The 400 service was launched by Selnec in 1970 to link Bolton with Stockport without the need to change several buses or trains. This was launched using Bedford VAL coaches with fares slightly dearer than normal bus fares. In summer months, this was extended to Manchester Airport on Friday and weekend journeys, providing Tameside residents with a link to the airport without changing at Manchester for the 200 service.
The dawn of Greater Manchester Transport saw the coaches replaced by non-standard new Metro-Scania Metropolitan double deckers and sometimes standard Leyland Atlanteans.
Deregulation saw the arrival of new Northern Counties bodied MCW Metrobuses with coach seats. Similar Leyland Olympians were ordered for the 200 Manchester Airport service, which was renumbered 757 in 1988. Under the aegis of GM Buses, the arms length PTE owned limited company, these buses were branded with a special Express livery.
In addition to the 400, further express services were created. The 401 was launched with an hourly frequency between Oldham and Wigan. Other services included the 402 ran between Bolton and Warrington and the 403 between Leeds and Bolton via Rochdale. The latter, operated by Yelloway was short lived due to problems and the eventual closure of the Rochdale company in 1989.
By 1993, GM Buses was split into three ways, with the coaching arm, Charterplan sold to East Yorkshire Motor Services, who also owns Finglands Coachways. Bus operations were sold to the management, under the names GMS Buses (Greater Manchester Buses South) and GM Buses North. The latter company took over the 400 route, and re-routed the 401 from Oldham to Wigan, to run between Bolton and Stockport via Dukinfield and Hyde. This was abandoned and instead, ran between Denton and Guide Bridge along with the 400.
The sale of GM Buses North to FirstBus in 1996 saw a comprehensive service review. Some 81 services were cut back on the 6th October that year. The 400 and 401 saw stopping places reviewed, with the 400 servicing Brinnington. By May 1999, came the biggest blow, with the link to Manchester Airport and Sunday services discontinued. The following year saw the 400 diverted via the M60 cutting out stops at Denton and Brinnington, with the 401 still serving Reddish. Protests resulted in the 400 reverting to stopping at Denton and Brinnington.
By September 2001, the 401 service was withdrawn. In May that year, First deregistered the service and Stagecoach Manchester ran the service, albeit between Stockport and Middleton. This arrangement lasted four months.
The 400 survived under FirstGroup until May 2003. During that period, Superbus vehicles designated for the route (originally by GM Buses North) were switched to other routes. This resulted in standard single deckers with normal bus seats being legion on some journeys.
False dawns and eventual demise
By May 2003, First Manchester de-registered the 400, ending a thirty-three association with the PTE companies and its successors. At the same time, the X1 service from Manchester to Derby (previously the 201, shared with First Manchester and First PMT) was deregistered.
Stepping in at short notice were Horwich based Blue Bus. Initially, their timetable was hourly on weekdays with the service every two hours on Saturdays. Due to demand, the Saturday service became hourly. At the time, the fleet used on the 400 service comprised of a motley selection of double deckers, single deckers and even MCW Metrorider minibuses.
The 400 prior to Blue Bus' operations in the last two years saw the service looking shabby, with buses devoid of route branding and sometimes full destination blinds. Adding inappropriate buses, and having a near constant review of stopping places, exacerbated the confusion. All this were a world away from the luxury coaches designated by Selnec for this route.
Despite news of the 401 making a comeback, albeit as one journey each way via Middleton, the 400 was withdrawn on the 20 September 2004, ending 34 years of continuous operation. The proposed return of the 401 didn't come to fruition either.
The 400 wasn't the only express service withdrawn by Blue Bus on that date. A recently launched service, the X9 from Manchester to Bolton was the other one. This service followed the route of the number 8 up to the M61 motorway and continued to Manchester via the A580 East Lancashire Road, with a 35 minute journey time from Bolton to Manchester, Piccadilly Gardens.
