First Retreat: Could a Greater Manchester Depot Closure Be Next?

Second half slump in 2015 – 16 revenue growth could see First Greater Manchester down to five depots

Taking ad-Vantage of the sunshine in Leigh, Lancashire.
The Modern Face of First Greater Manchester: the last word in comfort lies in First Greater Manchester’s operations on the Leigh Guided Busway, under contract to Transport for Greater Manchester. Though results from the new scheme have yet to be unveiled, the company has seen a drop in growth for its 2015-16 third and fourth quarter figures.

Exceptionally wet weather, congestion and the rise of online shopping have been blamed for FirstGroup’s recent drop in revenue. As stated in Passenger Transport magazine, the last three months have had a grave effect on its figures. So much so that FirstGroup is considering the idea of closing a depot in Greater Manchester.

During the same period, TfGM figures have also seen a 20% drop in footfall to all of its bus stations. The collection of stops which make up Piccadilly Gardens has escaped the worst of the slump. With traffic, passengers have been put off by longer journey times. Some journey have ran at two-thirds of the speed of equivalent journeys taken the year before.

Locally, congestion has seen bus timetables grind to a halt. Much of which is due to the closure of Mancunian Way (which has reopened after last December’s sinkhole) and Metrolink works in Manchester city centre. Another likely factor is the rising popularity of the Metrolink system. Compared with 2009 figures, the Manchester Victoria – Oldham – Rochdale trams have seen a threefold rise. Typically, ten trams an hour run between Shaw and Manchester Victoria – a marked improvement on the heavy rail service’s four trains per hour (once hourly or two per hour from smaller stations).

Even with Metrolink and First Greater Manchester fares being held, Oldhamers seem to have warmed to the tram more. Price isn’t the only factor. Reliability and speed is even more so, in spite of bottlenecks at Newton Heath and Moston.

FirstGroup’s Greater Manchester depots

On acquisition of GM Buses North, Firstbus in April 1996 also had depots in Wigan, Leigh, and Atherton (Howe Bridge, inherited by Greater Manchester Transport on its acquisition of Lancashire United Transport). Its Tameside counterpart, Pennine (controlled by PMT at Hobson Street, Newcastle-under-Lyme), were based at Great Central House off Astley Street, Dukinfield. They moved to their present premises at Rothesay Garage, Broadway, in 1998. Pennine was integrated into First Manchester by Autumn 2000.

Since 1996, it has offloaded Wigan’s operations (with Melverley Street transferring to Stagecoach Wigan), closed the Leigh and Atherton garages, and sold the Bolton depot they inherited to Sainsburys. On acquiring Finglands Coachways’ bus operations in 2013, it saved 100 jobs and took over the lease of its Rusholme depot.

Recent changes

Nationwide, FirstGroup have already closed or rationalised existing depots. Last year saw similar changes to its North Staffordshire operations (the former Potteries Motor Traction area). Millwood Depot, on the outskirts of Todmorden, lost its roof with buses stabled in what is now an open yard. This year, they have announced plans to close two depots in East Lothian, and to withdraw from the Scottish Borders. This will affect their X95 and 95 services from Carlisle to Edinburgh.

In Greater Manchester, there is no mention as yet as to which of the six depots could close. For example, the maintenance of older premises could work against Queens Road and Oldham depots. Furthermore, Rusholme is needed for South Manchester-based tendered services as well as the commercially run Wilmslow Road corridor routes.

Manchester (Queens Road)

Despite its ageing structure, Queens Road garage is in an integral position for North Manchester and Salford-based bus routes. A move too far east to a new depot could affect reliability with Salford buses. On the other hand, this could give the Greater Manchester Transport Society a substantial extension to its existing quarters for the Greater Manchester Museum of Transport.

Of late, Stagecoach Manchester have raised their game, particularly in North Manchester through acquisitions (Bluebird Bus and Coach and JPT Travel).

Bolton

There’s every chance of Weston Street either going nowhere, or its operations being moved to Bury. The Bolton garage (built in 1979) that FirstGroup inherited from GM Buses North was originally designed for the combination of Bolton and Bury operations. That was kyboshed in favour of a new Bury garage in 1983.

FirstGroup’s presence in Bolton entails trunk routes to Manchester (the 8 and 36 for example), Stockport (22 via Eccles) and Rochdale (471). Moving Bolton buses to Bury depot could mean increased dead time or less reliable 510s or 8s (the latter already affected by Mancunian traffic).

Bury

FirstGroup’s Bury depot is the company’s only depot to have been purpose built for Greater Manchester Transport. Besides the 135 service (via Heaton Park), it is also the base for the 98 (via Radcliffe) and the 472/474 services (Bury – Ramsbottom Circular routes). Many of First Greater Manchester’s Mercedes Citaros are stationed there.

Furthermore, FirstGroup has seen some of its local services taken over by other operators like Rosso. Closing Bury could also have an affect on the prompt running of the 471 service, which is one of the company’s key routes out of Rochdale.

