East of the M60’s review of the year from a public transport angle
2012 was a most eventful year for bus, rail and tram users throughout Greater Manchester and the High Peak. It ended with a Metrolink extension, began with the demise of a local bus company, and somewhere in between, there was a handful of new liveries. In Lancashire, it began with the demise of a well known bus route, and ended with the possible demolition of Preston’s iconic bus station.
It was thought that the cut in the Bus Operators’ Service Grant would have had an affect on local services, but Tameside and Oldham passengers saw services boosted. Local government spending cuts saw no effect to that area’s tendered services, though one wonders if this is a lull before a storm in 2013.
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The most marked development was the demise of SpeedwellBus on the 18th January. The Hyde based independent operator had operated a mix of commercial and subsidised services throughout Oldham, Tameside and Glossop including the 343. In the previous year, it had operated commercial services S48, S49 and S50. The last six months saw a drop in quality control (by means of vehicle conditions and adhering to timetables), and financial problems, leading to its demise weeks before January’s service changes. Stott’s of Oldham took over the 341, 342 and 344 routes with Stagecoach Manchester operating the 202 and 343 routes.
The 28 January marked the end of an era for Stagecoach North West’s X61 route from Blackpool to Manchester. Its lineage can be traced from Ribble Motor Services’ X60 route which had a 15 minute frequency between Lower Mosley Street Station and Blackpool (and every 10 minutes in its late 1940s heyday), plus duplicates brought in from other operators. Besides Ribble’s joint operators [North Western Road Car Company and Lancashire United Transport], service buses were hired from depots throughout the North West during the summer season.
In recent times, it was reduced to an hourly frequency as increased car ownership and the opening of the M55 and M61 motorways sealed its fate. 1979 saw the route briefly curtailed to operate between Preston and Manchester as the X6. Till January 2012, Blackpool became a summer only option, with the route changed to operate between Preston and Manchester via Chorley. Its Manchester terminus was changed to Shudehill Interchange along with its Megabus stablemates.
Part of it was survived by a limited X60 service to Trafford Centre which was withdrawn in Easter of 2012. Today, bus users face a much longer trip to Blackpool from Manchester, with an 8 to Bolton, changing there for a 125, then a 61 or 68 from Preston to Blackpool.
Causing a right brouhaha was FirstGroup’s new livery, which some critics may have likened to polishing a turd. Recent reports over First Manchester’s reliability led to heated exchanges between their boss and North Western Area Traffic Commissioner Beverley Bell. The livery polarised many bus enthusiasts and passengers, deeming it to be rather tacky and a throwback to the 1980s.
Over in Stagecoach Manchester land, the company was shortlisted for an accolade at Greater Manchester’s Green Business Awards, which they later won. For a month, they also offered cheaper DayRider tickets, tying in with the ‘I Love Manchester’ campaign.
The second part of March saw confirmation of the London 2012 Torch Relay route. The last Sunday of June would see the Olympic Torch pass through Ashton-under-Lyne, via the Open Market – neatly timed for the town’s Farmers’ Market and Secondhand Market.
A successful Big Day Out for local charities in 2011 led to its relaunch. Once again, System One Travelcards sponsored the event, with £500 for each charity in Greater Manchester, subject to a public vote.
Stagecoach Manchester boss Christopher Bowles also went public over the ConDems’ cut in BSOG monies, leading to fare rises. Single fares went up by 10p – consistent with previous fare rises over the last 10 years. Even so, they remained cheaper than their North Manchester rivals’ fares.
Spring’s set of service changes saw a new operator in Glossop. The 1st of April saw High Peak take over operations hitherto by Bowers Coaches and Trent Barton, within this north western corner of Derbyshire. The TransPeak from Manchester to Nottingham and the 61 from Glossop to Buxton were among the routes taken over by a company part-owned by Wellglade [Trentbarton] and Centrebus (owners of Bowers Coaches).
The middle of April saw more permanent changes to the SpeedwellBus routes subject to emergency tenders. Stagecoach Manchester would take over the Hyde – Backbower Circular routes 342 and 344, with Stott’s of Oldham taking over the 341 [Glossop – Mottram – Hyde] and 343 [Oldham – Mossley – Hyde] routes.