On the 31st July 2005, Blue Bus was sold to Arriva North West. Of late, some of its former routes have changed hands. By contrast, one service inherited from Blue Bus, the 575, became one of Arriva's Sapphire routes. From Bolton to Wigan via Horwich, leather seats and branded buses are the norm.
Factors of its demise
Ageing population: From my observations, the 400 service was mainly used by clientele over fifty years of age during daytimes, with the reduced number of passengers paying adult fares may have had some effect. During the peak periods, I had noticed prior to withdrawal steady ridership levels on early morning journeys to Stockport and Bolton at Ashton-under-Lyne bus station.
The M60 motorway: In addition to this, the 400 provided the people of Denton with a direct link to Oldham, and Oldham passengers a link to Stockport - unachievable by rail without the Metrolink between Manchester Victoria and Manchester Piccadilly. The main competition between Oldham and Stockport was the M60 motorway, although the 400 didn't serve the Hollinwood and Blackley areas. Though the Rochdale to Bolton section are served by the frequent 471 and 509 stopping services, the demise of the 400 has led to a loss of a service that replaced the Bolton - Bury - Rochdale line, which closed in 1970.
Towards the end of its life, the 400 had suffered from unsympathetic big bus owning group politics, in the same way Burnley and Pendle, and Ribble routes in Blackburn did under Stagecoach. An inconsistent choice of vehicles has done little to woo passengers onto what was once the jewel in the crown of Selnec, Greater Manchester Transport and GM Buses. Instead of being the main express route, it was seen as just another service bus.
This contrasts heavily with the rebranding of the X43 service by Burnley and Pendle. Some 16 months after Blazefield Holdings took over Burnley and Pendle from Stagecoach Holdings, old buses were replaced by new low floor double deckers. Vehicles were aggressively branded, with the route and number advertised. At present, the X43 is one of Blazefield Holdings' best performing routes.
The summer of 2005 saw the buses rebranded as the 'Witch Way', with newer double deckers, boasting leather seats on both decks. Despite changing the terminus from Colne to Nelson, the X43 has remained a popular route, with comfort levels equal to modern private cars. The older buses (then two years old!) were transferred to the Lancashire Rose routes X40 and X41 to Accrington (with some journeys to Great Harwood, with a Sunday extension to Whalley), replacing the X1 to Clitheroe. Now owned by Transdev, the new owners aim to keep the same management in charge of Burnley and Pendle and other Blazefield Holdings companies.
Resurrection: how to revive the Trans-Lancs Express
The Blazefield experience shows how a former basketcase service could be transformed with a lot of loving care and attention. This means investment, branded vehicles and straightforward connections with local services.
A return to the ideals of 1970 would be fantastic, where the use of an executive coach was as effective in route branding as vinyls with silhouetted witches or coloured lines. This defined the 400 as a class apart from the 9 to Rochdale, or the 10 to Dukinfield, Yew Tree.
The 400 was, and could still be a brand again, synonymous with quality. As well as the core objective of serving Bolton, Oldham, Ashton and Stockport, a Park and Ride element should be considered, ideally at stops close to railway stations, or motorway junctions.
Should the 400 be resurrected, an ideal proposition would be franchising, subject to Government thinking on quality bus contracts. Ideally, this instrument should be used to determine frequencies, vehicle specifications and fares.
- Route branding and designated vehicles;
- Regular services on Sundays and Bank Holidays;
- Links to Manchester Airport;
- Improved through-ticketing;
- A possible return of the 401 service.
One hallmark of the 400 were the vehicles. These were furnished to a higher level than that of standard buses with coach seated buses or coaches as standard. Designated vehicles would apply an air of consistency, and given the right standards of service and interior, luxury. Route branding, ideally advertising some stops on the side may help potential passengers alien to express buses. This has worked well with the 36 (Leeds - Harrogate - Ripon) and the X43 (Manchester - Burnley - Nelson) services.
