East of the M60‘s review of the year from a public transport angle
Only one word could sum up the state of Greater Manchester’s transport system over 2015: “holes”. For the second part of 2015, the sinkhole which has emerged on Mancunian Way, set to filled by Spring of 2016. For the first half, holes in service provision thanks to local government spending cuts. The first half of 2015 was dominated by the biggest raft of cuts made to subsidised bus routes since Thatcher’s government. Dukinfield was at the sharpest end, seeing the loss of a full time link with Manchester for the first time since 1929; local services, previously half hourly in daytime were cut to once hourly.
Holes of a different kind would affect Boltonian passengers. This time, the new Farnworth tunnel which opened in early December. Unlike its previous single bore tunnels, it is a double bore one.
The middle of 2015 saw the Northern Powerhouse plans stuck at Ardwick junction, only to resurface in October. We also saw a change of rail franchisee for Northern Rail’s local trains, and a long established Lancastrian bus company ceased operations. Eventful? 2015 most definitely was!
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The biggest news this January was the future of Transport for Greater Manchester’s subsidised bus routes. Or, as was more the case, the lack of them. Following departmental cuts which affected TfGM and similar bodies, its head, Andrew Fender, was forced to make swingeing cuts to Greater Manchester’s tendered routes.
It was revealed that Oldham and Tameside bus users would be at the sharpest end of the cuts. He stated they were the worst set of cuts made since Thatcher’s government. For the people of Denton, the loss of the 317 service could have been a foretaste of what was to come after Easter.
We nearly lost a direct bus from Rochdale to Halifax via Sowerby Bridge. The 528, one of three subsidised routes slated for withdrawal by Metro West Yorkshire, had a partial reprieve. It was relaunched as the X58, albeit with cuts to Sunday and Bank Holiday journeys and its evening journeys.
On a happier note, Chorltonians were treated to the newest version of Alexander Dennis’ Enviro400 series of double decker buses. A £5 million investment from Stagecoach Manchester saw the arrival of 29 new double decker buses for the 86 service.
Fellows from the same bus company, along with counterparts from their Merseyside and South Lancashire division would also participate in a charitable cycle ride between Liverpool and Manchester. £3,000 was raised for Marie Curie Cancer Care.
After alarm bells rang over the state of Greater Manchester’s buses, a report published by the Institute of Economic Affairs saw a less rosier future for provincial train services. Within its 44 pages, Messrs Withrington and Wellings suggested that local trains should be replaced by buses and coaches. We at East of the M60 had had seen this before: Lord Sherman’s plans to turn our railways into busways back in 1983.
By the end of this year, we would find how this would be at odds with the new Northern franchisee’s mandate. Also launched that year was a new user-led transport planning app known as Moovit. With details of bus, train and tram routes, February saw the addition of Manchester to its UK version. This would be the first city outside of London. At this time of writing, all the major metropolitan areas of the UK are covered.
The Spring of 2015 was an ideal time for energy conservation as Stagecoach Manchester drivers signed up to an eco-friendly driving scheme. Known as The GreenRoad Fleet Elite Performance Scheme, its 473 drivers took a year long training course in improving fuel efficiency and safer driving. This also included smoother braking with the system checking 120 driving manoeuvres.
The end of March saw Transport for Greater Manchester meet up to discuss the shape of the conurbation’s tendered routes. This would see the cessation of evening services, reductions to daytime services, and the usual operator revisions. April’s changes would be the most perverse in recent memory.
The Mother of All Service Changes had a perverse effect on Tameside’s regular bus users. Changes after Easter 2015 saw:
- The loss of the 220’s evening journeys;
- Local routes cut from half hourly to once hourly;
- Significant gains from FirstGroup and Stagecoach by MCT Travel.
As stated in our detailed rundowns of service changes, this left Heyrod without buses after 6.30pm. Dukinfield’s link with Manchester city centre was scaled down to three return journeys in the weekday peaks. The 41 service from Tennyson Avenue, which had lost patronage due to roadworks at Oldham Road and ASDA roundabout, was cut to once hourly.
