East of the M60’s review of the year from a public transport angle
Missed opportunities, U-Turns, WiFi and trams dominated most of 2013. Last year we thought Preston’s iconic bus station would face demolition. Instead it is Rochdale’s 1978 bus station which will face the wrecking ball thanks to a spiffy one across the road. We saw continued consolidation of big bus owning groups and cutbacks, though these were made to fares instead of services.
The second half of 2013 saw Blackpool to Manchester buses revived, albeit seemingly for a short time. Both Stagecoach Manchester and First Greater Manchester saw increased patronage with an 8% rise in the latter company’s operations.
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Unlike the hubris of last year, this January was a quiet one. Besides the usual service changes, there was two very twenty-first century developments.
Firstly, Enviro400H electric hybrid double deckers were introduced to Stagecoach Manchester’s 192 service. Following an £11.3 million investment, 40 electric hybrid vehicles entered regular service between Manchester and Hazel Grove. In addition to its environmental credentials, they would also have WiFi – the first Stagecoach Manchester vehicles to do so.
Secondly, Transport for Greater Manchester’s Wayfarer ticket was transformed. Instead of using a self-validating scratch card, Wayfarer tickets would be made available through PayPoint outlets. Therefore, passengers unable to get to the TfGM Travelshop could start their journey to Buxton from their local off-licence.
In Ashton-under-Lyne, we said goodbye to our town centre Marks and Spencer store as they moved to a new site next door to Sainsburys on Ashton Moss. The end of this year would see a new tenant.
The end of January and early February saw the Oldham, Saddleworth and Tameside areas affected by snow. Meanwhile in Stagecoach Manchester land, the company was presented with a Gold Environmental Business Pledge award by Stockport MBC and the Groundwork Trust.
The biggest story affecting our area east of the M60 motorway was the opening of the East Manchester Metrolink Line. On the 11 February, the slalom of traffic cones which afflicted Droylsdonians for the previous five years disappeared. In their place came state-of-the-art Flexity Swift M5000 trams every 12 minutes to Manchester and Bury.
Shortly after, on the 28 February, came the Shaw – Rochdale extension of the Oldham to Rochdale line. The trams were already making an impact on the Oldham Rochdale Line, though Droylsden’s trams would take a little longer to build patronage.
Another retail body blow affected our town centres, as HMV quit Ashton-under-Lyne and Rochdale.
We bode farewell to Bluebird Bus and Coach, as the two tone blue gave way to the orange, red, blue and white of Stagecoach Manchester. The former independent operator was founded by one-time North Western Road Car Company and Greater Manchester Transport employee Mike Dunstan, and began operations in 1988. They built a reputation for modern vehicles with a niche around Moston and Middleton. They would expand into Oldham and Tameside by means of GMPTE/TfGM tendered services whilst maintaining a commercial service.
Both First Greater Manchester and Stagecoach Manchester took to creative ways of fundraising. The latter brought Movember several months forward in aid of St. Ann’s Hospice. First Greater Manchester’s drivers would have a non-uniform day for Comic Relief.
Though trams continued to set the news agenda, First Greater Manchester’s bus fare announcements came as a surprise to its regular passengers whilst creating some good PR for our local bus operators. For what was initially a limited period, their FirstWeek ticket was cut from £17.00 to £12.00. Adult FirstDay tickets saw a 50p cut to a more keenly priced £4.00.
Plus there was news of new buses. Soon to be seen on the 81 and 81A services would be a number of leather seated single deckers. The Enviro300 vehicles would also have on-board WiFi, ideal for passing the time through the bright lights of Derker, Moston and Harpurhey.
Spring’s raft of service changes would see Oldham’s and Tameside’s ex-Bluebird routes taken over by Manchester Community Transport. The 159, 395 and 396 services would subsequently see electric hybrid Optare Solos in MCT’s new livery.
The tail end of April and start of May was ‘Catch The Bus Week’, an initiative planned by Greener Journeys with cooperation from the UK’s major bus companies. East of the M60 celebrated this with an septet of articles on classic bus routes throughout Greater Manchester.
23 May saw the opening of the Chorlton-cum-Hardy to East Didsbury section of the South Manchester Line. Shortly after, on the 29 May (a most memorable date to some in part of East of the M60 towers), Metro rider Adham Fisher navigated all 69 stations and Metrolink lines in five hours, six minutes and seventeen seconds. Operational hiccups stymied his attempt to explore the network in less than five hours.
