The public transport company has a fairly old age pyramid, as a result of which many people retire every year. In addition, she is confronted with unexpectedly many departures, said Ann Schoubs, the director-general of De Lijn, on Tuesday during a press conference in Mechelen. “During the entire corona period, 2020 and 2021, there was very little outflow. People opted for certainty,” says Schoubs. “But at the beginning of 2022, the number of drivers and technicians leaving has dropped to 6 percent. That means there were 25 to 30 layoffs every month. Even now we are at about 5.5 percent in those categories, where it is normally 4 percent.”
There were driver shortages, which immediately affected operations. For example, the number of planned journeys that had to be canceled increased sharply. The peak was in June, with 2.63 percent of unused journeys (without strikes). In order to make the service more reliable so that travelers are less likely to be faced with unpleasant surprises, interventions were made on a number of lines. In Antwerp, for example, the frequency of six tram lines was reduced at the beginning of November.
In the meantime, the public transport company had also started recruitment campaigns, especially in the biggest problem regions. These are Antwerp, Leuven and the Flemish periphery around Brussels. This happened in an overheated labor market. “Like almost every sector, De Lijn was faced with an extremely difficult search for new staff,” says the company. In the end, 657 drivers, 98 technicians and 351 white collar workers could be recruited this year.
After the necessary training and the like, the driver shortage seems to have gradually been overcome. “We think the worst is over,” said Schoubs, “and we hope to be able to return to a completely normal regime by January with a normal level of no-driving.” In Antwerp, the tram lines will run again according to the normal schedule from 9 January.
But the search for staff is not over. In 2023, De Lijn will need even more new drivers – 900, out of a total of 5,900 drivers – and probably about the same number in the following years. Schoubs acknowledges that recruitment will be quite a challenge, but sees that the places in De Lijn’s driving schools are already fairly well filled in the coming months. That gives hope.
Schoubs pointed out that the success rate of candidates throughout the hiring process is about 30 percent. “So we should actually get about 3,000 candidates next year.” Society sees potential in non-native speakers, such as (Ukrainian) refugees. Because “we see quite a few language dropouts among the candidates”. She looks at how they could acquire a basic knowledge of Dutch. Part-time contracts may also be a solution.
As far as passenger numbers are concerned, De Lijn is still below the level before the corona crisis. At the beginning of 2022, that was -40 percent, but after the lifting of the corona measures, many travelers returned. The number of travelers is currently still 10 to 20 percent below the pre-corona level. According to Schoubs, most travelers have returned, especially in the rural areas, and less in the cities. Many people there may have discovered the (shared) bicycle as an alternative. De Lijn will continue to make efforts to encourage travelers to return. For example, a fifty-ride card was launched (for people who do not commute every working day) and there is a trial package for people who have moved.
As far as the greening of the fleet is concerned, the delivery of sixty electric buses by bus builders Van Hool and VDL has been somewhat delayed. Schoubs expects the first copies in January, but then they still have to be inspected and drivers still have to receive training. The commissioning will therefore not be until a few months later. The director-general reiterated that emission-free driving in the city centers by 2025 is not feasible in her opinion. The ambition remains to drive completely emission-free by 2035.