One time SpeedwellBus routes 41 and 419 would see new vehicles. Replacing the usual Solos and Darts on the 41 during daytimes would be Transport for Greater Manchester’s new Solo SRs. Also seen on the 419, they would offer improved levels of comfort on the old order, as well as the joys of electric hybrid technology.
It was in good company along with hybrid double deckers on the 17 and 219 routes to Manchester from Middleton and Ashton. The 219 also benefitted from electric hybrids, launched on the 13th April. Its thirteen electric hybrid Enviro 400s were formally handed over to Stagecoach Manchester’s Ashton depot by David Heyes MP, and Tameside’s Green Champions, the Tameside Green Interest Group.
Users of TfGM’s Yellow School Buses also benefitted from hybrid vehicles, with low carbon Optare Versas seen throughout Oldham and Tameside. Local schoolchildren got in on the act thanks to a competition organised by Stagecoach Manchester and Tangerine PR for Stagecoach’s Green Week. Children would design a poster around the themes of: 1) A Bus Shelter Made of Recycled Materials; 2) A Bus Which Recycles Rain Water; 3) A Litter Picking Bus; and 4) A solar powered bus.
Stagecoach’s Green Week celebrations saw the results of their poster competition with winning entries from pupils at Hillcrest Grammar School, Stockport, and Silver Springs Academy, Stalybridge.
This month also saw the unveiling of Stagecoach’s Diamond Jubilee livery, worn by a select number of Enviro400s till the end of 2012.
Boards and the increased sight of people with high-visibility jackets began to reach Stalybridge station, commencing work on the station’s remodelling and expansion. For a time, the Liverpool Lime Street all stations service was curtailed to only operate between Stalybridge and Manchester Victoria – albeit running dead to and from Diggle, owing to the closure of (the old) Platform 3.
Without question, June was a particularly big month for Oldham and Tameside folk. The Olympic Torch Relay led to huge crowds at Ashton’s Open Market, with some onlookers watching the torch pass Stockport Road and Park Parade. At Chris’s Café, a member of staff said ‘it was a good 20 years since he last saw Ashton that busy’. The event was compered by Jay Aston – original Bucks Fizz member and member of its successor band OBF [Original Bucks Fizz].
The local transport scene was quite busy too. Six months later than anticipated, part of the Oldham-Rochdale Loop Line was converted to Metrolink operation. The 13th of June saw the Metrolink line open up to Oldham Mumps. Pending completion of the town centre section, it would run along the loop line between the site of the former Oldham Mumps and Oldham Werneth stations. Oldham’s trams were well received, winning over passengers whom hitherto caught the rail service or caught buses.
Besides the usual Summer Timetables, the 236 and 237 would see a boost in frequency, operating every 20 minutes during Monday to Saturday daytimes. On the downside, its peak hour extension to Manchester was abolished, partially replaced by extensions of the 216 service to and from Stalybridge.
With the London 2012 Olympics in full swing, it was a rather quiet time for bus operators in Greater Manchester. To fulfil the surge in demand for buses at the London games, Stagecoach and FirstGroup hired vehicles from the provinces, meaning for a short period the presence of slightly older Stagecoach vehicles on key routes.
Oldham gained her own Metroshuttle service. Operated by Manchester Community Transport, it would link Oldham town centre and its bus station with Oldham Mumps tram station, going via Oldham Way. It was launched with a half hourly frequency during shopping hours, with MCT’s white Mercedes minibuses their usual rolling stock. This would be a short term solution prior to the arrival of more substantial Optare Versas.
Greater Manchester also lost one of its most respected figures in bus and coach operation. Stephen Mayne died, aged 62. Taking over from his father Arthur Mayne (after his death in October 1980), he consolidated the Mayne of Manchester bus and coach business, with expansion in the late 1980s. Under his tutelage, they took over Barry Cooper Coaches and, up to February 2008, operated numerous commercial and tendered bus services throughout Greater Manchester and the Peak District.
