How East of the M60 thinks a Transport for London style One Hour Hopper could work in the Greater Manchester City Region
Travelling in and around Greater Manchester by bus can be a patchy experience, with new buses on trunk routes, and pensionable buses away from key routes. As well as commercially-funded projects and the Vantage services along the Leigh Guided Busway, there is little sense of continuity. Apart from multi-operator tickets, the network is fragmented with, for example, First Greater Manchester having a fiefdom in Oldham. Likewise with Stagecoach Manchester dominating South Manchester and Stockport.
As mentioned a few times on this blog, this is thanks in part to the 1985 Transport Act and the dogma of competition along bus routes. Service buses compete with private cars, commuter rail services, and light rail systems. There is also competition from private hire minicab companies and, in more recent times, Uber’s network of low-cost cabs.
Multi-system season tickets and regular day rover tickets are great for regular travellers. By regular, I mean anybody who gets the bus to and from work or school five days a week. He or she is likely to use the same pass for social activities, shopping, or medical appointments. Stagecoach, First, Arriva, or whoever else operates their buses gets a steady flow of passengers onto their routes. With a multi-system pass, the money goes (in Greater Manchester terms, for the purpose of this post) straight to System One Travelcards through their website. Or via the TfGM Travelshop or a convenience store.
Where Greater Manchester’s buses can be an expensive option, is among occasional travellers on short distance trips. A journey from Stalybridge railway station to Bower Fold (home of The Mighty Stalybridge Celtic of course) is £2.40 on the 237. With two or three adults, a walk to Cavalier Radio Cars’ office and a cab works out cheaper (unless you call in The White House pub opposite). The journey time is 10 minutes. It is fairly steep for individual passengers, with the operator’s Day Rider ticket a cheaper option for return journeys.
You could be forgiven for thinking that occasional short distance passengers are helping to drive down season ticket prices. Or that short distance fares seem to be pitched at a higher price point, to improve the attractiveness of day rovers and season tickets. Passengers most likely to be stung by the fares may be on zero hour contracts, where the operator may change at certain times of the day.
From my observations, and owing to the traffic in Greater Manchester, I have seen some differences in bus usage in the City Region. On trunk routes, the average journey tends to be short distance; around 1.5 to 3 miles. Some passengers might do the full length of, say the 216 from Piccadilly to Ashton-under-Lyne. Many tend to board between Manchester and Clayton, or Droylsden to Ashton. In other words, the 216 is a best option for short distance journeys owing to its frequency. Not least some of the stops, which are between those on the parallel Metrolink service. For longer distance journeys, the train or car tends to come out on top.
Using the 350 service as another example, the average journey length per passenger (from my observations) seems to be around 5 miles. Which, for example, covers a trip from Delph to Greenfield; or Greenfield to Ashton-under-Lyne. Each of the example journeys can be done in less than half an hour.
The cost of each journey covered on the 216 and 350 routes are considerably more than the £1.50 proposed for a one hour ‘hopper’ ticket. £1.50 wouldn’t even cover the child fare on a 350 between Ashton and Greenfield. Another difference is the fact that Transport for London’s adult fares are subsidised. The fares set by operators outside of TfL boundaries, are not.
Pidgeon’s coup: the One Hour Hopper ticket
For some time, Greater London’s Liberal Democrats have been campaigning for cheaper short distance fares. The driver of this scheme is the Greater London Assembly’s Lib Dem leader, Caroline Pidgeon.
Pidgeon’s One Hour Hopper ticket would allow unlimited travel on London’s buses for 60 minutes. The suggested price is £1.50 which, I assume, would be topped up onto an Oyster Card or its successors. With London having a wealth of frequent trunk routes, it could put some pressure off the Tube.
Furthermore, Caroline’s plans have been picked up by the new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. This is part of a wider plan to freeze TfL fares for four years. Though Greater Manchester’s buses lack the frequencies, budgets and patronage of its London counterparts, a One Hour Hopper ticket could work very well. The answer lies in the geography of the Greater Manchester City Region.
How a One Hour Hopper ticket could work in Greater Manchester
If you look at many of Greater Manchester’s bus routes, the average distance from start to finish is about nine miles. There are some routes like the 184 and the 343 that are over 15 miles in length (the latter is 16 miles). The average for Manchester-bound buses is around 12 miles – about the same distance as the 180 service from Piccadilly to Greenfield [Clarence Hotel]. For short distance services (circular and local radial routes), around three miles. Many of which, less than half an hour on the full route.
