Keynote speech marks transition towards the re-regulation of Greater Manchester’s bus network
There are two transport related footnotes which have had a great effect on my near forty-year existence as a child of the universe. The first one was the early years of bus deregulation, which has been well documented on this blog (as My Life in the Company of Buses). The second one, which I haven’t mentioned till now, was the split of GM Buses into GMS Buses and GM Buses North.
The splitting of GM Buses was the cherry on top of a crappy day I had at comprehensive school. After being overloaded from a slight altercation in the dinner queue, I found out about the sorry saga on Granada Reports. The Tories said it would introduce competition on Greater Manchester’s bus routes. They said it would lower fares.
Twenty four years later, neither happened. Fares rose gradually. In 2001, it was claimed a cartel kept fares artificially high in the City Region. After the cartel was declared illegal, fares rose at higher rates than before. The SuperGeM season tickets and day saver tickets, which permitted travel on Stagecoach Manchester and First Manchester routes (GM Buses’ successors) were scrapped.
As for competition, this has only happened on key corridors. UK North once competed with First on the 135 to Bury, as well as the Wilmslow Road corridor. They also competed with Stagecoach Manchester in Chorlton-cum-Hardy. Dennis’s did the same against Stagecoach on the 216. In more recent times, competition between Finglands and Stagecoach became competition between First and Stagecoach.
As for defacto joint commercial operations (where two companies share a route more equitably), a rarity these days. First Manchester used to run some journeys on the 330 to Stockport with Stagecoach. The 346 route is unique in where both First and Stagecoach have three buses per hour each in the daytime, making for a ten-minute frequency on Mondays to Saturdays.
The last twenty-four years since the split has proven one thing: the bus’ real competition isn’t between operators. It is between other modes of transport. More than most, private cars. Even for journeys that are walkable.
The timing of the Urban Transport Group’s event, and the Mayor of Greater Manchester’s speech couldn’t have been more commendable. Today is exactly 24 years after the Tories’ enforced split of GM Buses. During his keynote speech, he has virtually sounded the death knell for bus deregulation in Greater Manchester.
It couldn’t have come at a better time. His speech also focuses on the everyday travails of attempting to get from A to B on Greater Manchester’s buses, trains, and trams. In a Champions League city which is hampered by a Sky Bet Championship League bus network. Apart from tendered services, the rest of Greater Manchester’s bus network – about 85% of bus routes – is out of TfGM’s hands. It is subject to the free market.
“Our buses are over-priced and a confusing free-for-all.”
In 1994, we had 71 bus operators in the city region. To remember the fares and operating times on each route was a challenge. By the time System One Travelcards’ passes had gained a foothold in the noughties, the damage had been done. It was, and still is in 2017, the norm for some routes to have more than one operator at different times of the day.
Take the 340 and 343 services from Hyde to Oldham via Dukinfield and Mossley. The 340, the early evening and Sunday cousin of the 343 service (operated by Stott’s Tours) has two operators. That’s three different fare systems for a trip from the Albion Hotel to Copley Academy to get around.
“…a story of failed ideology, policy incoherence and lack of public accountably.”
Though the free market has given us some examples of good practice (i.e: Transdev’s branded routes), it has meant erratic service provision. Not only missing buses or late buses, but also the severance of important links and older buses. Also exacerbated by departmental cuts forced upon Transport for Greater Manchester, leading to cuts in tendered services.
The free market, in Andy’s eyes is responsible for a 43% drop in bus patronage. This is a view shared by many people who have caught buses in Greater Manchester. I just about remember the glory days of Greater Manchester Transport with its orange, white, and brown buses. Also its forerunners with the mix of chaos, competition, and countless liveries.
On the flipside of this, bus patronage in Greater Manchester halved between 1969 and 1982. This due to wider car ownership and economic factors. Particularly the closure of large industrial sites which necessitated the use of works’ services. From 1982, a modest rise continued until the 26 October 1986.
From 1986 to 2017, patronage has fallen from 350 million to just under 200 million. Over 100 million of which are made on Stagecoach Manchester’s buses. This is largely by the acquisition of JP Travel, Bluebird Bus and Coach, and First Greater Manchester’s Wigan depot.
“Bus routes are cancelled with minimal notice – leaving communities stranded.”
