The Three Ages of Greater Manchester’s Bus Stations

A look at the evolution of Greater Manchester’s bus stations from 1969 onwards

In the last fifty years, Greater Manchester’s bus stations have changed dramatically. More recent trends favour single terminals and improved connections with other modes of transport. In smaller towns, they form part of a focal piazza, as seen at Radcliffe’s bus station.

The number of stands during that period are consummate with changes in bus patronage, as well as security and ease of use. For most of the last half century, Greater Manchester’s bus stations have had individual platforms with shelters and stands on the side. Or shelters with stands covering the whole platform. Bus stations with bays for pulling in and reversing out were pretty rare till the noughties.

In our main town centres, Transport for Greater Manchester’s bus stations are a world away from its previous efforts. Which in 1978, for example, were pretty good for the time. Almost 40 years on, we wouldn’t dream of using subways to link each platform with a subterranean concourse. Even now, multiple platformed bus stations are a dying breed with road safety and litigation a main concern.

When SELNEC PTE was formed on the 01 November 1969, their estate included numerous depots and termini, from Rawtenstall to Stockport. There was also a plethora of changes needed: not only liveries, also fare structures, and corporate identities. Bus station design varied from place to place.

In this post, we look at how Greater Manchester’s bus station have evolved over time. So sit back, take your position on the comfy seat of a MCW Metrobus, and take a trip through time.

Stand A: Let’s Hang On… (pre-1974 to 1978)

In the beginning, all of SELNEC PTE’s bus stations were inherited from its predecessors. This included the sleek first version of Ashton-under-Lyne bus station (from November 1963). Manchester Airport’s bus station was a handful of stands, close to the domestic terminal. As of now, Stockport’s main bus termini was Mersey Square. Some of Greater Manchester’s town centres – which have considerably commodious termini today – used town centre stops. For example: Bury’s main terminus was Kay Gardens; at Rochdale, buses used to terminate by the town hall and the Post Office opposite.

In Oldham, its main stops were concentrated around Mumps Bridge, Market Place and George Street, and High Street. In 1969, there was also Yelloway’s coach station, and the then recently built Clegg Street bus station of North Western Road Car Company. By 1971, this was joined by a purpose built facility for westbound buses. Eastbound buses used ‘The Grotto’ – a collection of dimly lit stands on Wallshaw Place. Even so, this was nothing on the dinginess of Greengate bus station, underneath the former Exchange station.

Throughout the SELNEC boundary, its flagship bus station was Piccadilly Gardens Bus Station. Previously known as Parker Street Bus Station, 1960’s version was dominated by a long bank of covered stands, which also housed the bus information point. There was a bank of stands on the Piccadilly end of Piccadilly Gardens and a few on George Street facing Lewis’s.

In its formative years, SELNEC made the best use of existing termini. On acquiring North Western’s bus operations within its boundaries, this led to the disposal of Clegg Street Bus Station. Altrincham’s North Western Road Car Company era bus station would soldier on till the late 1970s.

The Picc-Vic Project’s influence

By 1984, Manchester could have had a Merseyrail style system of inner city tunnels, connecting Manchester Piccadilly with Manchester Victoria railway stations. This was the centrepiece of SELNEC’s Picc-Vic Project. Other parts of the project would have seen improved interchange between bus, car, and train which meant improved bus stations.

In 1977, the rail element of the Picc-Vic Project was scrapped. In spite of this, some fringe projects went ahead. One was the opening of the Hazel Grove Chord in 1981 and electrification work from there to Piccadilly. As a consequence, this permitted the use of electric trains from Hazel Grove to Altrincham. Both towns benefited from improved parking and bus interchanging facilities.

The first version of Altrincham Interchange came into being in 1976. Its bus station moved from the opposite side of the railway station’s clock tower, to the same side. To accommodate its twelve bus stands, the railway station’s porte cochere was demolished. Pedestrian access was granted at street level and by means of a footbridge from the Stamford shopping centre.

By then, SELNEC PTE had morphed into GMPTE; its buses, under the name of Greater Manchester Transport. Altrincham Interchange was GMPTE’s first purpose built bus station.

Elsewhere, a lot of the older stand shelters from the SELNEC era had been replaced by standard issue Queensbury shelters. On streets, they became the standard with brown panels below the windows. Similarly treated with Queensbury shelters was Victoria Bus Station, next door to Greengate. Some of its previous shelters were derived from tram panels. The SHMD era shelters were replaced by a superior variety of Queensbury shelter at Hyde and Stalybridge bus stations. This was also repeated at Eccles, Whitefield, and Farnworth bus stations, again replacing the previous operator’s shelters.

