2017, In the Company of Buses

East of the M60‘s review of the year from a public transport angle

First Greater Manchester Mercedes Citaro, W366 RJA, Ashton-under-Lyne bus station
One of the biggest bus related events in Greater Manchester was the closure of First Greater Manchester’s Bury and Dukinfield depots. With Tameside’s routes served by Oldham depot, Mercedes Citaros have returned to the scene.

If 2016 was eventful, 2017 was even more eventful to the power of five. Testing our city region’s bus operators, rail franchisees, and the Metrolink was the terror attack at Manchester Arena. Greater Manchester also gained a newly elected mayor, and powers to reregulate its own buses. Also a new stretch of railway line.
In the bus world, we saw the closure of First Greater Manchester’s Bury and Dukinfield depots. The biggest bus related story was Andy Burnham’s death knell to bus deregulation. Towards the second half of 2016, Transdev came a close second. Not only with its launch of CityZap from Manchester to Leeds, but also its acquisition of Rosso Buses. The latter ended 110 years of public sector bus operation in East Lancashire.

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January:

As well as the annual fare increases, rail overcrowding and safety issues started to prick the consciousness of commuters. Arriva’s second year as the Northern franchisee was enough of a test, as concurrent events would prove later.

During the winter set of bus service changes, a consultation exercise inspired First Greater Manchester’s updates. This saw the retiming of journeys on the 409 service. Congestion also played a part in Stagecoach Manchester’s updates. Also among their changes were cuts to post-midnight evening buses.

Also part of January’s changes was TfGM’s Local Link services. A previous piecemeal approach to its demand responsive transport saw the merger of three Tameside areas (Tame Valley, Gee Cross, and Hattersley). They became part of the East Tameside Local Link area.

Away from the public transport scene, Staircase House (Stockport MBC’s heritage centre) celebrated the work of Messrs Gouldman, Stewart, Godley and Creme. In other words, 10cc and Strawberry Studios. Entitled Strawberry Studios: I Am In Love, the temporary exhibition opened in late January. If you still haven’t been, you only have until the 26 January 2018 to call in.

The end of January also saw the opening of iTrain. Situated in the former William Andrew Swimming Baths, it is Active Tameside’s 24 hour gymnasium. It has a café, an indoor running track, and a creche.

February:

The middle of February saw the opening of Metrolink’s Second City Crossing. Offering a short but important route, it eases pressure on the first crossing between St. Peter’s Square, Market Street, and Victoria. The 2CC line from St. Peter’s Square reaches Victoria via Cross Street, and an intermediate station at Exchange Square.

There was also changes to South Pennine Community Transport’s weekly service from Ashton-under-Lyne to Holmfirth. Instead of Thursdays, it was changed to operate on Tuesdays. Over in Stagecoach Manchester Land, 29 members of staff were recognised for their efforts – clocking up 797 years of service between them. Kate Green, Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston, presented their awards.

March:

Dominating the news agenda this month was Northern’s series of one-day strikes. The first of which took place on the 13 March 2017. Strike action was brought about due to safety concerns caused by Driver Only Operation. At this time of writing, three dates have been pencilled in for industrial action next month.

Also in the same month, Transport for Greater Manchester introduced Action Stations. Inspired by a successful project at Irlam station, TfGM have considered extending a similar plan to nearly 95 railway stations. Action Stations entail the use of underused station buildings or units for community use. For example: nurseries, small business units, cafés, or practice rooms. By December 2017, Stalybridge railway station would pilot the scheme.

April:

This month’s biggest bus related story was the closure of First Greater Manchester’s Bury and Dukinfield garages on the 22 April. As a consequence, Queens Road took over Bury’s First routes with Oldham depot mopping up Dukinfield garage’s work.

In the latest set of service changes, First Greater Manchester’s Oldham did win some tendered work. This time, the Monday to Saturday evening journeys of the 340 service. Albeit in reduced form with earlier finishes. Its Sunday and Bank Holiday evening journeys were scrapped. The 169 to Southern Cemetery was curtailed, terminating at Belle Vue instead of Ashton-under-Lyne.

A worse fate befell the 408 with the loss of First Greater Manchester’s journeys from Stalybridge to Shaw. The present service is operated between Shaw and Oldham. Its full route to Stalybridge is only observed by MCT Travel’s Monday to Saturday evening journeys, and on Sundays and Bank Holidays by Stagecoach Manchester. With a two-hourly frequency.