There has been similar success with the TP Transpeak service from Manchester to Derby and Nottingham. In addition to its basic two hourly frequency, the service now runs hourly between Buxton and Nottingham. As with the current X43, these have been marketed aggressively, with a similar spirit to the 400 under Greater Manchester Transport.
Sunday and Bank Holiday services
Sunday is now the second most popular shopping day. The 400 had had no Sunday service for five years. Proposed frequencies should be akin to Monday to Saturday operations. The same should also be applicable with Bank Holidays. With infrequent services, even on the main corridors during such periods, the need for the Trans-Lancs Express to augment these services is needed more than ever.
Compared with 1999, there are now more people working on Sundays and Bank Holidays. Current service frequencies do not reflect this, despite recent efforts to boost Sunday services on main corridors.
Despite the addition of Manchester Airport to the national railway network, there are still areas once served by the 400 untouched by direct rail links to Ringway. For instance, the section of the former 400 route from Bury to Stockport requires a change of train(s) at Manchester. Until issues concerning Phase Three of the Metrolink are fully resolved, the average Ashton, Oldham or Rochdale rail passenger have to take a tram from Manchester Victoria into Manchester Piccadilly. The restoration of this link would not only link Ashton with direct airport services. The other effect will be improved connections with Tameside and Oldham for Wythenshawe residents.
As a consequence of this, taxis, via the M60 provide a more sustainable alternative. A revamped 400 could compete with that sector, though designated buses may need more luggage space than normal service buses.
Since its inauguration in 1970, the 400 had no through ticketing arrangements besides Greater Manchester PTEs passes and (from 1983) its Wayfarer ticket. As with the X43, a possible revived 400 should include through ticketing with National Express routes. Whereas Rochdale, Stockport and Oldham are blessed with regular services by National Express, Ashton-under-Lyne only has two journeys a day each way on the 540 service to London from Rochdale.
A through ticketing element with National Express services would be a boon, especially for passengers within the Tameside area, where their presence is sparse. For example, rather than paying more expensive rail fares, or struggling with the existing direct services, one could use his/her National Express ticket from Ashton to Birmingham, on a 400 to Stockport, as well as the 540 service.
This service should be relaunched, using what would be in most part, the Rochdale - Hyde Quality Bus Corridor. As of pre-2001, the 401 should depart 30 minutes after the 400. The route should go between Stockport and Bolton via Woodley, Hyde, Dukinfield and Middleton (avoiding Rochdale).
The slow death of the 400 was a classic example of how to run down a popular service. Step one was to change the stops around to confuse the travelling public. The second one, reverse twenty-six years worth of work in making it one of the flagship services in Greater Manchester, through using standard rather than dedicated vehicles inadequate for its purpose.
A third one was withdrawing the link with Manchester Airport and its Sunday and Bank Holiday services. The beauty of the 400 before 1999 was being able to go from Denton to Rochdale without changing at Ashton seven days a week. The 400 was useful for Bank Holiday excursions, for example Bury Transport Museum, or Manchester Airport to wave family off enroute to Spain or their other desired destination.
Had the 400, and its cousins the 401 and 500 services had the same treatment as the X43 of 2005, we would be seeing these services competing with the M60, and filling in gaps where the same journey by rail would be impossible.
The last five years has seen an haemorrhaging of limited stop and express routes in Greater Manchester. Casualties have included the X3 from Manchester to Chester and the slow death of the X1 (Manchester - Macclesfield - Leek - Derby, formerly 201) Since April 2005, the 153 (Manchester - Mossley) and 230 (Manchester - Partington) have been withdrawn. Motorways, increased car ownership and improved rail frequencies exacerbated this decline, as have unsocial working hours, outside main bus operating hours and poor publicity of services.
Could greater control and regulation of Greater Manchester's buses have reversed this? Would a fairy godmother, in the form of government inspired quality bus contracts, be a driver for resurrecting the Trans-Lancs Express and similar lost limited stop services?
- Greater Manchester Buses, Stewart J. Brown. Capital Transport, 1995.