Pain and suffering at the Greyhound station; hours of service get the "blame"

Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

The Monday morning TV and radio news in New York was full of the tale of chaos the prior evening at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, a place that is pretty close to Dante's 10th Ring of Hell even on a good day.

It seems that interstate bus carrier Greyhound wasn't getting its buses in to the Port Authority on time on a Sunday evening, in July, a combination that strains all modes of transportation. There were pictures of people sleeping against their luggage, frustrated and angry, and it made for great film and audio on the local news.

Then the word starting going around as to why it happened: the Hours of Service rule that governs bus drivers. But they've been in effect forever with no changes. There was no formal public announcement from Greyhound, at least not one through any sort of usual channels, like Twitter. But a reporter covering the story for the local ABC affiliate in New York, WABC-TV, said in a tweet that Greyhound had provided her with this statement: “We are currently experiencing delays at the Port Authority as we wait for drivers to become available once they complete their federally mandated rest.”

Sound familiar?

Those federally mandated rules were in effect the day before. And the day before that, and the year before that. Bruce Hamilton, the international vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents union workers who drive for Greyhound, said the current rules have been in effect for 40 years, permitting a driver to drive for 10 hours and then a required eight-hour break, though they can be on-duty for a total of 15 hours, with 10 of those permitted to be behind the wheel. A driver can be behind the wheel 70 hours in a 7-day period.

So if it's not the HOS rules, what is it? It appears that Greyhound is having the same issue that a lot of truck companies are: a shortage of drivers.

A Greyhound spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment. But Hamilton said he believes the situation in New York Monday got press coverage "because a lot of people got on cell phones and called the news media." Greyhound normally has a huge increase in passenger numbers during the summer, Hamilton said, "and they're normally prepared for that." But the bus carrier can't always be prepared for the number of people who show up and need service, he added.

Another reporter who covered the story for WCBS Newsradio 880 told FreightWaves that there was no sign that there was any sort of a labor slowdown that caused the difficulties Sunday evening. "The company did not release much information on this," reporter Marla Diamond wrote to FreightWaves via Twitter. "But it is not a job action.  And passengers we spoke to say these delays have happened to them before. So maybe they don’t have enough drivers."

Although OTR trucker HOS rules have not changed, the first data is pointing to signs that capacity is being squeezed by tighter ELD enforcement as truckers spend a greater amount of time scrambling for parking or shutting down the day's driving early to grab a parking spot. There is no such issue with bus drivers. Hamilton said much of the driving done by intercity bus drivers is out-and-back within a 10-hour frame. If a driver ends up going point-to-point and needing to sleep on the road for the night, a hotel/motel room is provided, Hamilton said. 

Bus drivers generally get paid by the hour, Hamilton said, and Greyhound drivers are covered under a three-year contract with the ATU that began April 1 of this year. Hamilton said the size of the pay increase, which he estimated as 10% over three years, was "significant, but there's still competition out there." "There are all these non-union carriers who don't pay well at all," Hamilton said. "There's a lot of downward pressure on what the market will bear."

One area of overlap between bus drivers and truck drivers: a view that their compensation is inadequate and needs to be adjusted upward to ease any driver shortage, the existence of which Hamilton challenged. He cited OOIDA President Todd Spencer, who has long said there is no driver shortage, just a shortage of adequate incentives to become and continue as a truck driver. "They can't keep people," Hamilton said of truck companies and bus companies. "It's not that they can't hire them. But people are not going to work for the kind of wages they pay, and that isn't a problem with the Hours of Service rule."

But unlike independent owner/operators, a Greyhound bus driver is covered by a union contract that has healthcare, a 401K and other benefits. 

The website for FirstAmerica, which owns Greyhound and smaller point-to-point carrier BoltBus, lists a little less than 40 open driver jobs for Greyhound nationwide What it also does have is an enormous need for school bus drivers. Many of those jobs carry $2,000 signing bonuses. There also is a huge number of openings for technical and maintenance workers.