This trend can be seen in two contexts. Firstly in a more immediate sense, missing buses, whether on a bus route with six buses or six buses per hour. On a frequent service, take the 409 for example, one consolation is the next bus could be in another ten minutes. Or twenty. Whatever the waiting time, passengers are kept out of the loop unless they know why their ‘9 bus’ is so late
Imagine our passenger is waiting for a less frequent service: for arguments sake, as with the 409, our stop is the Royal Oldham Hospital. Our passenger wants a 408 to High Crompton. Unlike the 409, it is once hourly to Oldham or Shaw. On a Sunday, every two hours. If there’s a gap in service, it’s a 409 to Royton and a taxi for the rest of the journey.
If he or she is travelling to Stalybridge instead of High Crompton, Monday to Saturday evenings or (every two hours) Sundays and Bank Holidays only. It means changing at Oldham for the 340 or 343, or changing at Ashton-under-Lyne (the very thought of which ires the most ardent of Bridgeites).
In all cases, the need for reliable real time information is paramount. Not only for people with smartphones, but also passengers without such devices (through choice or affordability).
In our second context, the cancellation of bus routes refers to companies pulling out of commercial services or certain routes. Though operators have to give VOSA 56 days notice for service changes, some services have been discontinued at a shorter notice period.
As a result, emergency tenders are issued. This happens if an operator goes out of business. With SpeedwellBus for example, their journeys on the 343 service were taken over by First Greater Manchester. They ran the daytime service till the next round of tendering applications. Stott’s Tours took over, operating the 343 service since Spring 2012.
Within the standard 56 day notice period, subtle variations or complete overhauls can leave communities stranded. A change of route could lead to more convoluted journeys or longer walks to the bus stop. One operator might operate a different version of, for example, the 343 route. At one point, there was three variations of the 343’s route over a week. As was the case when JP Travel’s one time Saturday service which traversed Micklehurst Road instead of Winterford Road.
Another headache for passengers is any severance of important cross-boundary services. For example, the Tameside area has been at the sharp end of service cuts made in Derbyshire. Since deregulation began, Hyde has lost direct buses to Glossop, with the circuitous 341 its sole survivor. Hyde alone had direct links to Glossop via Hadfield (on the 211), Gamesley, Dinting, and Whitfield.
In Stalybridge, the withdrawal of the 397 service didn’t only disconnect the town’s link with Broadbottom. It also left Mottram Old Road and Stalyhill without a bus service at all. As the 239, it once connected Shire Hill and Tameside General hospitals. The only services linking Ashton and Stalybridge with Glossop are the 236 and 237 which, at one time, continued to Manchester city centre. The former route no longer has an evening service.
“The parts of the transport system that work best are the parts under local control”
Could local control have saved most of Tameside’s bus links with Glossop? In Andy’s speech, he cited two projects where local control worked best: the Leigh Guided Busway, and the Metrolink light rail system. With 40 million passengers, it may have dealt a blow to bus patronage. On the East Manchester Line, the 216 service still holds its own against the trams. In some cases, they compensate for the trams should the trams come to grief.
The Leigh Guided Busway has exceeded all expectations with 62,000 weekly passengers: or over 3.1 million journeys per year on its V1 and V2 routes alone. Real time information displays along the busway make for an experience which many tourists expect to see in Greater Manchester. If all of our trunk routes and local services had the same TLC, there could be more than 199.9 million or so bus journeys a year.
As well as real time information and slick buses, it is all about the ‘product’. The product in our case is Vantage, for the V1 and V2. Free WiFi, leather seats – some with tables – plus visual and aural information – comes as standard. As for its buses, electric-hybrid vehicles no less.
We mustn’t forget that local control has seen rapid improvement in the ambience of Greater Manchester’s bus stations. Compare and contrast Stockport’s bus station (1980) with the recently opened bus element of Bolton Interchange. Where we wait for our buses is instrumental to the success of our ‘end product’, as well as its reliability and comfort.
Towards a Greater Manchester Strategic Transport Board
As stated in his speech, Andy Burnham has written to Transport Minister, Chris Grayling MP (Conservative, Epsom and Ewell), over the creation of a Greater Manchester Strategic Transport Board. The board, co-chaired with Sir Richard Leese, will be geared towards improved performance, project delivery, and cooperation between parties. He proposes that the GMSTB should:
- Ensure that all of Greater Manchester’s ten Metropolitan Borough Councils are fully involved in decision making;
- Strengthen local arrangements and management of operations;
- (With help from Transport for Greater Manchester) Assess the costs and benefits of an integrated control room for buses and trams.
