The Road Least Travelled: The 535 to Winter Hill

Our look at a largely overlooked Bolton bus route

UK Coachways T806 RFG
Seen pulling in to Bolton Moor Lane Bus Station is T806 RFG, an East Lancashire bodied Dennis Trident. Photograph by Ian Roberts (Creative Commons License – Attribution Non-Commercial)

Winter Hill. It is a place that conjures up images of local radio and television. It is the de facto County Top of Granadaland where Granada’s pictures could be picked up as far as North Wales and part of Staffordshire. It is also great for exploring Rivington Pike and Lever Park.

There is one problem besides the weather. Its nearest buses are a fair distance away from the hill itself and nearby Rivington Pike. There’s the regular 125 service from Horwich and a fair walk. Another bus takes you closer to Winter Hill, but rocking horse excrement can be easier to find.

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The 535: Bolton to Belmont

Ironically, the terminus of Winter Hill’s closest bus route shares its name with another transmitter location. The Belmont transmitter used for Yorkshire Television’s southern extremities covering Lincolnshire and Humberside.

Thanks to recent spending cuts, the 535 service had been reduced to three return journeys in August 2015. With continued campaigning, its off-peak journeys have been augmented with peak hour journeys. This took effect last month.

From Bolton, its first bus departs at 0730, an improvement on the August 2015 timetable when the first bus departed at 0930. In the reverse direction from Belmont, 0752 on schooldays (or 0758 on school holidays and Saturdays).

The service is around every two hours on Mondays to Saturdays. There is, alas for walkers, no Sunday and Bank Holiday journeys. Its last buses leave Belmont at 1746 (a marked improvement on 1358), and Bolton at 1718 (which, before late October was 1330).

Today’s journeys are mainly operated by UK Coachways. Their Horwich depot was formerly home to Blue Bus (taken over by Arriva in August 2005) and the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway.

Exceptions to these are the schooldays only journeys leaving Belmont at 0752 and 1511, the 1627 journey from Astley Bridge ASDA Supermarket, and two journeys from Bolton (0732 from Black Horse Street, 1445 from Moor Lane Bus Station). These are operated by Tyrers, Adlington.

Recent History

Before 2012, the 535 service formed part of an alternative route to Blackburn from Bolton. This was operated by Blackburn with Darwen Transport, who in later years would be privatised and sold to Transdev.

Then it was split at Belmont with the 535 running between Belmont and Bolton. The 223 would operate from Blackburn to Belmont with three return journeys. 2012 saw fundamental changes where Belmont’s link with Blackburn was severed. Arriva North West took over the 535 service, but its Sunday and Bank Holiday journeys were withdrawn.

In August 2015, Arriva North West wanted out, with the lifeline service under threat. Instead of total withdrawal, which would have seen the people of Belmont’s bus users cut off from Greater Manchester, a limited service of three return journeys was retained.

The cuts attracted the attention of Bolton councillor Warren Fox (Liberal Democrats), who set up a Facebook page entitled The Battle Against Bolton Bus Cuts. This has proved to be a useful source for downtrodden bus using Boltonians.

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Looking at the big picture over the last three decades, the people of Bolton have been done over by bus deregulation. Some might say the town’s proliferation of bus owning groups amounts to sensible competition. The Bolton Council boundary alone has Transdev, FirstGroup, Stagecoach, Arriva and Rotala, and a smattering of independents. An embodiment of fragmentation unlike the continuity offered by municipal operations, the National Bus Company subsidiaries and Lancashire United Transport.

Over 50 years ago, Bolton Transport, under the mercurial leadership of Ralph Bennett, introduced a clean, modern image. Its one man operated East Lancashire bodied Leyland Atlanteans were the forerunner of Manchester City Transport’s Mancunian style buses. They also set the standard for modern bus design well in to the 1990s (and they look more modern than the Wright bodied NB4L vehicles).

Bolton (and most certainly Belmont) would benefit from a regulated bus network and the return of cross-subsidisation (where busy routes could cross-subsidise lesser used routes as in Mainland Europe). The cuts inflicted on the 223 and 535 services may be a microcosm of present operations. However, you can learn a lot about the state of bus deregulation in these six return journeys.

You can also learn a lot about the state of Bolton’s overcrowded trains, which explains why its Manchester buses have been in a state of flux for nearly 20 years.

S.V., 13 November 2015.

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