On a happier note, Derbyshire County Council dropped its plans to cease funding 144 socially necessary bus routes. Away from the public transport scene, there was the small matter of an election campaign: a Mayoral Election for Greater Manchester.

May:

This month was dominated by two elections: Mayoral Elections in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, and Teesside, and a forthcoming General Election. The latter being one that Theresa May thought would lead to a comfortable victory. In Greater Manchester, a comfortable Labour victory saw Andy Burnham become the city region’s first directly elected Mayor.

Within his first month in office came the Manchester Arena terror attack on the 22 May. Taking the lives of 22 people after an Ariana Grande concert, survivors were ferried home by taxi drivers and bus drivers. Later this year, Stagecoach Manchester drivers and ancillary staff would be recognised for their efforts at an awards ceremony. As a consequence, services to and from Manchester Victoria railway station were cancelled, diverted, or replaced by coaches and buses.

With the Mayoral Elections and the then forthcoming General Election, East of the M60 covered them both. EM60 looked at each mayoral candidate and policies by the main political parties. Shortly before the dissolution of parliament, the Bus Services Bill became The Bus Services Act. Despite the lack of powers to renationalise bus and coach undertakings, the franchising element entered the stature books.

June:

In the world of bus operation, this June was pretty quiet. Outside the wonderful world of six-wheeled rolling stock, Theresa May didn’t get the landslide victory she craved. Instead she got a hung parliament and a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party to prop up the Tories. The cost: £1.6 billion.

Part of the £1.6 billion, some sources may have opined, could have funded the Trans-Pennine electrification scheme. Which by the end of that month had had more stop-starts than a 219 bus on Megarider Monday. The end of this month saw the electrification plans paused yet again. By the end of 2017, the overhead wires were supposed to have reached Stalybridge.

Also in limbo is Manchester Piccadilly station’s future fifteenth and sixteenth platforms. Which would form part of the Northern Hub alongside the Ordsall Chord. Out of Chris Grayling’s hat came the suggestion of Digital Signalling – by means of the Moving Block system. This he claimed would allow more trains to run on the same track.

Another revolution he suggested was Bi-Mode Trains. Though attractive on brochures and timetables, the diesel-electric hybrid trains would give the permanent way a good hammering. At GCSE Level Railway Engineering, electric trains have a lower axle load than diesel trains. A Bi-Mode Train, under this rule of thumb, would have twice the axle load of a Class 323 EMU or a Class 142 Pacer unit. Which means more line closures due to engineering works and little difference in speed.

And Grayling’s reason for bi-mode trains? No need to electrify picturesque sections. Which translates as classic English CBAism. Unlike Switzerland which, besides being known for its beauty, has a fully electrified rail network.

July:

Unsurprisingly, East of the M60 broached the subject of Bi-Mode Trains in a semi-neutral article. In advance of the electrification works, The Old Lanky line from Miles Platting to Stalybridge was closed for most of this month. From the 08 – 30 July, bus replacement services ran from Manchester Victoria to Stalybridge via Ashton-under-Lyne.

Part of the engineering work warranted the removal of the bridge at Turner Lane. In place of the ochre and brown structure came a green one.

On the buses, Stagecoach Manchester introduced an evening single fare offer. Instead of the usual £3.00+ fare from Ashton-under-Lyne to Piccadilly Gardens, a maximum fare of £2.00. Which was also good for the evening journeys of the 346 route. From next year, the £2.00 evening fare will become a permanent fixture.

If you get the 237, there was another good reason for buying an evening single ticket. The end of July saw the reopening of Stalybridge’s J.D. Wetherspoon outlet, The Society Rooms. Officially opened by Jonathan Reynolds MP, it was refurbished, taking in the former Ethel Austin unit next door. Two days after, Hyde’s outpost of Tim Martin’s empire, The Cotton Bale, closed its doors. In the last month, Hydonians suffered an earlier body blow with the closure of its Wilko store.

Offering another good reason to celebrate was Metrolink’s 25th birthday. Its celebrations included the commissioning of a classical piece with reference to its stations.

August:

The second half of this year was characterised by acquisitions in the bus world. The first of which took place at the end of August. After a brief revival of the Little Gem brand, Go-Goodwins Coaches sold its bus operations to Rotala. The Eccles-based operator’s buses and routes went a million pounds, forming part of Diamond Bus (North West) Ltd.

At the end of this month, Hirst Kidd and Rennie announced the closure of its Rhodes Bank offices in Oldham. This saw the end of the Oldham Evening Chronicle, produced by the same owners for most of its time.