With the free market madness, bus deregulation has affected communication between operators. Before the 26 October 1986, one control centre covered most of Greater Manchester’s bus network. After deregulation and, most noticeably, the split of GM Buses, a driver from Queens Road couldn’t help a driver at Princess Road (former being GM Buses North, latter GMS Buses).
At present, a tram failure means consulting with more than one operator to provide a bus replacement service. This also means a multiplicity of radio based or GSM based systems. If First Greater Manchester is linked up to the same network as Stagecoach Manchester, MCT Travel, Stott’s Tours and Diamond Bus, a lot easier. Andy Burnham’s proposals for a 24/7 control room would eliminate the present-day headache.
A Fare Deal For You 2.0
First and foremost, Andy Burnham has called for fundamental changes to our bus network:
“Today I am calling time on the failed, free market experiment foisted onto the Greater Manchester public by the Thatcher Government.”
Will Thirty-one Wasted Years be over? Andy has quite rightly classed buses as “the backbone of the public transport system”. In Tameside, its ‘backbone’ are the Ashton-under-Lyne and Hyde to Manchester routes. It is also the 330 service to Stockport and Manchester Airport, the 409 to Rochdale, and the 236/237 services to Glossop. To some extent, the 347 to Haughton Green.
In the last 31 years, its backbone has weakened or deformed. Hyde only has one bus an hour to Glossop. At one time, the 343’s predecessors, the 4/4A were – they were formerly part of the SHMD tram route to Top Mossley.
Where buses have failed, the train, tram, taxi, minicab, workmate’s van, or private car compensates. Congestion on Manchester-bound bus routes have seen passengers turning to rail or tram. Where local bus routes have failed (for example: Mossley to Ashton, or Hattersley to Glossop), it is the train. Result: congestion on the roads, overcrowded trains and, due to road congestion, fewer bums on bus seats.
There are two other factors at play which deter new converts to our bus network. Firstly, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority city region has 160 different kinds of tickets available. There are forty different bus operators. That, unless you go for a single operator ticket or a GetMeThere card, is goodness knows how many single fares. In Dukinfield alone, four different sets of fares to remember: First’s, Stagecoach’s, Stott’s, and MCT Travel’s. Thank goodness for System One’s Any Bus DaySaver then.
The cost of fares is another chimera. Historically, Greater Manchester’s bus fares have been the highest in the UK. Even in 1980, an article in CityFun magazine decried GMT’s single fares. A family of four could save more money being driven from Lyne Edge Road to Crown Point North compared with the cost of catching a 389 and a 201. A single fare can be £3.00 – compared with £1.50 for a One Hour Ticket on Transport for London franchised buses. In Greater Manchester, £1.50 is the cost of a child’s fare.
Andy also cites the need for audio/visual announcements on all buses – standard issue on Metrolink trams and Vantage services. Audio and visual announcements benefit all passengers. Not only people with hearing and sight problems: also passengers unfamiliar with the locality. Especially if you’ve found a new job in an unfamiliar area, or enroute to a job interview.
Accessibility also goes beyond audio/visual announcements on every bus from Belmont to Broadbottom. The buses themselves can be a stumbling block for wheelchair users. Though step entrance buses have been virtually eliminated from Greater Manchester’s bus network, lack of space and suitable ramps can leave them stranded.
The size of the bus is a factor. A smaller bus like an Optare Solo minibus might have space for one wheelchair. This is problematic if occupied, even more so if the service is only once hourly or every two hours. The type of ramp or kneeling mechanism also varies from bus to bus, whether by age or make. Sometimes, the driver has to leave the cab to operate the ramp, increasing dwell times and undermining mid-point punctuality.
In the long term, this takes us towards the creation or acquisition of a new standard bus for Greater Manchester. This we shall leave for another post.
Getting the best from your bus
If it isn’t the cost of fares, it is the complexity of them. Firstly, most bus operators in Greater Manchester have staged fares. This, besides crudely reflecting the journey length, is a pain in the proverbial for passengers and drivers alike. From a passenger point of view, dwell times at stops, due to change being dispensed. For drivers, handing out the change and hoping they stick to the timetable.
Some may argue the coexistence of all-systems and single operator tickets is the freedom of choice. Today, you can buy a smart card for use on Stagecoach buses for their passes and all systems tickets. Online discounts make the system more complex than it needs to be.