Throughout Oldham and Tameside, third sector operator MCT Travel (hitherto known as Manchester Community Transport) took over a significant chunk of tendered journeys. Most notably, they became the sole operators of the 217 (taking over from S&S Travel Services), Dukinfield’s 41 service (from First Greater Manchester), and took over odd journeys of the 353, 354 and 408 routes.
Regular passengers of the 408 were hard done by as swingeing cuts not only saw its link with Dukinfield and Droylsden severed. Daytime journeys between Oldham and Stalybridge were discontinued, with the 408 having a better service at evenings, Sundays and Bank Holidays along its full route from Shaw to Stalybridge. Also of note was First Greater Manchester’s Dukinfield garage reducing its take up of evening journeys, the bulk of which would continue in July.
The Gee Cross section of the 389‘s evening service became part of the 343 route. Also of note with the Easter tenders was how costs were minimised, with each tender forming part of a package of routes. Hence Stagecoach’s gains on the 343, 348 and 350 routes (all at FirstGroup’s expense).
Following April’s gloom, the gloom was compounded in many parts of the North by the election of a full-fat Conservative government on the 07 May. Even with the threat of UKIP and the perceived unpopularity of Ed Miliband, the Labour vote east of the M60 motorway was strengthened.
With the Tories back in office, the spectre of more spending cuts loomed large. In spite of this, May 2015 was a good month for the four millionth passenger of Stagecoach’s X50 service. It was also a good one for another third sector bus operator. On arrival at the intu Trafford Centre, Bako Noori (20), boarded his X50 bus at Piccadilly Gardens. After alighting, he was serenaded by saxophonists playing Pharrell Williams’ smash hit, Happy. He was also the lucky recipient of a £200 gift card.
Over at Uppermill, South Pennine Community Transport launched a new service from Holmfirth to Uppermill. Numbered 352, it offers a fast link to Saddleworth via the Isle of Skye Road (the A635 passing Dovestones Reservoir), approaching Uppermill via Greenfield. The service, originally summer only with three return journeys, was retained and became an all round service. The Holmfirth based community interest company would launch another three routes in Autumn of 2015.
After a long wait, the 11 May saw the restoration of direct trains from Manchester to Burnley. The opening of the Todmorden Curve saw the extension of Northern Rail’s stopping service to Rochdale via Moston towards Todmorden, and Burnley Manchester Road. Continuing to Blackburn, the 500 yard chord reinstates a rail link lost in 1970.
The end of June saw many of us seeing what Northern Powerhouse really meant. Instead of being concrete, we saw it as a cheap electioneering gimmick. On the 26 June, plans to upgrade the Trans-Pennine routes were just that: plans. Another set of plans which, in the words of Barnsley Central MP Michael Dugher sees “the government’s total failure to deliver a fit-for-purpose railway… completely and damningly exposed”.
On that announcement, it seemed that Northern England would be cursed with the dreaded Pacers for eternity. Fast forward six months on, we learn otherwise. The plans were paused for “not being bold enough”, in the words of Transport Minister Patrick McLoughlin MP (Conservative, Derbyshire Dales).
On a smaller though significant scale, Park Parade was remodelled. In place of its roundabouts beside ASDA and the BT telephone exchange, came a complex set of junctions. Within Ashton-under-Lyne, Stalybridge and Mossley motorists face a circuitous trek throughout its byzantine layout of junctions.
In the bus scene, there was little to report on the service front. Firstly, the Saddleworth area saw some tweaks to the X80, 180 and 184 services. Secondly, FirstGroup continued its retrenchment from evening services at Dukinfield garage. The 205 and 346 evening services – operated by FirstGroup for most of 2015 – were taken over by Stagecoach Manchester.