The most memorable Olympic Games in living memory saw Ashtonians, Oldhamers and Rochdalians gain a more permanent legacy from the games. They would come in the form of Enviro400s, cascaded from FirstGroup’s Olympic operations. With leather seats, they would be plusher than the Volvo B9TLs’ moquette, and more powerful on hilly terrain. Piloted on the 409, they would be seen in later weeks on the 180, 184 and 83 routes.
Buses of another sort made the headlines in Saddleworth. A company by the name of Saddleworth Vintage Bus gained a licence from VOSA to operate heritage bus tours around the Saddleworth villages from Uppermill. Their vehicle: a preserved (1938) Bristol L5G, which they would hope to augment with an AEC Routemaster.
The bulk of Tameside’s service changes affected Stagecoach Manchester routes. Passengers on the 231 saw an improved Bank Holiday and Sunday service. Peak journeys on the 346 were improved with more evenly spread frequencies. Residents in the High Peak fared worse with severe cuts made to the 62/62A service from Marple to Hayfield.
Further afield, the 50 from East Didsbury to Albert Square was extended to MediaCityUK. First Greater Manchester would shortly follow suit with the extension of its 18 service from Langley to Shudehill Interchange towards Rusholme. The 76 [Oldham – Limeside – Manchester] would be boosted with a 10 minute frequency, and a half hourly one on Sunday and Bank Holiday daytimes – up from every 15 minutes and once hourly.
‘New’ buses were slated for introduction at First Greater Manchester’s Dukinfield garage. Handed over from Oldham and Bury depots, they would be seen on the 348 and 350 routes. At Ashton bus station, separate stands for evening and Sunday services was discontinued, only to be reinstated on the 11th of November.
Dukinfield garage’s new acquisitions made a great impact on the 348 and 350 services, so much so that East of the M60 decided to try them out for size. Also making a great impact, though for the wrong reasons, was a proposed set of service changes for Saddleworth bus users. First Greater Manchester’s changes meant the reduction of its 180 service from every half hour to that of once hourly. Changes to the 184 meant cutting Diggle’s (bus) connection to the outside world to once hourly – worse than Denshaw’s services(!) – and a 20 minute frequency, down from every 15 minutes. Grottonians would see a enhanced 184 service, eight per hour in the daytime. First Greater Manchester would also be the sole operators of the full service from Manchester to Huddersfield.
Elsewhere, the 350 would be rerouted via Greenacres Cemetery from Huddersfield Road, much to the ire of passengers wishing to use the Post Office or local shops at Waterhead. In the end, proposed changes for Diggle residents 184 were postponed, though changes for the 180 and 350 went ahead as planned.
On a brighter note, Oldham’s Metroshuttle service was enhanced by the arrival of electric hybrid Optare Versas. Surplus to requirements following the absorption of the 9 Quays Link route by the enhanced 50, they were moved from Maytree Travel’s depot to Manchester Community Transport’s base in Levenshulme. Furthermore, the service was increased from every half hour to every 20 minutes, rerouted via King Street.
November would be dominated by FirstGroup’s sale of its Wigan operations to Stagecoach Holdings. Purchased by GM Buses East (formerly Mayne of Manchester), the company would take over operations the following month. Much speculation was made as to which buses and routes would be kept or dumped by Stagecoach. Earlier this month, they also approached Bluebird Bus and Coach. Subject to Office of Fair Trading approval, Stagecoach Manchester will take over the Middleton independent this coming April.
Whereas Stagecoach Manchester’s expansion and brighter public image continued (they also won the Best Large Bus Operator of the Year award), First Greater Manchester’s campaign to brighten their image continued. Fleet quality had since improved in the space of nine months thanks to the Olympics, but its high fares continued to cause consternation among local passengers.
Thanks to sustained campaigning by the Oldham branch of the Labour Party, Oldham Council and the Oldham Evening Chronicle, Oldhamers got their cheaper fares, though for a limited period. First Greater Manchester launched FirstDayOldham and FirstWeekOldham tickets offering a discount on the standard tickets, on selected Manchester – Oldham buses and any First Greater Manchester bus throughout the Oldham boundary. Similar tickets were launched for travel inside the M60 motorway.