From the 02 January 2018, Stagecoach Manchester will be simplifying its single fares down to six fare rates, with concessionary fares following suit. Perhaps Stagecoach’s move is a transitionary step towards the more simplified structure that Andy Burnham yearns for.
Secondly, cash is still king on Greater Manchester’s buses. Passengers could be left stranded if the driver has no change. Contactless payments are available on Stagecoach, First, Transdev, and Arriva buses in Greater Manchester. With smaller operators this could be problematic. Unlike The Big Four, some may run too few routes to justify their expense. Which is why Andy Burnham said:
“Just last week I saw a tweet from someone called Jamie. He said: “It’s freezing outside, and two people so far have been denied entry to this bus because the driver doesn’t have enough change.”
“How can this be happening in 2017? When you can pay for your lunch using your phone. Or buy a cup of coffee using your watch. And sometimes you still can’t catch a bus unless you have the right coins.”
In other words, his incredulity on why you need change for your bus to Winter Hill after paying for a Steak Bake with your smartphone in the new-look Bolton Interchange.
Burnham’s Bus Guide to Better Bus Rides
“Today I can confirm that in Greater Manchester we will be using the powers granted to us by Parliament at the earliest opportunity to drive through some major improvements to our bus services – and we are starting straight away.”
Twenty-four years after that fateful day in 1993, the Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham has signalled his intention to consign bus deregulation to the dustbin. Here’s how:
- 19 December 2017: Andy Burnham to ask Greater Manchester’s bus operators for further data on fares, patronage, vehicles, etc;
- 20 December 2017: Transport for Greater Manchester will write to Greater Manchester’s bus operators;
- Summer 2018: starting date for public consultation on bus reforms, as per the Bus Services Act 2017, and enabling powers bestowed upon The Office of the Mayor of Greater Manchester;
- December 2018: final decision based on results of consultation.
Afterwards, the franchising process shall begin. Most buses operating in Greater Manchester will have a standard livery as in Greater London. For example: instead of FirstGroup’s Olympia livery, your 409 will have a standard livery to TfGM specifications with a little FirstGroup logo.
Contracts will be awarded on quality grounds rather than the lowest bidder for a fixed term. These may be for individual routes or a package of routes. For example: all routes along the Wilmslow Road corridor, or every local route in Stockport MBC boundaries.
Instead of contracting, expansion is the watchword. Some parts of Greater Manchester haven’t had bus routes for several years. The Tame Valley area of Dukinfield last saw buses in 2001 – sixteen years since the last bus. Ramsbottom, Norden, and Dukinfield lack full time bus links with central Manchester.
As some areas haven’t seen buses for several years, there are in Andy’s words “too many young people in Greater Manchester [that] have grown up not using buses”. If you lived on Park Road, Dukinfield all your life and studying for your GCSEs, you may have been driven everywhere. The concept of walking to Crescent Road for a 346, or Stamford Park for a 236 or 237 seems an alien one. There are a number of social skills that can be learned by being au fait with the local buses (which can be described outside of this entry).
Another most important priority is accessibility. This is where franchising conditions may entail AV announcements on every route and, as near as possible, ‘standard’ buses. This could be complemented by a maximum age for all bus routes. Not only tendered services, where buses have to be no older than fifteen years of age.
With more modern buses come more environmentally friendly vehicles as well as accessible ones. The greater use of low carbon technology – as seen on trunk routes and some tendered services – will make for a cleaner ride.
As well as the wellbeing of passengers and its immediate surroundings, the treatment of drivers and other staff is another aim. Improved security for the driver could come in the form of technology as well as protective screens. In terms of technology, the central 24/7 control centre will improve communications across all staff. Not only between Queens Road and Sharston, but also between Stagecoach’s Ashton garage and Stott’s Tours’ base on Lees Road.
A drift towards cashless systems would see the end of drivers having a float on each bus. The central 24/7 control centre could improve fleet management if bus replacements are needed for trams.
One network, clarity and coherence
Among the main stumbling blocks in the implementation of Greater Manchester’s GetMeThere smart card is incoherence. Though the Metrolink component has been sorted out, its issues in integrating over 40 different bus fare tables has been well documented. Before the first franchises are awarded, its main aim is to offer:
“More affordable and simplified fares, integrated with Metrolink, with contactless payment and a daily cap”
For the trams, Andy Burnham proposes more simplified fares based on zones. For example, a journey from Velopark to Piccadilly could be made on the tram as well as the 216. Without a financial penalty for changing modes.
