are looking to update their business systems. East Lothian Council liked the routing software we provide, but they needed data management. The integration with Pax Systems is the ideal solution.”

East Lothian Council currently transports 1,266 pupils, on private contracts, as well as operating 56 routes and providing a supported public service network.

Bruce Moffat, Service Manager for Transport & Waste, said introducing a new system, along with delivering the service during the pandemic, had been a “unique challenge”.

He said: “East Lothian Council has chosen the QRoutes/Pax system as a replacement for the SEEMiS transport module, which has recently been removed from service.

“The new package brings an additional level of routing options along with administering our home to school transport provision. The Transport Services Team has been working closely with QRoutes and Pax to ensure the product meets the criteria of requirements.”

He added the system would primarily be used for mainstream home-to-school journeys with the intention of rolling it out to Additional Support Needs (ASN), the Scottish College Partnership and adult service provisions.