September:

Apart from the cessation of school holiday timetables, autumn’s round-up of bus service changes affected the people of Saddleworth. This month saw changes to the 353 and 354 services. Sunday and Bank Holiday journeys were replaced by a new 355 service. This time with a two-hourly frequency and an extension north of Uppermill to Denshaw (via Dobcross and Delph). In the Saddleworth Correspondent, readers later complained about its inadequate frequency. They were similarly scathing about the reliability of the 350 service after the closure of Dukinfield garage.

At the start of September, Bolton bus passengers were given a boost. The 04 September saw the arrival of Bolton’s new bus interchange. With a skyline footbridge from the railway station, its facilities are an improvement on Moor Lane bus station. Transferring from a 471 to a 535 no longer needs a dash from one platform to another. Unless one has boarded the 535 from Belmont and needs to catch a train to Manchester Airport (believe me, it is quite a walk).

Only weeks after the Oldham Evening Chronicle‘s demise came two new titles. Gannett’s Newsquest subsidiary launched The Oldham Times – a new weekly title. Also launched the same week was The Oldham Reporter – an Oldham version of The Tameside Reporter by the same people. The Manchester Evening News introduced a new Oldham edition.

October:

Enviro200 MCT Travel MX61 BAV, Ashton-under-Lyne bus station
Now part of the HCT Group: MCT Travel. Seen here on the 335 service to Denton.

As service changes went in the Tameside area, late October didn’t give us any horror stories. On the 341, Stott’s Travel regained the Hyde to Glossop route, at the expense of High Peak. The Derbyshire operator also lost the 304 service from Hyde to Marple, which was withdrawn.

Further afield, the beleaguered Northern rail franchise gained more competition. This time with the announcement of a budget bus service between Leeds and Manchester. Known as CityZap, Transdev’s offensive would bear fruit in November with an hourly service between the cities. With refurbished middle aged buses, each vehicle has been refurbished to modern standards, with WiFi and leather seating.

Less visibly, MCT Travel joined the HCT Group. Formerly known as Hackney Community Transport, they own other non-profit bus operators across the UK. The deal was done with no loss of jobs nor loss of bus services. As well as serving communities, Stagecoach Manchester also proved that buses could be used as part of an anti-bullying strategy. Known as the Be Nice Bus, a white Enviro200 bus is used to raise awareness of online bullying.

In the middle of October, we also found that Revolution 96.2 had purchased the Oldham Evening Chronicle. We eagerly await its return, especially as a daily newspaper.

November:

CityZap’s trans-Pennine route began operation on the first week of November. Since then, Transdev have enticed prospective passengers with a cut price deal on its first week. In December, they have offered free travel for rail season ticket holders.

Throughout November, concerns over the running of Northern’s franchise went beyond social media channels. MPs – and the Mayor of Greater Manchester – have addressed concerns over its overcrowding and cancellations. As well as its elderly rolling stock. Inspired by similar groups with commuters in South East England came Northern Resist. The Facebook group details the daily frustrations faced by Northern commuters. With photographic evidence of packed Pacers, damp DMUs and torrid toilets. Not least some support for the retention of guards on all Northern services.

In the Budget, the only good bit of rail related news wasn’t new trains. It was the extension of the 16 – 25 Young Persons’ Railcard to cover persons up to the age of 30. The new cards are being piloted in a selection of strong Tory constituencies before being rolled out nationwide.

If you live in Stalybridge, Swinton, Radcliffe, Prestwich, Stretford or Farnworth, there was some good news from Andy Burnham. His aim, alongside a coalition of community groups, is to revitalise the six forgotten towns. With Stalybridge close to East of the M60 Towers, our response focused on the ‘Bridge (but we cannot expect him to sort out Stalybridge Celtic’s poor away form).

December:

Rosso LK03 NKA, Rochdale Interchange
Farewell: Rosso Buses as a public sector concern. Seen here at Rochdale Interchange in 2014 is one of their ALX400 double deckers.

In the world of Greater Mancunian public transport you could wait ages for a juicy story, then three would all come along at once.

Firstly, the 10 December saw the opening of the Ordsall Chord, a new line from Salford Central to Deansgate Junction. Fully electrified, it has a handsome girder bridge and allows for through trains from Manchester Airport to Rochdale. At least that was the plan before Manchester Piccadilly’s fifteenth and sixteenth platform plans were delayed. The first train over the bridge was a 2-car Class 142 Pacer unit, with a 2-car Class 150 Sprinter unit.