Similarly, Blackpool Transport’s tickets can be used on their trams and buses. On their buses, only four single fares are available: £1.30, £1.70, £2.20, and £2.70. By tram it is the same fare stage, though the minimum single fare is £1.70. Children can travel on any Blackpool Transport bus or tram for £1.10 – whether from The Tower to Talbot Square, or Starr Gate to Fleetwood. Perhaps Blackpool Transport’s approach to staged fares should be a suitable template.
With day tickets, Blackpool Transport offer a one hour ticket for £3.00, or a 24 hour ticket for £5.00. For day rover tickets, Greater Manchester should consider introducing a 24 hour one. Its introduction will be a boom to anyone staying overnight in the city centre.
Though on a much smaller scale, clarity and coherence is key to the success of Blackpool Transport’s network. They are working towards cutting the average age of its buses to just five years old. Greater Manchester could learn a lot from a place often known as Manchester-by-the-Sea.
Almost as much as red buses are associated with London, Blackpool is associated with her trams. Manchester is also associated with her trams. For people of a certain (myself included), orange and white buses. It is also associated with crappy Pacer units, overpriced bus and train fares, and congestion – as well as its football teams.
By 2020, it could be associated with clean and efficient buses. Back to the city region’s rightful position as an innovator instead of an imitator. We shall all benefit.
Make no mistake: the service bus, which accounts for 75% of all public transport journeys in Greater Manchester needs more love. For many people, the first bus we catch is usually the first part of a more complex journey. We may change modes or change for another bus. In some parts of Greater Manchester, it is a genuine alternative to the car or taxi. In too many areas, we have to fill these gaps with other modes for part of, or the whole of the journey.
Congestion and the causes of bus deregulation are the right issues to focus on. Traffic congestion is due to a failure of other modes’ abilities to provide an alternative to the car. Whether through service frequency, financial cost, accessibility, planning policies, or the traffic lights being badly phased. Instead of needing a PhD in Greater Manchester Fare Tables, it is easier to pass your driving test, get a car, and not give a stuff about other modes of transport.
Only having to remember a handful of fares or day tickets instead of a 1980s telephone directory full of them is a hugely positive step. Tram/Bus fare integration is a great move. Making the fares more affordable, even more so. Adding a unified livery for all of Greater Manchester’s buses, a long time coming. Thirty-one years too long.
Since the 26 October 1986, you could see where some of the missing 150 million bus users are today. They have given up the bus in favour of the car or other modes. They are the ones standing up on the 0752 to Manchester Victoria. At one time they could have also caught the limited stop 153 service. Today, they might be seen on the Metrolink. Instead of catching the 351 from The Tame Valley to Ashton 30 years ago, they might drive to Stalybridge for an overcrowded train. Or drive the whole way to Manchester.
With accessibility improvements made to all stops and all buses, the bus could become the first choice instead of a mode of last resort. Public investment, a unified brand, agreeable fares, excellent timetables and integration with other modes should be a priority. Bus priority measures at all traffic lights in Greater Manchester should also be a given.
The London style franchising model could be a good fit for Greater Manchester, so long as the connectivity of our city region is improved. As well as re-establishing lost links, the long term goal should be expansion and integration with trains, trams, LocalLink services, and Ring and Ride. Why stop there: what about the East Lancashire Railway and the Hulmes Ferry from Flixton to Irlam?
As well as bus services operating within Greater Manchester, it also needs to look at cross-boundary routes. Particularly those within Greater Manchester’s travel-to-work area which also covers Macclesfield, Glossop, Wilmslow, Chorley, and Rawtenstall. The Stockport and Tameside boroughs in particular sees Glossop as part of its travel-to-work area. Or as an alternative shopping centre to Ashton-under-Lyne, Stockport or Marple.
We hope the Greater Manchester City Region and Mayor Andy Burnham succeeds in this vision. A vision where “the free market experiment” has gone the way of the dinosaurs, Triangle, and Pacer units.
- Mayor Sets Out Major Transport Overhaul: Greater Manchester Combined Authority, 13 December 2017;
- My Life in the Company of Buses (1986 – 2016): various blog posts on East of the M60, 2011 and 2016.
S.V., 13 December 2017.