The most notable bus development was the forthcoming Tameside Interchange. Consultation began in July over the future design of Ashton’s fourth purpose-built bus station. Due for completion in 2019, the new look bus station will be closer to the tram stop with a mix of smaller stands as well as waiting facilities within a single terminal.
Almost eight weeks after the Northern Snub, Northern Rail were on the verge of losing its Class 323 EMUs. The Hunslet TPL built electric trains, as reported on East of the M60, were being moved to Birmingham along with its fellows on Centro PTE funded local routes. This was met with scorn as the modern trains would be replaced by further Class 319s from Greater London.
The news also laid bare the flaws of rail privatisation where the franchisee has little or no control over its rolling stock. Regular readers and rail enthusiasts would have known for some time that most of Britain’s trains are owned by bankers. In other words, it is the banks who run the leasing companies that Northern Rail and the like pay to lease the trains from.
The end of this month saw a return to normal bus timetables on some routes after six weeks of Summer Timetables. More permanent changes were made in Saddleworth to the 353 service. Before the 31 August, it terminated at Carrcote, giving residents on Palin Wood Drive an hourly service on the 353 and 354 routes. From then on, the 353 was curtailed to terminate at Dobcross. The present weekday and Saturday service continues to the main village before returning to Ashton after turning left at the former Woolpack public house.
This month, we learned how the law of unintended consequences can take the timetable planner by surprise and give the fellow an almighty slap on the chops. Shortly after the cessation of summer timetables, sinkholes would set the news agenda for the last three months of 2015.
Most perverse is the one on Mancunian Way, and a second one close by on Paddock Street. Whereas the latter hole has been filled, the former continues to cause much grief to this day, with major repairs due for completion in Spring 2016. Needless to say it is having a grave effect on the 219 and 221 services.
On the buses, the biggest story of September was the launch of Change Vouchers on First Greater Manchester services. On some occasions, the passenger is given a Change Voucher if there isn’t enough change on the driver’s float.
October was a mixed month for bus operations with the saddest news coming from Leyland. The 24 October saw the demise of J. Fishwick and Son’s operations, after 108 years of service in Central Lancashire. The company, being family run for over a century was noted also for its experimental Leyland buses, which came from its much larger neighbour.
On a happier note, the fortunes of South Pennine Community Transport were on the up as they launched new services from Holmfirth to Glossop and Ashton-under-Lyne. The Glossop service has two return journeys on a Friday via Torside and Holme Moss, with the Ashton-under-Lyne being a single return journey on Thursdays. They are numbered 351 and X50 respectively. Commemorating this, East of the M60 made a network map detailing all its services.
Fulfilling the ugly category was changes to Stagecoach Manchester’s 346 service. From the end of October, their daytime journeys were extended to Tameside Hospital. On the downside, their daytime service was cut from every 20 minutes to every 30 minutes. Over in Leigh, their X34 and 34 services was relaunched with Simon Cowell and Olly Murs lookalikes.
Almost a year on from the opening of the Airport Line, Metrolink gave Oldham and Shaw tram users a lovely Christmas present. Pencilled in for the following month, and neatly coinciding with part of Manchester’s Christmas Market, was the opening of Exchange Square station.
Sadly, no Christmas cheer was due for Greater Manchester’s bus users. The Mancunian Way sinkhole repairs were scheduled for a Spring 2016 deadline. Returning for another mission that month was Catch22Bus, Classic Bus North West’s successors. Now numbered X70, the Red Rocket Express was relaunched with extra journeys from Manchester to Preston.
Taking November to an enjoyable climax was a triple bill of festive films at Stagecoach Manchester’s Park and Ride site in Hazel Grove. Raising £2,300 for Genesis Breast Cancer Prevention, the temporary drive-in cinema showed Frozen, How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Elf.
Remaining on the subject of the 192 service, the start of November saw Stagecoach Manchester saying goodbye to its Volvo B10M single deckers. A special running day saw extra journeys operated with the step entrance buses, with takings going to charity.