At the start of June, Stagecoach Manchester’s Green Week was commemorated by the arrival and presentation of electric hybrid Enviro400Hs. It turned out to be a busy June for them as the end of this month saw continued fundraising efforts for St. Ann’s Hospice.
Railways also dominated the local news agenda, past and present. On the 03 June, proposed cuts by the Science Museum group would have seen the closure of any one of three Northern museums. Affected was MoSI including Liverpool Road station, the National Railway Museum in York, and the National Media Museum in Bradford. Closer to Liverpool Road, overhead line equipment would later see a fleet of ten 4-car Class 350 Electric Multiple Units. Soon to be operated by First/Keolis Transpennine Express, they would enter service in December. The cost, £60 million including motive power depots in Preston and Liverpool.
Whilst remaining with the Trans-Pennine route, the Rail Ale Trail became a victim of its success. So much so that reports of antisocial behaviour signalled a clampdown on lager loving stag do participants at Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar. As time was called on numptiness on platform four, time stood still at another corner of Stalybridge. This time, the Civic Hall’s four sided clock which displayed two different times. The cost, £5,000 – albeit unavailable.
Crowds lined the streets of Dukinfield and Ashton-under-Lyne on the 10 June, for the homecoming of the Mercian Regiment. Setting off from White Bridge up to Dukinfield Town Hall, Dukinfield’s parade was well received and resulted in a rapturous reception. Suffice to say, its town hall clock was – and remains – in full working order.
The middle of July would see the arrival of two new bus operators to the Greater Manchester area. On the 08 July, Cumfybus took over five routes in Bolton, with the 553 and 559 services curtailed. A week later, this was accompanied by Club Class Travel’s new initiative, ‘I’m a Little Gem.com’. Operating a commercial service with R-reg Dennis Darts, its first service was the 61 to Higher Blackley.
After a successful enough extension of the 18 service to Rusholme, the start of August saw First Greater Manchester set its sights onto the Wilmslow Road corridor. As part of the deal, Finglands Coachways would retain ownership of the Rusholme depot whilst offloading its stage carriage operations to FirstGroup. Coach operations would also be retained by Finglands.
From Catch The Bus Week two months before, Poynton resident Peter Deakin was the lucky winner of 28 days free bus travel on Stagecoach Manchester. He signed a pledge to replace some or all of his car journeys with bus journeys and his name was first out of hat.
Whilst on the subject of environmentally friendly transport options, a Cycle Hub opened in Ashton-under-Lyne. Part of Transport for Greater Manchester’s Velocity 2025 programme was marked by a lockable cycle shelter outside Ashton-under-Lyne’s swimming baths, which offered better facilities than the average bike shed. Today, it is one of a network of TfGM Cycle Hubs close to Metrolink, bus and rail stations in Greater Manchester.
Bus and architecture geeks were boosted by the listing of Preston Bus Station. Announced on the 23 September, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey awarded the modernist terminus Grade II Listed Building status. Though celebrated by local bus and architecture lovers, it was a source of disappointment from Preston City Council leader Councillor Rankin.
Remaining with the 1960s theme, First Greater Manchester’s paintshop was busy repainting a number of buses into heritage liveries. Mainly Volvo B9TLs along with a Volvo B7RLE, a small number would be seen in versions of pre-SELNEC era liveries. So far, FGM have yet to repaint any of their buses in Ashton-under-Lyne Corporation and SHMD Joint Board liveries. ‘Heritage buses’ of some description reached the Pioneer Depot Team’s base camp in the form of X-reg Marshall bodied Dennis Dart SLFs. These would be followed by 56-reg Plaxton bodied Dennis Dart SLFs in December.
Fast-forwarding ourselves into the 21st century would be Ashton’s first trams for 75 years, with opening scheduled for the next month.
October was a busy month as our local bus, train and tram operators prepared for the run-up to Christmas. Boldly going forward was Classic Bus North West’s new X70 service, the Red Rocket Express. Neatly timed for the Christmas Market in mid-November, it was Manchester’s first Blackpool bus service since January 2012. With a 90 minute frequency, Mercedes Citaro bendibuses and WiFi it was touted as a more affordable option than the train, though not much faster than the stopping service. In its first few weeks, the advertised Citaro was replaced by a Volvo Olympian of Volvo B10M.
In Rochdale, the 528 was among a number of Centrebus services about to be rebranded. The start of October saw Centrebus’ West Yorkshire operations under the aegis of ‘Yorkshire Tiger’. Its all orange livery, not too dissimilar to Centrebus’ bog-standard orange, white and blue, would have tiger stripes at the back of each bus.
