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