East of the M60 on a possible gloomy outlook for Greater Manchester’s subsidised routes
The last two years have been pretty good for Greater Manchester’s bus users. First Greater Manchester and Stagecoach Manchester have introduced new vehicles, either with electric-hybrid engines or free WiFi. Elsewhere, System One Travelcards have held the prices of their season tickets till April of this year. Patronage has increased; given the profit motive in today’s operations, it is most obviously trunk routes like the 330, 409 or 192 which have prospered.
Besides the above rosy picture, the bread and butter of the local bus network isn’t only trunk routes like the 330 or the 409, but short distance routes to the next town centre. Quite a few do pretty nicely, whereas some, owing to the strategic importance of that route, are subsidised at local government level. In our case, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority via Transport for Greater Manchester, with a precept on the Council Tax bills of our ten Borough Councils.
Some of the services which need subsidising offer important links to work, shops, healthcare facilities and public houses. Without these links, our pubs, shops and clinics may close. Our residents may be unable to work, unless they have access to private transport. One example is the 343 service, which links up with six comprehensive schools and academies (Hyde Technology School, All Saints Catholic College, Astley Sports College, Copley Academy, Mossley Hollins and Bluecoat School).
Now imagine if our network is devoid of 343s, which not only link us to the above facilities but also other modes of transport and trunk bus routes. Like the train to Huddersfield, the tram to Shaw and Crompton, or the 409 to Rochdale. If the 343s of this world go, here’s why:
“We can therefore be confident in reducing the contingency reserve by £1 billion this year and reducing departmental budgets by a similar amount in the next two years.
“This will save a further £3 billion in total.”
– George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer (Autumn Statement, 04 December 2013)
By departmental budgets, we mean in this context Integrated Transport Authorities, or more specifically to this article, Transport for Greater Manchester. In this case, TfGM from the new financial year will be faced with a budget cut of £7.1 million over two years. A cut of £710,000 per council, resulting in Transport for Greater Manchester having to make savings of £19 million. Therefore, the cuts will mean:
- Fewer subsidised journeys;
- Cuts to school bus routes;
- Cutbacks to Metroshuttle frequencies;
- Discontinued disability and elderly discounts on Ring and Ride services.
TfGM’s subsidised network
The most negative, and unfortunately necessary step are cuts to the subsidised network. How they will be cut is unclear; this could mean the end of evening journeys, Sunday and Bank Holiday services, retaining a full time service at a reduced frequency, withdrawal or revision. In a Dukinfield context, this could mean (though not for definite we hope):
- The withdrawal of evening 220 journeys and its replacement by evening journeys of the 217/218 – in line with Sunday and Bank Holiday frequencies;
- The 343’s evening, Sunday and Bank Holiday service adopting the daytime route albeit with a 90 – 120 minute frequency;
- The 41 service cut to once hourly all day long, albeit with bigger buses. Or, with the daytime journeys being half hourly on a commercial basis;
- Withdrawal of 338 service from Ashton to Crowhill, covered by extended 41 service – in line with present daytime route;
- No evening journeys on the 345 and 346 services and possible replacement by LocalLink Demand Responsive Transport service for affected sections.
In Dukinfield, there is only one route which doesn’t require subsidy from TfGM: the 330 from Stockport to Ashton. The 41, 217, 218 and 343 services are fully subsidised, with the last three providing an important link to Stalybridge from the bottom and middle parts of Dukinfield. The 335 and 345 – also fully subsidised – provide Dukinfield residents with a link to Denton, and like the 217 and 218, a valued link if Tameside’s new leisure centre opens off Cemetery Road, Shepley (necessary as Dukinfield’s and Denton’s swimming baths may be replaced by the new facility).
Partially subsidised – though only at evenings – is the 346. In the last two years, its Sunday and Bank Holiday daytime journeys have been operated on a commercial basis.
As well as the freeze in council funding, subsidies have also been affected by the cut in Fuel Rebate in 2012. In the last fifteen years, the dominance of the big bus owning groups have pushed the price of tenders upwards. This has become more marked since FirstGroup’s recent takeover of Finglands, Stagecoach’s acquisitions of A. Mayne and Son’s Bullocks’ and Bluebird’s stage carriage routes, and Arriva’s of Blue Bus.