Secondly, at a conference in Leeds, Andy Burnham said good riddance to bus deregulation in Greater Manchester. On the 13 December he announced that he would ‘end the Thatcher free-market experiment’ by introducing a franchised system. The timing couldn’t have been better: it was 24 years since the splitting of GM Buses; also the news that Greater Manchester’s bus patronage fell below the 200 million mark. Down from 350 million before bus deregulation.

Thirdly, we also saw the end of an era for an East Lancashire bus operator. After 110 years of publicly run bus services, Rosso Buses (including its predecessors) was sold to Transdev. The Transdev of CityZap, Yorkshire Coastliner, and Witch Way fame. With Rosso Buses having a significant chunk of mileage in Bury and Rochdale, could Transdev force First to raise its game?

At the North of England Transport Awards, Stagecoach Manchester staff were recognised for their bravery after the Manchester Arena terror attack.

Away from the bus world, Stalybridge station piloted Transport for Greater Manchester’s Action Stations programme with a series of events this month. Later this month, The Crafty Pint opened on Melbourne Street as Stalybridge’s second micro pub.

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Into 2018:

In the last year, there has been more movement in the bus world compared with our local trains. With our trains, the stop-start nature of engineering projects remains a problem. Though the Ordsall Chord project has been finished, its benefits are being cancelled out by Grayling’s delays. Particularly the fifteenth and sixteenth platforms for Manchester Piccadilly station. Also the bi-modal bodge and nimby-centric approach to electrification.

Whereas great strides are being made for bus passengers (via Andy Burnham), the same couldn’t be said for our trains as seen in the previous paragraph. Work has already started on the Trafford Park Metrolink line. The first bit of spadework has begun at Ashton-under-Lyne, for the town’s new bus interchange. Both projects will be done well before we see 25kV overhead lines in Mossley.

As anticipated last year, First Greater Manchester’s depot closures have made an impact on Tameside’s bus routes. Throughout July and August, a lot of journeys were cancelled on local bus routes. Chiefly the 348 and 350 services. On some occasions, the 346 and 389 services. These were detailed at Ashton-under-Lyne bus station.

In the last year, digital ticketing came of age, though not fast enough for Andy Burnham, as he said in his Leeds speech. In spite of heavy promotion and discounts, cash is still king for occasional passengers. Season tickets, single fares, and service frequencies, penalise passengers with non-nine to five working hours.

This year will be a busy and lively one for Greater Manchester’s bus, rail, and tram network. So far, data is being collected from bus operators to help with the Mayor of Greater Manchester’s franchising process. Next May will see changes to some of Tameside’s rail services, with Mossley, Stalybridge and Ashton-under-Lyne at the sharp end of the timetable changes.

What should we expect from 2018? Perhaps it is best to expect nothing. Who would have thought in December 2016 that we would have a General Election in June 2017? Who actually thought the Trans-Pennine electrification project would be a smooth one? Who would have betted against Stalybridge getting a second micro pub?

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Hellos:

  • The Ordsall Chord;
  • CityZap buses from Leeds to Manchester;
  • Bolton’s brand new bus interchange;
  • Metrolink’s Second City Crossing;
  • The Mayor of Greater Manchester;
  • iTrain, Dukinfield.

Goodbyes:

  • First Greater Manchester’s Bury and Dukinfield garages;
  • Sunday night journeys on the 340 service;
  • The Cotton Bale, Hyde;
  • The Job Centre Plus office in Stalybridge;
  • The 304 from Hyde to Marple;
  • (Within Greater Manchester) Bus deregulation.

Most importantly, East of the M60 wishes you all a Happy New Year. Whatever you do, support your local bus route, fight the good fight against Driver Only Operation on our trains, and here’s to 2018.

S.V., 27 December 2017.

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One thought on “2017, In the Company of Buses

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  1. Aren’t we jumping the gun a bit, Stuart. No decision has been made on Bus Reform yet. Everyone is assuming Franchising will be adopted, but this might only be because no other alternative seems practical. A lot of preperation work is being done, before a recommendation is made to the Mayor in the Spring. He will then decide to go along with those recommendations (or not), before the plans are put to a 12 week public consultation in “Summer 2018”. If all goes smoothly (and that is deemed unlikely) it will be late 2019/early 2020 before things are finalised. Also, bear in mind that IF franchising goes ahead, then it will not be a county-wide “big bang”. It would be done in phases.

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