I must be mad. For the first time since January 1999, I decided to circumnavigate Greater Manchester by bus, and choose what was up to now, one of the coldest days of 2005. Seven years without a long bus ride is too long.
To be precise, I meant seven years without some serious bus bashing in the Greater Manchester area. The last long one was a rail replacement bus from Redditch to Birmingham New Street, running some 40 minutes longer than scheduled.
I made my first circumnavigation of Greater Manchester on the 16 June 1998 to celebrate Public Transport Week, as GMPTE offered a special day rover ticket. The £3.00 spent was the most memorable part of my birthday, with the journey involving a 400 from Ashton to Bolton, followed by a Blue Bus service to Wigan, then the 32 to Manchester, ending my journey on the 220 out of Manchester.
The second came on September of the same year, to celebrate the launch of the all bus day rover. This journey, again anticlockwise, included the 500 from Bolton to Altrincham, via the Trafford Centre and Sale.
On January 1999, I was mad enough to repeat this feat, again anticlockwise, but a late running 346, due to an accident put paid to all aspirations of catching the 400 to Bolton. Instead, I went clockwise and caught the 401 to Stockport, continuing via Altrincham, Walkden and Bury.
Sadly, the six years between January 1999 and November 2005 put paid to this, due to work commitments and commitments finding work.
This was to change on the 18th November 2005. Making best use of time off from full time work, I decided a week before to circumnavigate Greater Manchester by bus for the first time since the 6th January 1999. At least Friday's mission was dry, unlike that Wednesday in January.
0847: 344, Dukinfield - Hyde
By sheer luck, I looked at the bus and the driver let me on at the traffic lights near the Albion Hotel. I noticed the omission of passengers with school uniform, till it stopped outside All Saints Catholic College. For Children in Need, the school decided to have a non-uniform day.
The bus took almost as long to get to All Saints as I did from home on foot, taking twelve minutes to reach the Newton, Cheshire Cheese. This was better than the previous mission, as I got to Hyde bus station at the same time my 346 left the Albion on the Twelfth Night in 1999, 0906.
0910: 330, Hyde - Stockport
Left on time, modern low floor bus with individual seating. Comfortable, though a poor second to the coach seats used on the Northern Counties bodied Metrobuses, used on the Trans-Lancs Express routes.
0951: 370, Stockport - Altrincham
When I did the previous trip, the 371 used to have a 15 minute frequency. This has been halved, with a similar fate occurring with the Saturday service of the normally half hourly 370. Four minutes late. One consolation was the 370 was the first double decker of the day, albeit with conventional seats.
On the journey was the first of four temporary traffic lights at Timperley, a neurotypical Tesco downgraded to a Tesco Metro in Northenden, and two filling stations now housing developments. West of Northenden, I saw a number of signs for Roger Dean estate agents, and were disappointed to see prosaic, rather than Tales from Topographic Oceans style signage.
1035: 16A, Altrincham - Stretford, Arndale Centre
Left on time, and the second double decker of the day, going via Ashton-on-Mersey, skipping Sale. This was the oldest bus, dating from 1990. There was even National Bus Company style seating moquette, despite its previous history as a double decker from the Bee Line Buzz Company era after Drawlane's takeover in 1991.
At 1105, I called at Stretford Arndale centre for any traces of the 1970's look, including toilet coloured tiles on the exterior and giant air conditioning units. I was happy to find the indoor market unchanged from my last visit. I found a cafe which was unchanged, presumably, from the mid 1970s, apart from a plaque celebrating a past Manchester City Derby win at Maine Road (other than the infamous 5 - 1 victory).
1129: 256, Stretford (Arndale Centre) - Flixton
Found to my disappointment that the bus passed Trafford General Hospital rather than the Trafford Centre. I continued to Flixton, and said to the driver I misread the board at Stretford Arndale.
Luckily for me, another person was waiting at the Flixton terminus, who also wanted the Trafford Centre. I got on with her, and we caught the buses towards the Trafford Centre.
1200: 23, Davyhulme - The Trafford Centre
By the skin of our teeth, we catch the 23 from Davyhulme Circle, and within minutes arrive at the Trafford Centre. The bus was a step entrance single decker Dennis Dart, bodied by Northern Counties, with seats boasting tight legroom.
Assuming she missed her 100 to Salford, she was surprised to find it awaiting passengers.
1213: 247, The Trafford Centre - Eccles
With a fair wait till the next bus into Walkden, I decided to catch this Arriva North West service to Eccles. The down side was no visit to that good cafe at the Ellesmere Centre. I remembered that Eccles market had a cafe at the back, where I went one Whit Friday in 1999.