In fact, this trend was noted by former GMPTE head Councillor Roger Jones. The Spring 2001 edition of Buses Focus stated how the bigger companies have pushed up tender prices, with the smaller operators being frozen out. One casualty of this was the evening 217 service which saw its Ashton to Droylsden section discontinued. The contract, held by UK North, saw the evening service reduced to a 90 minute frequency. Mayne’s evening journeys of the 220 had its link to Stalybridge discontinued, with the terminus moving to the top of Boyd’s Walk. As a consequence, the 90 minute frequency became a hourly one.
Compared with 2001, or even 1991, our schooling system is more fragmented than ever. You could safely say it resembles the Greater Manchester bus scene of 1989. Instead, our metaphorical Bee Lines and Citibuses are academies and free schools – both autonomous of local authority provision, though regulated and funded by the Department for Education. One result, possibly more red tape involved in the procurement of school bus services.
Furthermore, some councils may leave the academies to sort out their own school buses, but fares may be higher than TfGM’s concessionary rates. In fact, some schools outside of council control already do, and it probably wont be a matter of time till New Charter’s academies start ferrying their children in bright blue Dennis Tridents. There’s also a likelihood that the cost of hiring school buses to the schools could rise.
Back in 1974, the predecessor of our Metroshuttle service was launched as a precursor to the arrival of the Picc-Vic tunnel. The 4 Centreline service linked Piccadilly and Victoria stations and originally intended as a stopgap, charging an exact fare of 2p. As years advanced, Picc-Vic didn’t go ahead and instead, Metrolink fulfilled a similar cheap option at ground level.
Somehow, the stopgap became a pretty successful one, with the Seddon Pennine IVs replaced by Dennis Domino midibuses. However, by 2000, Bluebird Bus and Coach operated some journeys with Mercedes Varios. By 2002, the routes were reviewed, becoming today’s Metroshuttle service. Instead of cash fares, thanks also to some funding from the Spinningfields developers, they became free buses. A move which turned out to be successful.
Again, it is unclear as to how cuts will be made to the Metroshuttle. I would say, the most likely outcome may be a reduced frequency, though this would be unattractive given the hop-on-hop-off nature the present service offers. Or, they could retain existing frequencies and reintroduce a flat fare, this time being a £1.00 for all classes. However, to assuage some passengers from the flat fare fears, the Metroshuttle should remain free of charge to anyone producing a valid rail ticket with ‘Manchester CtrlZ’ printed on its destination.
Ring and Ride
For many people unable to use conventional public transport, Ring and Ride is a sound option. It offers a cheaper alternative to the taxi or minicab and is augmented by local Community Transport schemes. The main Ring and Ride service is operated by Greater Manchester Accessible Transport Limited, a non-profit organisation.
Departmental cuts will see a loss of almost £700,000 of support to GMATL. This is being met by a loss of discounts and the abolition of pre-booking on weekends. This was met with dismay by a spokesperson from the Civil Service Pensioners Alliance and Flick Harris, chairperson of the Manchester Disabled People’s Access Group.
Some critics may argue that Ring and Ride may have suffered from the introduction of low floor buses. That may be true to some extent, though missing the point by a long way off. Some people who use Ring and Ride are not only elderly persons or people with physical disabilities. Its passengers also include people with severe learning difficulties or sensory impairments who are uncomfortable with the bus, train or tram.
In the next two years, expect to see greater use of the Community Transport schemes. However, I feel that owing to the cuts made to Ring and Ride, the smaller scale groups will be stretched.
* * *
Where Do We Go From Here?
In a nutshell, if you happen to live on the side of a trunk bus route, or better still, near a tram or railway station, the proposed changes may have no impact on your travel requirements.
It is also worth noting that 89% of Greater Manchester’s bus mileage comprises of commercial routes. In other words, services able to stand up on their own six tyres. Residents devoid of private transport (car, bike, Segway or skateboard) in more peripheral areas – are stuffed. In poor areas, it is a barrier to accessing employment as well as cheaper food in neighbouring towns. Unless of course there is sufficient resources to provide a partial or full replacement. So far, there is no reference as to how the budget settlement affects local Metroshuttles and LocalLink Demand Responsive Travel services.
