Manly Observer has been contacted by a number of residents in the suburbs serviced by Forest Coach Lines, concerned that buses have been cancelled without explanation, often at the last minute. This has resulted in work-bound people and school children stranded alongside other travellers at bus stops in Balgowlah, Frenchs Forest, Belrose and beyond.
One informed Manly Observer about “the terrible state of bus services in Frenchs Forest at the moment.” She added, “my son, who is ten, catches the 141 bus from Frenchs Forest to Balgowlah (to attend opportunity class at Balgowlah Heights Public) every morning and since 8 Feb it has failed to turn up (with no cancellation or notice) six times in ten business days.
“Forest coach lines simply say they don’t have enough drivers to service all their routes and promise a new (reduced) timetable is coming but can’t say when or provide alternative ways to get to school.”
Throughout February and March, the many cancellations around Balmoral, Belrose, Frenchs Forest and Terrey Hills were reported on social media as passengers struggled to obtain accurate information from the company, while others angrily complained about arriving late to their destinations and the frustrations around organising alternative means of transport.
On Tuesday 1 March, someone commenting on a St Ives Community Facebook page post about Forest Coaches’ ‘unexplained’ cancellation of service 194, reported, “Last Thursday afternoon, my Route 193 connecting bus from Belrose Supa Centre to Brookvale, was cancelled while I was already en-route on the Route 197 bus from St Ives.
“Everyone on the 197, who thought they were going through to Mona Vale, were shunted off at the Supa Centre because the run was suddenly terminated and the bus returned to the depot empty. I went home and tried again the next morning at 0630, when everything was normal again.
The two drivers I spoke too, were tight lipped about the cause.”
Another commented, “I have been wondering the same thing. This morning the 7:33, 7:53, 8:13, 8:16 and 8:33 were cancelled (according to the Trip View app).
“Two weeks ago I was catching the 6:27am to the city for a medical appointment. At 6:15am it was still shown as operating, but 5 minutes before it was due it showed cancelled. The next one at 6:42 was also cancelled. As was the 7:03.”
Bus booked but no one to chauffer it
Some commenters suggested the service cancellations were attributable to the recent industrial actions involving train drivers and Transport for NSW.
Closer to the cause is the recent recruitment drive by Forest Coach Lines to attract more drivers.
On 24 February 2022, CDC NSW, the owners of Forest Coach Lines, posted a recruitment advertisement for bus drivers to join their depot in Terrey Hills. The advertisement, headlined “Why just ride the bus when you can drive it!”, stated there were nine positions to fill. It also added, “Don’t worry, training is provided if you don’t have the right licence type.”
This was followed on 2 March by another post, shared on social media, calling for ‘Superheroes’.
“We now need you to be a Superhero for others, to safely drive our kids to and from school, your friends to work, or your parents to the doctor.”
CDC NSW confirmed to Manly Observer that a shortage of drivers had affected their operations.
“Forest Coach Lines, like many other businesses, has had employee availability impacted by COVID-19,” a spokesperson said.
“We are continuing to manage COVID-related impacts to our services and our priority is to maintain the highest safety standards for our staff and customers while continuing to provide reliable and consistent services to timetable.
“In the event of service cancellations, we prioritise school services while trying to reduce the overall impact on customers as much as possible.
“Forest Coach Lines can confirm that no dedicated school services have been cancelled, however some public bus services on high frequency routes that are also available to some students may have been affected by cancellations. Students are then able to board the following service along with the general public.
“Cancellations are based on factors such as frequency and the availability of other options and are avoided as much as possible.”
Pilots recruited to drive buses now returning to planes
During the 2020 lockdowns for the global Covid-19 pandemic, when international flights were reduced or halted to limit the spread of the contagion, 13 of the Qantas pilots who were indefinitely furloughed were recruited by Forest Coaches, which temporarily solved a driver shortage.
Two of the pilots were featured in an episode of in The Project, Network 10’s weeknight current affairs TV program.
One, Peter Probert, was a Qantas A380 captain who flew Australia’s first A380 Airbus to Australia in September 2008 (his father flew the first Boeing 747 to Australia in 1971).
The other, Peter Cairns, was a Qantas first officer who flew the last A380 back from London during the global lockdown.
In March 2020, both pilots flew a Qantas A380 into the Mojave Desert, California, when Qantas’ entire A380 fleet was flown to USA alongside other passenger jets.
An estimated 800 aircraft from around the world were parked on desert runways at the Mojave Air and Space Port, which specialises in storage and reclamation. The hot dry conditions better preserve the grounded aircraft, which were serviced by technicians to maintain their flight worthiness, whilst on stand-by until the coronavirus pandemic subsided and flights resumed.
However, in November 2021, when the international lockdowns were scaled back and borders slowly reopened, the first of Qantas’ 10 Airbus A380s returned to Australia after 593 days parked in the California desert. Qantas’ whole air fleet is scheduled to be back in Australia by the end of June 2022.
Pilots have since been recalled and Qantas announced “Over the next few months, pilots will undergo an extensive retraining period including simulator sessions, training flights and classroom courses to prepare for take-off.”
This explains the subsequent shortage of drivers for Forest Coach Lines and the unfortunate cancellation of services.
Who are CDC, Forest Coach Lines’ owners?
Forest Coach Lines, Australia’s oldest family-run bus company, was acquired by Singapore-based ComfortDelGro Corporation Australia (CDC), in August 2018.
According to their webpage, CDC “operate under multiple brands including Hillsbus and Forest Coach Lines in Metropolitan Sydney, Blue Mountains Transit, Hunter Valley Buses and Coastal Liner in Outer Metropolitan Regions and CDC Broken Hill, Blanch’s Bus Lines, Brunswick Valley Coaches, Forest Coach Lines, Qcity Transit and Transborder Express in Regional areas of NSW and ACT.”
CDC, which entered the Australian market in 2005, is now the largest private bus operator in NSW but it also has operations in Victoria, ACT and Western Australia, with around 3,500 vehicles, ranging from buses, coaches, taxis and even ambulances.
CDC is also one of the world’s largest land transport companies with an estimated fleet of 42,700 buses, taxis and rental vehicles.
Training to drive a bus
On 7 and 9 April 2022, Forest Coach Lines held two information nights for drivers and heavy vehicle mechanics at 7pm at their depot.
If you’d like to drive a Forest Coach Lines bus, the traineeship program is open to drivers with a valid NSW C Class (car) license. It also results in a nationally-accredited Certificate III in Driving Operations.