The bus was a Marshall bodied Dennis Dart with awful suspension. It was like boarding the 1623 Sundays 220 from Manchester or the old 375 service from Stockport to Ashton via Guide Bridge (when Glossopdale ran the service).
I originally intended to continue the journey to Eccles' new bus station to see the £250,000 bus shelter overlooking the College Court flats and Morrisons store. The driver stated he was going to pause for three minutes. Conveniently, Eccles indoor market was opposite.
The result was a good value all day breakfast from the market hall cafe. Costing £3.00, this had the usual bacon, egg, sausage, tomato and baked beans, plus some rather well done toast (close to how I like toasted white bread). This price included a mug of tea. The market was quiet, with the cafe the busiest of the stalls.
My first visit, May 1999, included the purchase of two Supertramp albums, as well as an all day breakfast.
1303: 68, Eccles - Bolton
After 13 minutes waiting outside Eccles town hall, this low floor single decker arrived on time. This was the first First Manchester service of the afternoon. The bus was a 1997 S-reg vehicle in Barbie 1 livery, with a similar colour scheme inside.
This bus was formerly used on the Gold Service routes, which now form part of the Greater Manchester's Overground network. The journey was relatively trouble free, apart from the second temporary traffic light of the day at Captain Fold estate.
On the site of the former 1979 Bolton bus depot is a huge Sainsburys store with a private car traffic boosting retail development.
1415: 471, Bolton - Rochdale
I made a slight hiccup, waiting at the post 1900 hours stand for this service at Bolton bus station. Asking a fellow driver on a fag break, I was directed to F stand. Within seconds, I boarded the 471.
The bus was a 1999 Mercedes Citaro single decker, with harder seats than the one on the 68. I made about five different changes of seat, due to legroom and view issues. These buses were previously used on the 409, Rochdale - Ashton-under-Lyne service, and replaced by the better Wright bodied Dennis Dart (more later).
On this bus, I saw for the first time in over five years a revenue protection officer (inspector in layperson's terms) checking tickets. Some behind me were reprimanded for paying the concessionary fare - they were 17 years old. Another boarded with an out of date weekly pass.
The third temporary traffic light of the day was seen at Heywood town centre, outside the Corgi Heritage Centre model shop.
1530: 409, Rochdale - Oldham
The infamous '9 bus', as some call this route from its Oldham Corporation era. Again, hardly any waiting to board the new Wright bodied Dennis Dart. This service left Rochdale bus station two minutes, with the service packed full of shoppers, being the post-school, pre-commuter period. The service was marred by slow running up to Royton, with the fourth temporary traffic light at Lowerplace.
Due to the journey time and arduous nature of the route, I decided to dismount at Oldham.
The other reason was a toilet stop and a connection with the...
1620: 343, Oldham - Dukinfield
This service left the temporary stand at Oldham four minutes late. Phase two of Oldham's futuristic bus station was under construction, resulting in some services using the temporary stands JJ and KK. The latter accommodated the 343, 52 and the 149 before 1900 hours.
I could have continued my 409 journey to Ashton and caught the Dukinfield buses there. Quite wisely, I decided to catch the bus which started a 20 year plus obsession in public transport, mainly Greater Manchester Transport.
The late running counted for nothing, as the bus was a double decker. The result: views of the scenic section of this route between Grotton and Stalybridge. Sadly, the only distant views were the street lights (though still fascinating) and Birmingham style congestion up to Lees. Apart from the sedate ride, a woman boarded at Carrbrook, reluctant to fold her buggy, for her short hop two stops away. This resulted in an altercation between her and the driver, stating the regulations concerning the folding of buggies on step entrance buses - which I remember was a part of life on the Leyland Atlanteans. This held the journey time up by five minutes.
By 1724, I was home, eight hours and forty minutes after a successful circumnavigation of Greater Manchester by bus. I must be mad, but I didn't see it that way. I was thinking of a future one starting within the morning peak hours, so as to take in the Wigan borough. I wondered whether this was possible in West Yorkshire, starting from Huddersfield, taking in Halifax, Ilkley, Wetherby and Castleford. I doubt it, with West Yorkshire being the biggest ex metropolitan county. Who knows?
Statistics: Friday, 18th November 2005
For reasons of comparison, statistics will also be displayed for the 6th January 1999 circumnavigation. These will be presented in brackets.
- Start Time: 0844 (0906);
- Finish time: 1724 (1624)
- Buses caught: 12 (11)
- Stagecoach in Manchester: 5 (2);
- First Manchester: 5 (5)
- First Pennine: * (1)
- Arriva North West: 2 (1);
- R. Bullock and Son: 0 (1)
- Rossendale Borough Transport: 0 (1)
* Absorbed by First Manchester, September 2000.