Rochdale bus station

Whereas Altrincham broke new ground with its rail/bus/kiss and ride interchange, another design would raise the bar for GMPTE’s bus termini. Firstly, Metro Rochdale wanted new council offices. Secondly, there was a need for an off-street terminus, and covered car parking. In 1975, those wishes were fulfilled when construction work began on Rochdale’s new bus station.

On opening on the 28 May 1978, it was a world away from the town centre shelters. Passengers no longer needed to cross the carriageways, thanks to subway access, escalators and stairs leading to its 24 stands. Lifts ferried people to the multi storey car park and its main shopping centre. A high level bridge ferried shoppers to the recently opened Rochdale Shopping Centre. Through an intercom link, passengers could have got access to station staff from each platform.

Its passenger information and Saver Sales point was on a street level concourse, where access could be gained to the Council Offices. Or the Yelloway Coach Station on Weir Street. The bus station’s sleek design marked GMPTE’s association with Essex, Goodman and Suggitt Design.

Stand B: EGS Design’s influence (1978 – 2001)

Essex, Goodman and Suggitt Design were a London based architectural practice with its own offices in Manchester. Their work included unbuilt stations for the Picc-Vic Project. Its most celebrated work – as EGS Design – was the restoration of Central Station as the GMEX Exhibition Centre (opening in March 1986). Among their other designs included a style of modular bus stand. This would have had portrait windows, a built-in advertising display and, on one side, a built-in waste bin.

What few would have thought in the 1970s was how their modular design was tweaked for GMPTE’s bus stations from 1980 onwards. Firstly, the rounded square portrait windows were ditched in favour of sheet glass. Secondly, the waste bins wouldn’t be built into each platform: instead we saw freestanding orange bins. One aspect that remained unchanged was the roof style. EGS’ modular design would stand the test of time right up to 1994.

Spluttering its way into the fag end of the 1970s was the Arndale Bus Station. Its opening was delayed by six months, due to the lack of clearance for double decker buses. Therefore, delays were caused by the lowering of its carriageways. Design wise, it was a hybrid between Bury Interchange and Rochdale’s effort from 1978. It had the darkness, the diesel fumes, and escalators of the latter, and the terracotta tiles of the former.

The first brand new bus station of the 1980s was Bury Interchange. Opening in March 1980, this saw the movement of electric trains to a more central part of the town centre. Switching from train to bus meant escalator access. It was built with separate offices for Saver Sales, Bus Information, and British Rail tickets. A buffet bar was added. Prior to then, its third rail trains to Victoria terminated at Bury Bolton Street. Till recently, its bus stands were in a strict horseshoe configuration with an island platform in the centre. Access to the market and shopping centre, as of now, via designated crossings along the carriageways.

Stockport bus station opened in autumn 1980, replacing the bustling yet unwieldy hotchpotch of stands around Mersey Square. In terms of area, one of the biggest bus stations in Greater Manchester, if you include layover facilities. Maintaining the continuity of the original information point’s location, the Saver Sales and information office were placed in a similar position. To accommodate public toilets, beside the northbound section of Wellington Road South.

On a smaller scale, EGS Design’s modular stands were repeated at Oldham bus station in 1983 (on the side of Town Square Shopping Centre). In 1984, at Manchester Airport. Both termini comprised of two platforms with eight stands. These were dwarfed by bigger projects in Ashton-under-Lyne (1985), Bolton (1987), Wigan (1987), and Leigh (1991).

Only a short 19 bus ride away, Wythenshawe bus station opened in 1981. Essex, Goodman, and Suggitt opted for a triangular design with its Saver Sales and Bus Information offices in the centre. This compact design stood the test of time till Metrolink’s arrival in 2015.

Prior to 1969, Bolton had bus stations on Howell Croft and Moor Lane. The latter, you could say, was ‘a bus station of two halves’. One part Ribble, and the other part featuring Bolton Transport, and Lancashire United Transport buses. Part of the bus station had pull in and reverse out bays on either side. This arrangement continued till the start of bus deregulation. By then, Bolton [Moor Lane] bus station assumed its present multi-platformed guise.

Ribble had their own offices on one end of the station, nearest the Combined Courts. This is now occupied by Arriva North West. Nearest to the market hall on Ashburner Street, GMPTE’s Saver Sales and Bus Information offices, a newsagents, and a café.