At Ashton bus station, the 11th of November saw the reintroduction of separate evening and Sunday service stands, along with a state-of-the-art CCTV system. Following a nine day blockade on the last week of October, till the start of November, the most critical part of Stalybridge station’s remodelling work was completed. During then, new tenants from the West Riding Refreshment Rooms in Dewsbury moved in to take over from the late John Hesketh and Sylvia Wood.
The dawn of this month saw buses with FirstGroup logos replaced by Stagecoach ones all over Wigan. The other major stories of that month were rail based.
The 9th of December saw Stalybridge railway station’s track remodelling work completed. This saw an increase in platforms from three to five, with Platform 3 a bidirectional platform. The new fifth platform would become the preserve of local services to Kirkby and Liverpool Lime Street with the new Platform 1 the preserve of First/Keolis Transpennine Express’ Manchester and Liverpool trains. Signalling at Stalybridge has since been switched to the Manchester East box at Edgeley, Stockport. On a sad note, Stalybridge’s signal box was damaged by fire.
A week later, the Metrolink line from Oldham Mumps to Shaw and Crompton was opened. The tram met with a great reception among locals and enthusiasts on its first day of operation. There were reports of the very first journey out of Shaw and Crompton being packed.
Looking to the future, it was announced that the East Manchester Line will be open up to Droylsden on the 11 February 2013. The end of this year and start of 2013 will also see electric hybrid buses aboard the 192 route, and potential for future non-hybrid Enviro400 cascades throughout South Manchester. Set to start 2013 without a future (unless we know different) will be Preston bus station. The 80 stand Modernist edifice to bus travel is slated for demolition, with a more inferior and anodyne replacement taking over. Whether sustained public campaigning from bus users and architectural geeks (or people who fit in both categories) saves the 1969 structure remains to be seen.
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If we were to sum up the two thousandth and twelfth year of our Lord, In The Company of Buses in a single word, ‘rebrand’ would be most appropriate. FirstGroup had spent the best part of this year revamping its image, by means of a new livery and advertising campaign. The overall quality of the fleet seems to have improved in Greater Manchester, though a few oldies (15 year old Volvo Olympians and Dennis Dart SLFs) see regular service. Stagecoach Manchester has continued to keep up appearances with the local community and enhance its routes. It has won new friends with its enhanced 50, 76, 236 and 237 services.
Owing to the reduction of BSOG monies, smaller operators may find the maintenance of its market share difficult. Case in point with early 2012 regarding SpeedwellBus. This coming January will see JPT Travel retreat from the 17 route, where it has competed with First Greater Manchester. Instead, they will focus on tendered services, some of which could land onto JPT’s lap if Bluebird Bus and Coach are taken over by Stagecoach, and wish to retreat from some tendered journeys.
So far, the eastern part of Greater Manchester has done all right in terms of retaining tendered services. Most of the most severe cuts have been made in Bolton and Wigan, and slightly outside TfGM boundaries in the High Peak and Cheshire East areas. Whether the Local Government Settlement set by our fellows at Whitehall affects TfGM’s ability to subsidise routes remains to be seen.
If anything, the Metrolink is likely to make significant dents in market share, more so in Oldham when FGM’s cheap fares deal finishes. Heavy rail will remain a formidable player on the Huddersfield and Hadfield lines, and even more so from Stalybridge, where four trains an hour operate on weekdays, during daytime. Substandard bus provision in Glossop will ensure the Hadfield line’s popularity for years to come.
Will 2013 be every bit as interesting as 2012? Most definitely so, but how?
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- Metrolink on the Oldham-Rochdale Loop Line up to Shaw and Crompton;
- Electric hybrid buses on the 41, 192, 219 and 419 routes, and Yellow School Buses;
- (For about 20 minutes) An Olympic Torch, through Ashton and Oldham;
- Enviro400s on First Greater Manchester routes;
- The new FirstGroup livery;
- Samantha Smith and the rest of the team from The West Riding Refreshment Rooms, Dewsbury at Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar;
- High Peak Buses.
- The X61 route from Blackpool to Manchester;
- Stephen Mayne;
- First Greater Manchester’s Wigan depot operations;
- Stalybridge signal box;
- Preston Bus Station (allegedly, we hope).
Most importantly, East of the M60 wishes you all a Happy New Year. Keep Calm and Catch Buses.
S.V., 25 December 2012.