Where cuts are made to conventional bus services, there should be other ways around to ameliorate any difficulties. Subsidised services could consider guaranteed connections with trunk bus routes, rail and tram services. This should apply if a subsidised service shadows a commercial service along part of its route. For instance, with the 217/218 Sunday service, advertised connections with for example the 350 to Mossley and Micklehurst. Or, Millbrook and Carrbrook with the 343 and 348. Perhaps the Stalybridge terminus could eschew the bus station in favour of the forecourt of Stalybridge railway, offering the benefit of rail connections to West Yorkshire, Merseyside and city centre Manchester.
Perhaps the above proposal should be the way to go, similar to a scheme where Tyne and Wear PTE – prior to deregulation – had its bus services terminating at nearside Metro stations. Passengers would continue their journey to Newcastle or Gateshead via the Tyne and Wear Metro. This reduced congestion into Newcastle-upon-Tyne and led to a truly integrated network. Plus, this was in the era of waiting 14 minutes for a computer game to load instead of mere seconds to load the latest infuriating arcade game onto one’s smartphone!
In the age of the smartphone, this could work in Greater Manchester, but not before TfGM’s Get Me There is fully implemented across all three modes of transport. Applying the Novocastrian principle, our passenger could board his or her 217 from Dukinfield, check in with their GMT pass, alight at Droylsden, board a tram to Eccles and check out at the end of their journey.
In the long term, we should also be looking at making socially necessary public transport a public sector enterprise. Possibly an organisation called DOB (Directly Operated Buses) which could be a modern day equivalent to Directly Operated Railways. It could be answerable to the Integrated Transport Authorities, plus the South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester Combined Authorities. Instead of a standard livery, each ITA’s or CA’s DOB could adopt their own liveries.
Perhaps in our area we could call it something imaginative like ‘Greater Manchester Transport’. And bring back the 1981 white, orange and brown livery too.
In the short term, the future of Greater Manchester’s tendered bus network lies in the grasp of George Osborne and ultimately the Department for Transport. At present, there are few facilities besides the City Deals where local authorities can raise extra funds. As one local government employee said somewhere, it was easier trying to raise funds from China than in Whitehall.
If Labour return to power in May 2015 – and in the run-up to the election, it is time for the people of Greater Manchester to demand a fairer deal from the Local Government Settlement. One where all cuts made since the 11 May 2010 are rolled back. One where the bus network could return to its present shape even [from May 2015]. One where greater power is shifted to Greater Manchester than in Westminster.
All of the above would be a greater financial stimulus. How on earth can we be ‘open for business’ if the VAT rise has seen a triple dip recession? Or one where the country’s economic boom is judged by overheating property prices in London and South East England at the expense of everywhere else in the UK?
In the meantime, we need to try and save our local bus routes. Among a multitude of other things we have tried to save in the last four years. This is not only about the loss of one or more routes, this is also a public health and economic issue. In the former, linking up communities and enabling bus users to maintain healthy wellbeing by being able to access local sports facilities or by travelling for pleasure with friends or alone. In the latter, less chance of employment, more chance of DWP sanctions due to inadequate services, and reduced spending power.
* * *
If you are concerned about the above subject detailed in East of the M60‘s latest instalment of Cuts Scene Investigation:
- Contact your local M.P. in writing;
- Express your concerns in writing to your local councillor or to Transport for Greater Manchester’s offices (chances are, your local councillor may be your borough’s TfGM representative);
- Share this blog post far and wide;
- Feel free to comment on this blog post in the usual fashion of course;
- Inspire your fellow bus passenger friends to engage in a social media campaign to save your local bus route, Ring and Ride facility or School Bus.
- Bus Cuts: The Map: Campaign for Better Transport’s map of proposed bus cuts for 2014, based on data from their 2013 Buses in Crisis report;
- Buses in Crisis: Campaign for Better Transport’s 2013 report on cutbacks affecting the UK’s bus network;
- Transport for Greater Manchester: a most useful website for details of service changes, timetables and other services supported by TfGM;
- Greater Manchester Combined Authority: corporate website of GMCA. Includes policy details and a wealth of other strategies.
S.V., 10 February 2014.