Whilst we said ‘hello’ to one venture, we said ‘goodbye’ to Club Class Travel’s 61 service to Higher Blackley. In spite of some local support, it had operational difficulties, primarily with a service variation being knocked back. If successful, it would have terminated at Piccadilly Gardens (instead, its city centre stop was outside Shudehill Interchange rather than in the interchange itself).
On the 09 October, Ashton-under-Lyne regained her trams, with reports of a packed first journey out of Ashton. Today, Ashtonians have a less crowded rail based option, one which would prove a Godsend (albeit more crowded) during late-December’s engineering works on the former Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway line to Stalybridge.
It was a huge month for Ashton. A tenant was found for the former Marks and Spencer store in the Ladysmith Shopping Centre. The news was met with disappointment, owing to the town’s lack of high value shops, as Bargain Buys became its new occupant. Plans were unveiled to demolish Tameside MBC’s 1981 TAC building. In its place would be an all-glass Son of TAC, shared with Tameside College. Part of the deal would involve a new town centre campus on the Camp Street car park and refurbishment of its Beaufort Road campus.
In Hyde, there was also news that the Clarendon Mall’s tired multi-storey car park would be replaced by a branch of KFC; storm in a bargain bucket indeed. However, news of another shop opening was met with joy in Stalybridge. It was announced that J.W. Mettrick and Co. butchers would open a permanent shop on Melbourne Street after a successful stint in running a weekends only pop-up shop.
In the run-up to Christmas, Greater Manchester’s bus passengers were rewarded with a nice fares cut. First Greater Manchester’s FirstWeek and FirstDay reductions were made permanent, whereas System One Travelcards reduced the price of its season tickets till the 24 January 2014.
Another link with the Greater Manchester Transport era was severed in Rochdale on the 17 November. Its 1978 bus station was replaced by a more environmentally version on the banks of the River Roch. Its electrical energy is powered by an Archimedes screw in the said river. The 12 stand bus station was a real improvement on the predecessor with all stands under one roof, greater natural light and real time information displays.
Some sanity in timetable scheduling came to the 346 service. Prior to this month, the service suffered bunching issues, particularly between Newton and Dukinfield. Changes to First Greater Manchester’s journeys has meant a proper 10 minute daytime frequency (both Stagecoach Manchester and First Greater Manchester operating every 20 minutes each).
The end of November saw Stagecoach Manchester pick up two awards at the UK Bus Awards’ annual bash at the Hilton Hotel, Park Lane, London. It clinched the top prize as ‘Best UK Bus Operator’ and ‘Best City Operator’.
With the Christmas markets in full swing in Manchester city centre, Tameside people waited with baited breath as to what Ashton’s response would be. Local government cutbacks obviously meant less spending on ‘luxuries’ such as Christmas lights and clocks in Stalybridge town centre. Private finance – local businesses to be more specific – would save Stalybridge from having no Christmas lights in 2013. There was something exciting to follow, and all was revealed on the 08 December 2013.
Tick followed tock followed tock on the broken clock facing Trinity Street, Stalybridge. In the tradition of Guinness’ Surfers advert, good things came to those who waited, and even more so when Ashton-under-Lyne’s Christmas Market opened on the 08 December.
The opening day of Ashton’s Christmas Market was a great success with an estimated 7,000 people in the town centre from 1500 to 1800. Besides the market, its opening day was marked by a lantern parade, brass bands, the lights switch-on and a fireworks display, rounded off by live acts outside the Town Hall and Christmas Market site on Market Street and Fletcher Street.
It was a busy long weekend for Tameside’s shoppers with J.W. Mettrick’s Stalybridge branch opening on the 05 December. Stalybridge and Hyde M.P. Jonathan Reynolds was in attendance to cut the ribbon. Bargain Buys opened the following day with crowds flocking to the new discount store.
After three consultation meetings in the Saddleworth area, there was good news for regular passengers of the 180 and 184 services. Last year’s changes saw the 180 service to Greenfield reduced to once hourly in the daytime. First Greater Manchester, following public response has agreed to restore the 180 service to its pre-October 2012 frequency; half hourly daytimes and hourly on Sundays, evenings and Bank Holidays.