Average journey time per bus: 40 minutes
Temporary Traffic Lights: 4 (0)
Average wait per connection: 7 minutes
All above figures are approximate.
- Double Decker, step entrance: 3 (5);
- Double Decker, low floor: 2 (0)
- Single decker, step entrance: 3 (2)
- Single decker, low floor: 4 (2);
- Midibus: 0 (2).
Price per journey (estimates):
System One CountyCard (bus and rail) (£70.70): 20p;
System One Any Bus Day Saver (£3.50, peak periods): 29p;
Single fares (approximate average): £2.20
Since my first circumnavigation was recorded, the last six to seven years has seen:
- Little change in market share;
- A loss in express and limited stop bus routes;
- Small improvements in timekeeping;
- A welcome trend towards low floor single and double deckers;
- 'Two tier networks': less glamorous routes with inferior rolling stock.
On the strength of the two circumnavigations, the market share of the two former GM Buses companies has remained static. Outside of these findings, Stagecoach Manchester has seen passenger numbers grow from 71 million in 1996 to 80 million in 2005. This has been further buoyed by the acquisitions of Glossopdale in 1998, Universal Buses in 2000, and R. Cooper (trading as Dennis's Coaches) in April 2005.
First Manchester, too has acquired a fair number of companies since 1999. This began with First Pennine (from sister FirstGroup subsidiary, First PMT) and Timeline in 2000. The second independent to be acquired was Houston Ramm's company, The Coachmasters the following year. Based in Ince Bar, this formed the basis of the schools unit.
Arriva North West has seen some increase in market share with the acquisition of Blue Bus, which was set up by former Shearings (the Wigan coach company also had interests in Timeline) employees.
The biggest impact in maintaining market share since 1999 have been made on cheap single company only season tickets, which can be bought on the bus. The first manifestation of this came in 1996, when Stagecoach Manchester halved the price of its Network 7 ticket from £10.00 to £5.00. Rebranded the Manchester Mega Rider in 1997, the result has been a significant drop in single fare sales for regular passengers, who choose to purchase the cheaper weekly tickets.
Since 1999, there has been a marked drop in the number of limited stop bus routes in the Greater Manchester area. High profile casualties have included the 400 Trans-Lancs Express (which saw its Manchester Airport connection and Sunday service withdrawn in May 1999) and the 153, Mossley to Manchester express. In some cases, market share may have been lost to the railways, with direct trains to Manchester Airport. For example, it is now more convenient for Bolton passengers to go by rail to Ringway than it was to get the 400 or 500 services.
In 1999, the low floor bus in the current form was considered a novelty in most parts of Greater Manchester. Some low floor buses even had step entrances. From 1994, the 408, Shaw to Stalybridge route had double deckers with a retractable step entrance, where retractable longitudinal seats were housed on the lower deck. Today, most main routes are served by low floor vehicles, from the Optare minibuses on the 419, Middleton to Ashton-under-Lyne service, to double deckers on the Wilmslow Road corridor.
Two tier networks:
Despite the increased presence of low floor vehicles, another emerging factor has been a two tier system of routes. For example, a more direct route A would have the latest low floor Wright bodied Dennis Darts, whereas a parallel, though less direct route B would be saddled with ageing Leyland Olympians. Due to profitability and maintenance issues, less attractive routes often sport inferior rolling stock.
Between 1974 - 86, Greater Manchester Transport prided itself on a high degree of standardisation, lowering maintenance costs, and enabling a uniform pattern of standards in service delivery.
Outside of London, where services are regulated and subsidised, the network is less consistent, with the resultant switch to the car or local train services. Due to the more free trade orientated nature of bus operations outside the M25, networks shift more constantly, through acquisitions, short lifespans of new services and withdrawals of existing services, due to a dearth of subsidy.
As with London, there is a case for franchising existing services. These should include commercial services as well as subsidised routes. Emphasis should also be given to cross-boundary services, journeys serving local hospitals, Sunday and Bank Holiday provision, and limited stop routes. Companies should be required to run each service, or block of services for a set franchise period (for example, five years), subject to standards set by local authorities or passenger transport executives. Further obligations should be created for journeys linking with rail, underground or light rail stations.
Much talk of franchising has been made by the passenger transport executives for the last five years. A constantly shifting network undermines passenger confidence. Service changes at short notice also plays havoc with work-life balance, travelling to work, and leisure activities. Thankfully, this has been addressed in Greater Manchester, with the big three companies, FirstGroup, Stagecoach and Arriva stating their service changes at a set date, four times a year. However, this needs to remedied with smaller operators and tendered services.