Changes to the towns’ retail offerings inspired the development of Wigan’s and Leigh’s bus stations. Both Wigan and Leigh saw the emergence of new shopping centres in the Marketgate and Spinning Gate developments respectively. With the Marketgate development and market hall in the way of Wigan’s previous bus station (which at one time was opposite Whelans’ discount store), this meant a move to its present site off Hallgate. The walk to Wallgate and North Western stations were a bit easier.

At one time, Leigh had had two bus stations that were close together. One for Leigh Corporation’s buses, and the other one for Lancashire United Transport’s routes. The arrival of Leigh’s new bus station in 1991 was a Godsend. More modest than its Wigan and Bolton brethren, it is a tidy terminus.

Ashton-under-Lyne’s bus stations

Developments of a retail and local governmental nature have influenced the construction of two of Ashton’s bus stations. As with Rochdale, the need for a single Council Offices for the borough influenced EGS Design’s 1985 version. Originally, like their fellows 10 miles up the road, they wanted a multi storey car park above the bus station. This would have helped the supermarket and independent shop unit. In the end, Presto’s car park was at surface level, on Camp Street (where Clarendon Sixth Form stands today).

By 1983, remedial works were done to the original stands of 1963 vintage. A covered area, created in the mid to late 1960s, was glazed, re-cladded, and became the A to C stands. Another three platforms, parallel with the covered area from the 1960s were added. The new look Ashton bus station was opened by Councillor Geoff Brierley in March 1985. Saver Sales and Information Offices, and the RS McColl newsagents were situated in the concourse which dated from 1963.

With the arrival of the Arcades Shopping Centre in 1995, this turned out to be short lived. So, another EGS Design style bus station was created. This opened in 1994 with stands running from north to south (like the 1963 – 85 alignment). A new look Travelshop opened, replacing the two Saver Sales and Bus Information offices as one-stop travel shops.

Stand C: Rise of the single terminal (2001 – to date)

Ashton-under-Lyne’s present – soon to be outgoing – bus station from 1994 was probably one of EGS Design’s last works for GMPTE. Throughout the mid-1990s, Greater Manchester’s bus stations saw some remodelling. These due to disability access legislature, security concerns, and a 1995 law that saw the end of queueing in bus stations.

Before 1995, bus stations had guide rails – queueing pens – which compelled passengers to wait for their 346 or 192 in a particular fashion. From the 1930s, there was an obscure law where refusing to queue properly was illegal. The possibility of pens as an accessibility were a salient concern.

Adjustments were made for visually impaired passengers, such as changes to paintwork and signage. CCTV cameras became a major feature. In Rochdale bus station, the subways and escalators leading to each platform were closed, in favour of street level crossings. Saver Sales and Bus Information offices became Travelshops, combining both operations under one office.

By the close of the 1990s, this would influence the next generation of GMPTE’s bus stations. With passenger security at the heart of things, this meant bus stations with a single terminal. At the time, there was far fewer bus passengers in 1998 compared with 1986. Some former passengers gave up on the bus altogether in favour of cars, the recently privatised railways, and the booming Metrolink system. The peripherals of bus travel – mainly its stations and stands, and information – hardly endeared new passengers.

Slowly but surely, the single terminal bus station began to make its presence known. Among the first bus stations to adopt the rediscovered form was Stalybridge. Its predecessor, which opened in 1961, replaced stands on the side of its railway viaduct. The 1961 version had three slim platforms. The rear platform was originally used by trolleybuses and some of its six stands were surplus to requirements. Opening in February 2000, it has four stands (shelters by JC Decaux).

Further up Lees Road on the 408 route, the following year would see a new bus station for Oldham. With the Town Square bus station looking dingy, the site on Cheapside from the Civic Centre to St Mary’s Way was a vast improvement. Opening in January 2001, it was light with eight stands and a newsagent on its only platform. Its Travelshop, on an extension of the adjacent Civic Centre.

What was forgotten about on its opening was Oldham’s cold climate (just ask Joe Royle). Shortly after opening, automatic doors were fitted to each of the stands and its exits. It became a stopping point for National Express services. Shortly after opening, congestion meant some services had to stop on West Street. This was addressed in 2006 with a new teardrop shaped bank of stands between the Civic Centre, Spindles Shopping Centre, and Manchester Chambers.