The short distance route is also a ‘stepping stone’ to trunk routes or other modes of transport for part of a longer journey. With fares favouring longer distances or heavy bus users, and cars being a cheaper option for short trips, going to the next town is less viable on the bus than a longer trip. £1.50, in Greater Manchester is about two to five stops at 2016 prices.
Greater Manchester’s compact size and the proximity of its neighbouring towns can be both a blessing and a curse. In bus terms, it should be a blessing as modest distances between populated areas should make for good bus territory. Owing to the conurbation’s expensive bus fares, it is a blessing for taxi companies, if more than two people travel together. On the other hand, it is possible to walk from one town to another if the buses are problematic.
A One Hour Hopper Ticket would work well in Greater Manchester for occasional users. Once the GetMeThere system begins allowing for single journeys, the Hopper ticket (perhaps we ought to call it Dennis) could be topped up online or at a TfGM Travelshop, then activated on checking in via the machine. He or she may need to check out on alighting; if their outward journey is 10 minutes, they have another fifty minutes to play with before topping up again.
Here’s how the process could work:
- Passenger tops up GetMeThere card at either the TfGM Travelshop, convenience store, or online;
- His or her Hopper ticket is activated on scanning their GetMeThere card;
- On exit, he or she checks out before leaving the bus;
- The amount of minutes that he or she has left may be dependent on journeys taken. If their journey took ten minutes, another fifty minutes is left over. Supposing their regular bus to the railway station or tram is exactly ten minutes long, that’s another five journeys left;
- The amount of minutes used up could fluctuate in accordance to traffic conditions. A peak hour journey could be more expensive.
If priced at the same level as a short distance single fare (for example, £2.30 on First Greater Manchester’s 346 journeys from Dukinfield [Albion Hotel] to Ashton), there would still be sufficient savings for short distance passengers. Using £2.30 as an example (rather than TfL’s £1.50), a trip to Oldham from Dukinfield could be a steal if s/he changes at Ashton for the 409. The present going rate is more than a fiver on an Any Bus Day Saver ticket.
From Ashton-under-Lyne, an hour’s bus travel can take you to…:
- Rochdale, with 10 minutes to spare after boarding the 409;
- Manchester, with at least 20 minutes to spare on the 216 or 219. Or 10 minutes to spare on the 217 (forget the 231 via Tameside Hospital). Not so good in the peaks or during Manchester City’s home matches.
- Denshaw, on the limited 354 service. With ten minutes to spare;
- Hattersley, either on the direct yet meandering 387 service, or by catching a 330 and changing at Hyde for the 201;
- Stockport, on the 330 or the 7 services.
From Ashton-under-Lyne, it isn’t only possible to travel to most parts of the borough in less than an hour by bus. If traffic conditions are good, Manchester, Stockport, Oldham, Shaw and Rochdale are possible. With Tameside being a compact borough with its nine towns close together, it is ideally placed to support One Hour Hopper Tickets. It is possible to get to Tameside Hospital by bus from some parts of the borough in less than an hour.
Advantages of a One Hour Hopper Ticket
- Best for occasional bus users on low incomes;
- Cheaper fares on short distance journeys – i.e., Mossley to Dukinfield, or Mumps Bridge to Fitton Hill;
- (If using the System One network) All the flexibility of an Any Bus Day Saver with changes of operator and breaks of journey permitted;
- Scope for use on existing stored purchase cards like GetMeThere, Popcard and Walrus passes;
- Potential for mobile phone tickets.
Disadvantages of a One Hour Hopper Ticket
- Can be sensitive to traffic conditions: prices may be higher in the rush hour;
- Best used on frequent services: penalises meandering routes – especially if no alternative is available;
- Mobile phone-based Hopper ticket validity could be cut short if battery runs out on device.
What do you think?
Could a London style One Hour Hopper ticket be a boon for Greater Manchester’s bus users? Would £1.50 or £2.30 be a suitable price for an hour’s travel by bus (other suggested rates are welcome)? Should One Hour Hopper tickets be called Dennis? Feel free to comment.
S.V., 12 May 2016.