What could we say about December 2015 other than the fact it was a tough one in the company of Greater Manchester’s bus routes. Probably more interesting than the previous 11 months.
The most notable story was a change of rail franchisee. Early this month, the Department for Transport awarded the Northern rail franchise to Arriva/DB Regio. Under the name of Arriva Rail North, the terms are considerably better than those awarded to Serco/Abellio. These include the arrival of new trains and the replacement of Pacer units with refurbished diesel trains. None of which being Vivarail’s D-Trains, converted from D78 District Line rolling stock.
Furthermore, First/Keolis retained its Transpennine Express franchise. Again with new trains. Both franchisees, would benefit from smart ticketing methods. All will be revealed by April 2016, though improvements will be seen midway through their eight year terms.
Over at Hyde Road, a full page apology was printed in the Manchester Evening News by Christopher Bowles, Stagecoach Manchester chief. He apologised for the late running of his services caused by poorly phased traffic lights and the Mancunian Way sinkhole. Journey times on Ashton Old Road buses, courtesy of the traffic, had been extended by 15 to 20 minutes in peak hours. For example, the 0719 journey of the 221 from Albion Hotel, Dukinfield, would arrive in Manchester for half past eight – 19 minutes later than its expected arrival time.
On the rails, the Exchange Square Metrolink station opened early this month. Passengers from Shaw to Manchester Victoria would see a tram every six minutes during daytimes. The 14 December also saw the opening of the new Farnworth Tunnel. As a consequence, Stalybridge’s direct link with Salford and Bolton was reinstated.
At this time of writing, with five days of December spare, we have read of another sinkhole on the M62 between Rochdale and Heywood. Plus news of severe floods which have affected the northern part of Greater Manchester, most notably on the Irwell, Irk and Roch valleys. 2016 could well be the year of tying up 2015’s loose ends. But with a reduced budget and more cuts to come, it is time to get strapped in.
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For Greater Manchester’s rail users, 2016 is set to be a year of great transition. By April, there may be many commuters who are happy to see the backs of the outgoing Northern franchisees. More than anything (though the Class 323s will be going in 2017 rather than 2016), some clarity. In Transpennine land, business as usual in the foreseeable future.
On the trams, we should expect to see the Second City Crossing’s completion, and the possibility of trams from Shaw to Manchester Airport. By then, the teething troubles of GetMeThere should have been ironed out.
As for buses, well… the prognosis doesn’t seem to be that good unless you’re going to use the new Leigh Busway. We expect to see more of the same chopping and changing to our network, some of it not always for the better. Cuts to Department for Transport funding for minor projects could see money available for 20+ stand bus stations though no shelter on the Hyde/Mossley stop at the Albion Hotel.
By the end of 2016, there may be a higher take up on electronic ticketing systems, though I think cash will be king on the buses till 2017. We shall expect to see the present Ashton bus station ready for its partial demolition and details of temporary stands. Heck, there might even by more than six trams per hour between Ashton and the Etihad Campus.
Whatever happens, 2016 is going to make for interesting reading. If you thought 2015 was had its highs and lows, next year could be 2015 turned up to 11. Not necessarily for the right reasons perhaps.
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- Exchange Square Metrolink station;
- A new roof over Manchester Victoria station;
- New Enviro400s in Chorlton;
- Plans for Ashton’s new bus station;
- 263 and 575 services’ Sapphire status.
- J. Fishwick and Sons;
- Volvo B10Ms on stage carriage services;
- First Greater Manchester on the 343 service;
- Evening journeys on the 220, 338, 353 and 354 routes;
- S&S Travel Services’ operations on the 217 and 418 services.
Most importantly, East of the M60 wishes you all a Happy New Year. Whatever you do, support your local bus route, refrain from placing your bag on the next seat during peak hours, and here’s to 2016.
S.V., 26 December 2015.