Dukinfield

A FirstGroup depot since 1998 (after the demise of Stuart’s Bus and Coach left the premises vacant), it is the hub for more than half of Tameside’s bus services. Many of the routes are either commercial or tendered local services. The fleet, though modernised with Wright StreetLites and Volvo B9s, includes X-reg Marshall bodied Dennis Dart SLFs. Lately, some of Finglands’ Enviro400s have been hired on Tameside’s bus routes, especially the 346 and 389 services. (Could there be a fleet cascade on the cards?).

Could Dukinfield’s operations be ripe for relocation elsewhere in Tameside, with the size of its present garage a limitation? On one hand, FirstGroup have retreated from some of its local services in Oldham and Tameside. (In the latter borough, they regained evening, Sunday and Bank Holiday journeys on the 348 and 350). Also, it is an important base for school services. On the other hand, Dukinfield could be in the firing line. If so, could this be a future base for an expanded Centrebus High Peak operation (as High Peak and Pennine)?

Oldham

With Oldham being First Greater Manchester’s Head Office, any changes to Wallshaw Street garage may be a sore point. It is in a prime position for its local services and trunk routes. Moving work from Dukinfield would mean more dead time than necessary (hence the need for a base in Tameside). It is the hub of the 409 service from Rochdale to Ashton; dead time is skilfully eliminated by part route journeys from Oldham bus station.

Oldham garage’s location is both a blessing and a curse. Operationally, it is a blessing; its central position minimises dead time for all services. As a curse, it is in a prime position for property developers. It is close to the Prince’s Gate development where Oldham’s future Marks and Spencer store will be based. Plans to demolish the depot, and its replacement with a superstore were knocked back in 2014.

Rusholme

The newest addition is of great importance to the operation of FirstGroup’s South Manchester-based services. It is also well positioned to ensure the proper running of rail or tram replacement buses (if required) and any schools contracts. Unless a new purpose built depot is planned, it would be foolish to dispense of its present base so soon.

Like Oldham’s garage, their Rusholme base could offer rich pickings for property developers. This time, student accommodation instead of superstores. On the other hand, it could be a westerly base for some Tameside journeys, but the dead time would be horrendous (which explains the importance of Dukinfield’s garage).

What happens next?

There’s every chance we’ll know prior to September’s set of service changes. Each of the six garages are important in every way. With road congestion rising in Greater Manchester, fewer garages would increase dead time and reduce the reliability levels of incumbent services. This happened when Rochdale, Altrincham and Tameside depots closed in November 1991.

Tameside’s buses were shared between Oldham and Stockport garages, but the rise of Pennine Blue and Glossopdale bridged the gap. The former was sold to Badgerline, via PMT’s Newcastle-under-Lyme base. Badgerline’s merger with GRT Group in 1995 (leading to the establishment of Firstbus) would take us towards their takeover of GM Buses North. April 1996 took us towards today’s story 20 years on.

S.V., 28 June 2016.

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13 thoughts on “First Retreat: Could a Greater Manchester Depot Closure Be Next?

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  1. First bus don’t give a toss re passengers or staff so long as the shareholders get their dividend de reg biggest mistake ever made

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  2. Some of the arguments made (by First and dare I say, Stuart) don’t ring true. If poor weather was to blame – and obviously it is in the context of an overall deterioration in the climate – then people would not be taking to the tram. Generally, its a much longer walk to a tram stop than a bus stop, so car-less people will get much wetter in poorer weather. It also reduces the time saving claimed by the Rail lobby. That said, the July changes do indeed see reductions in services competing with Metrolink, with 24, 59 & 182 particularly badly hit. September’s changes (cuts) might also give further clues, as any notice periods would kick in then. In saying that, if no specific locations have been named then the can’t be any redundancy strategy, which suggests capacity remains to house at least some work transferred from the affected depot.
    Another factor in the decision will be the Referendum decision to leave the EU. This is expected to lead to an increase in wholesale oil prices in the short-term, and a general Recession. It will also increase Austerity measures, eating deeper than ever into tendered services and closing other public services that bus passengers are a major demographic in terms of using them.

    Although no announcement has been made, the rumour is that it will be Bury or Queens. I have no idea how that has been arrived at, but if it is one of the two then surely it will be Bury. One of the major arguments for the Bus Service Bill from TFGM is that commercial operators are become too Manchester-centric. This strategy has gathered pace since EYMS sold Finglands to First sparking a bus war that is producing peripheral casualities in every sense. Stagecoach decimated Reddish Road last January, as well as cutting recently inherited Middleton and Wigan services, and First slashed services across the districts (including 348 & 350, of course) in April.
    I don’t think Rusholme run that many tendered services other than private schools contracts – hence the retention of V/W reg Presidents that are not allowed on TFGM contracts. However, it would be a major shock if this depot was to close, even with a small reduction in Student numbers forecast in coming years.