Meanwhile, in the historical County Palatine of Lancashire, it was bad news for passengers of the 80 service from Blackpool to Preston. A cashflow problem affected its operator Classic Bus North West, also of Red Rocket Express fame. From the 21 December, the mainly rural 80 service, and the X70 Red Rocket Express was suspended. At present, the Red Rocket Express is noted as being suspended till Easter, whereas the 80 and other tendered services hang in the balance. In a recent statement made on Boxing Day, it was stated that the 22 service is unaffected, being on a separate licence.
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If we were to sum up the two thousandth and thirteenth year of our Lord, In The Company of Buses in a single word, ‘flux’ would be most appropriate. Stagecoach’s acquisition of Bluebird Bus and Coach has seen greater competition on the Middleton to Manchester corridor, particularly on the 112 service. This time, JPT Travel’s 20 minute frequency versus Stagecoach’s 10 minute service. Likewise with First Greater Manchester’s 17 and 18 service, though JPT Travel’s journeys are set to be withdrawn after the 04 January 2014.
Two new operators tried and failed to cut at incumbents’ market share. Firstly, Club Class Travel, in spite of its attractive flat fares on the 61 service was squeezed by First Greater Manchester. Secondly, if Classic Bus North West’s X70 service doesn’t reappear this coming Easter, would this have been a victory for Northern Rail and First/Keolis Transpennine Express?
2013 has been a pretty good year for Cumfybus who have gained market share in Bolton. They have expanded from their core base in West Lancashire and Merseyside, picking up a few TfGM tenders. Likewise Manchester Community Transport, who have gained tenders a month after Stagecoach Manchester took over Bluebird’s operations. On the service front, it has been a pretty quiet 2013 for Tameside bus passengers, where traffic congestion was the source of service revisions.
By 2014, the tram may prove to be a sterner test to our buses. Passenger numbers seem to have picked up on the East Manchester Line, though ridership on the 216 and 231 services remain buoyant. This coming January’s opening of the Union Street section of the Oldham Rochdale line will provide greater stimulus for new and existing tram passengers in Oldham. Even so, some are staying loyal to the local bus routes, but for how long, and even more so when Greater Manchester’s Oyster imitator goes online properly in 2015?
There has been some stability to Greater Manchester’s bus network with commercial expansion buoyed by cheaper season tickets and day rovers. The subsidised network is more or less stable, though this may be affected next year as autumn’s spending review has called for a further £1billion worth of departmental cuts (which could affect TfGM and other Integrated Transport Authorities as well as other government department).
The midst of 2014 would see overhead line equipment on the ‘Old Lanky’ line from Stalybridge to Manchester Victoria. So far, nothing’s been made clear as to who’s cast-off rolling stock will be coming our way. They obviously wont be First/Keolis Transpennine Express’ spiffy Class 350s at this moment; they are diagrammed for the Anglo-Scottish workings from the 30 December 2013 onwards.
It has been said that Tameside might get a Volvo B9TL in Ashton-under-Lyne Corporation or SHMD Joint Board livery. There might be direct trains from Stalybridge to Blackpool North once the summer timetable begins in May. A Mark Four version of Ashton-under-Lyne bus station may come to fruition, though any of the three statements could be rumours.
Whatever happens, 2014 is set to be an interesting year.
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- Metrolink’s East Manchester Line and its Chorlton – East Didsbury section of the South Manchester Line;
- Rochdale’s new environmentally friendly bus station;
- I’m A Little Gem.com’s 61 service to Higher Blackley;
- Bargain Buys’ Ashton-under-Lyne branch;
- Stalybridge’s branch of J.W. Mettrick’s butchers;
- First Greater Manchester’s Enviro300s;
- Pioneer Depot Team’s X-reg Marshall bodied Dennis Dart SLFs from Rotherham;
- On-board WiFi on the 81, 81A and 192 services (and if you’re lucky, a few others: I’ve copped for it on the 383 and 408 services sometimes);
- Yorkshire Tiger;
- The Red Rocket Express X70 service from Manchester to Blackpool.
- I’m A Little Gem.com’s 61 service to Higher Blackley;
- Dukinfield’s and Audenshaw’s Community Centres;
- Road cones on Ashton New Road;
- Most of Pioneer Depot Team’s R-reg Dennis Dart SLFs;
- Essex Goodman and Suggitt’s 1978 version of Rochdale Bus Station.
Most importantly, East of the M60 wishes you all a Happy New Year. Keep calm, catch buses, and use the free WiFi on the 192 or 81 services to post pictures of cats aboard the 53. (Other bus routes and pets are available of course).
S.V., 27 December 2013.