In 2001, Eccles’ bus users had an upgrade. With the Metrolink’s arrival in Eccles, the passengers were treated to a new single platform bus station in 2000. Unlike Oldham’s bus station, buses used one side (eastbound), whereas taxis used to opposite side. With congestion a problem (long waits for its six stands), two more shelters were built beside the tram stop.

Oldham’s new bus station would inspire the development of Shudehill Interchange. This opened in 2005 with mixed reviews. Some passengers thought it was a white elephant, given the number of buses that use Piccadilly Gardens. Nevertheless, its multi car park is better on the eye than Leach Rhodes Walker’s car park over Chorlton Street Coach Station. The main concourse, somewhat lacking in shops, is imposing and airy. As for the toilets, 20p. Subsequent bus stations with toilet facilities in GMPTEland would introduce charging for the loo too.

Even at smaller bus stations like Hyde. Before 2004, Hyde’s bus station had four stands on the same side as its nearby health centre and the Travelshop. The remaining stands were squeezed on the side of the M67 motorway, making its 1981 amendment pretty claustrophobic. Designed by Sisk Architects, Hyde’s present bus station was a vast improvement.

With six stands instead of twelve, its Travelshop and newsagents fall under the same roof. How they shoehorned the toilets and a cash machine is a minor miracle. Its airiness, in my view, makes it preferable to Ashton bus station. It opened in December 2005 with a Stockport Corporation bus taking its position near B stand.

If there was one bus station which epitomised GMPTE’s change of direction, it was Middleton’s bus station. Before 2005, it had some short platforms with the Travelshop in a separate building. Buses entered the station by means of a clearly marked roadway. All buses faced the Post Office before continuing to Oldham or Manchester, or Alkrington Garden Village.

The present version set the trend for today’s trends. That of a single terminal; the use of pulling in and reversing out bays as well as standard bus stands for busy routes. As a consequence, this makes life easier for passengers and CCTV cameras. The scope for causing mischief is greatly reduced, being as all its stands are under the same roof.

This is also true to an extent with The Station, Manchester Airport’s bus and coach station. A world away from its 1984 counterpart, it resembles an airport terminal instead of a bog standard bus station. Pull in and reverse out bays are the norm. This is true of the Trafford Centre’s bus station which opened in 1998. Where the Trafford Centre’s bus station differs is the fact Arriva manages it on behalf of Intu. Unlike Manchester Airport’s bus station, its neo-Italianette design has more in common with a 1950s bus station than Ringway’s domestic terminal.

Perhaps The Station at Ringway owes a debt to GMPTE’s/TfGM’s new kind of bus station. That of automatic doors, a standard feature of their new principal bus stations. Also real time information. As well as security issues, user friendliness is an issue; anyone who has missed buses or trams would easily concur, if their next leg is ten stands away.

In November 2013, bus users of a Rochdalian nature no longer needed to do that. The early Christmas present of a new bus station was a boon for anyone who used to dash between platforms. Transferring from a 409 to a 464 could take seconds instead of two minutes trying to avoid wayward Atlanteans and Little Gems. Like Middleton bus station, the bus element of Rochdale Interchange is similarly structured. Much as I miss the old seventies look of its 1978 one, give me the new station any day.

By 2015, there was still room for a new generation of island platform style bus stations. The arrival of Metrolink’s Airport Link ushered in a new banana shaped bus station for Wythenshawe. On a smaller level, the single terminal bus station has proved its worth in Radcliffe. Altrincham’s bus element of its interchange has similar leanings towards Oldham’s bus station.

The next generation

Thankfully, Transport for Greater Manchester’s forthcoming bus stations will adopt the pull in and reverse out method in greater numbers. By 2018, Ashton-under-Lyne’s newest bus station will be closer to its trams, and adopt a similar layout to Middleton’s and Rochdale’s bus termini. Plans to replace Stockport’s bus station could see a new building for Stockport College. Wigan, by the end of this decade, could see the EGS Design stands exonerated in favour of a single terminal layout. Again with bays.

If you cannot wait this long for their arrival, the triangular shaped bus interchange at Bolton should be ready by the end of 2017. It has a footbridge to the railway station but, alas, is further away from the market. By 2020, the sole surviving EGS Design shelters will be at Leigh bus station. Who knows what the next incarnation of Leigh bus station will be?

All in all, the single termini design works well on a technical and customer friendly point of view. No running between platforms. Possibly a more secure environment, not least airier waiting facilities.

Who knows what our bus stations will be like in 2069? I doubt as if I would know, but then again…

S.V., 25 May 2017.

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