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    1. Hi Phil,

      I thought the [FirstGroup] bit about the weather was a bit of a pathetic excuse. The floods in the previous two quarters of 2015-16 may have had some effect on their operations. Locally, this affected Bury, Ramsbottom and Rochdale. The FirstGroup territory affected most by the Christmas floods was probably West Yorkshire. The worst of the floods were in Cumbria – Stagecoach North West and Cumberland.

      I never thought of the post-Brexit fallout as a possible effect. That of rising oil prices, thus meaning (you’ve guessed it), higher fares, fewer passengers, and fewer bus routes. Plus impending job losses that will affect patronage across all modes.

      From my observations, I have noticed slightly higher loadings on the trams between Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester city centre. Loadings on the 216 service seem to have held their own against the parallel tram route.

      As you said with the 24, 59, and 182, the tram has had a greater effect on Oldham bus services. I think the higher frequency between Shaw and Manchester is having a great effect. Changes to the 59 service between Oldham and Rushcroft could make the tram a more attractive option. More than anywhere, Saddleworth has been shafted by the service changes since 2010. Especially with the 353 and 354 routes.

      As soon as I knew about the Finglands takeover, I thought “they [FGM] were taking their eye off the ball,” the ‘ball’ being the northern part of Greater Manchester. I totally agree with the “commercial operators are become too Manchester-centric” argument for the Bus Services Bill. Especially given the poly-centric nature of the GMCA boundary (not only Manchester in relation to Ashton, but also Stalybridge in relation to the Tameside boundary).

      We’ll probably know some more news by the end of this summer. From the forthcoming set of changes, Oldham and Bury routes seem to be in the firing line.

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

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      1. Presumably the Tram is abstracting more from First in Shaw/Milnrow, than from Stagecoach on ANR simply because Shaw/Milnrow has higher car ownership and there is a genuine time saving if they drive to the tram stop.
        I’ve just had the tiniest of clues from a contact at First about September. He said he will be “working all hours” on service registrations for submission this weekend – so there will obviously be a lot of changes, even though he obviously couldn’t comment on which services or how significant individual changes will be.

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      2. I had a little trip out to Milnrow on Friday. It was noticeable just how few people there were on the buses, whilst the trams were busy. Although Metrolink is relatively expensive into the city centre compared to buses, there are some really very cheap ticket deals at the outer edges which have no doubt had an effect on bus patronage. (That and delays in the city centre these past 12 months which the good residents of Shaw do not necessarily come into contact with but still suffer the ill effects of.) There’s plenty of capacity at the outer ends of the tram network, but it does make you wonder whether the fares on offer are sustainable in the long term. Presumably they must be set to continue, as latest reports show that the new lines on Metrolink are not carrying as many passengers as were projected!

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  3. Hi James,

    I think consistency may be a factor in the travel preferences of Shaw and Milnrow public transport users. As with the J.D. Wetherspoon menu and the corporate livery of McDonalds, the Metrolink system is a very consistent product. If you take away the engineering works (inevitable for rail-based transport), the branding, stations, and rolling stock are consistent. Every stop has real time information displays, as seen on the Leigh Guided Busway.

    Imagine making the same journey from Milnrow to Oldham on the 58 service. The bus may be the usual Volvo B9 or Enviro400. On some occasions, a single decker (i.e an Enviro300) may be used. The journey time is dependent on traffic; unless you have a smartphone, you are unsure of the timetable if your bus stop lacks a timetable aperture. On the Metrolink, you are informed about disruptions, and any gaps in service are reflected on the PID.

    Another thing is frequency, where Metrolink hammers the equivalent bus route. Before the 04 October 2009, Milnrow to Shaw was only every half hour, using Class 142 Pacers or Class 150 Sprinters. During the leaf fall season, worse at times (which improved the attractiveness of the 58, 181 and 182 services).

    Could the success of Metrolink’s outer sections (Eccles and East Manchester Lines) be improved once full-on multi-modal ticketing is added? Could there be a bigger picture besides incumbent bus routes holding their own against parallel tram routes? Changes in work patterns given as zero hour contracts make the purchase of season tickets unviable?

    Bye for now,

    Stuart.

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  4. Surely, Metrolink is far from consistent. Every day there seem to be reports of entire lines or the entire system failing for a few hours. Surely, people can’t depend on that. I suppose the only thing is that if the Tram,isn’t running, they can go back to the car and continue into Manchester. For all its declining punctuality, surely bus reliability is far better.After all, if one bus breaks down, all the rest go round it. As regards the question of directly competing bus and tram routes (non moreso than 216), what do non-motorists do if Metrolink eventually “wins”?

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    1. As far as I know, all TfGM tendered services operated by FirstGroup’s Dukinfield garage are up for renewal. Not sure about commercial services which cover the whole borough. Could be a case of, for example, their 346s coming off 409 journeys to minimise dead time.

      Warmly,

      Stuart.

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