What’s Eating Into Greater Manchester’s Bus Network?

Why has Greater Manchester’s bus patronage fallen by 15 million since 2014? East of the M60 wonders why we’re all missing the bus

“The Free Market Experiment” – officially known as The Transport Act 1985 – stated that competition would benefit all bus passengers. This was based on the precedent set by The Transport Act 1980. By the end of that year, the state-owned National Bus Company would see competition from private coach operators. The launch of British Coachways, a private sector consortium, would introduce more choice and competition for passengers. Within two years, National Express saw off the British Coachways consortium with its fares and integrated network.

British Coachways was a brave attempt at adding through ticketing among private operators. Similar arrangements had had been made available before NBC’s formation. Yelloway passengers could get a ticket from Oldham to Bournemouth which allowed a change at Cheltenham for Black and White Motorways’ coaches.

With British Coachways the product was inconsistent. NBC had the bragging rights to the termini. Given the choice of a grotty portable building in King’s Cross or the iconic Victoria Coach Station, many went for the latter. Or the train. Some coaches didn’t have the British Coachways BA inspired livery, and had the franchise holder’s colours instead.

In spite of British Coachways’ brief moment in the sun, the Transport Act 1980 was seen as a success. The motorway network, and the luxurious coaches that followed made coach travel a viable option. Not only from Manchester to London: also to France and Spain. With this, it was thought that bus passengers could benefit.

Deregulation and consolidation

Back in 1983, the Confederation of Passenger Transport (then The Bus and Coach Council), advertised the fact we would “all miss the bus”. Several buses from John O’Groats to Lands End had an all over buff livery with their logo and their slogan (which read: “We’ll All Miss The Bus”).

There was more to The Transport Act 1985 than the claims of cheaper fares and improved customer choice. The late Nicholas Ridley looked at systems where drivers owned their own buses. With this model you could undermine the might of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (no collective bargaining). You could undercut public sector operators by driving down fares and creating a race to the bottom. One with lower wages, spartan depot facilities, inconsistent timetables, and older buses.

Basically, The Survival Of The Fittest. On six wheels. On Wilmslow Road, Sauchiehall Street, Argyle Street, Switch Island, or Smallbrook Queensway.

As for the benefits of competition outside the main corridors, forget it. The Free Market Experiment also meant the outlawing of cross-subsidy. Before the 26 October 1986, any profits from, for example the 409 service to Rochdale, could help the 438 to Daniel Fold. As part of an overall coherent network rather than the juicy bits. Today there is no 438 to Daniel Fold, leaving this northern corner of Rochdale free of buses.

Though the idea of drivers owning their own buses (like taxi drivers) didn’t catch on, we saw the creation of formidable private monopolies. Instead of PTE-ran and NBC-ran bus services, FirstGroup and Stagecoach would dominate one corner of the British Isles. Today they also form part of our privatised railways. The competition which Nicholas Ridley saw as a positive effect disappeared.

Apart from on core routes there was no improvement in services. Fares rose. Apart from key corridors where competition drove down fares – for a brief period before competitors pull out. Newer buses were only seen on core routes. With the consolidation of major private operators, shareholder satisfaction came before the hardy passengers who caught the 1935 to New Moston.

Thankfully, there are some exceptions to this rule. Some operators used bus deregulation to offer a fresh approach to operations, in terms of route branding and direct marketing. Ray Stenning’s Best Impressions have raised the bar in terms of brand identity for the last thirty years. Transdev and The Go-Ahead Group are keen exponents of this, with the Witch Way (X43), Yorkshire Coastliner (840/843), and the Why Aye Five-O (50) being sublime examples.

With their approach to branding, memorable names stand out in the passenger’s consciousness. They are more likely to remember Witch Way over X43, due to its branding. Likewise its dedicated vehicles, free WiFi and plush interiors. Sadly, these seem to be the exception rather than the rule. If all buses were like The Witch Way in terms of their plushness, could there be more takers for local bus services? Alas, in the realpolitik of commercial bus operations, this is nigh-on impossible.

Before deregulation day, buses meant a choice of your local municipal operator, a PTE-owned operation, London Regional Transport routes, or a National Bus Company constituent (i.e. Trent, Ribble, or Crosville). Sometimes you would see independent operators like Leon of Finningley, or A. Mayne and Son, Clayton.

In some areas there would be joint agreements between operators. NBC’s Yorkshire operation would cooperate with Metro West Yorkshire. Greater Manchester Transport had a joint ticketing agreement with A. Mayne and Son, inherited from Manchester Corporation.

By 1991, Greater Manchester alone had 68 bus operators. Not only GM Buses and municipal operators but also independent companies. Long established coach operators as well as bargain basement operators (for example, Mybus). Colourful? Yes. Passenger friendly? No. Not least 68 different operators’ fares to juggle (unless you had an all systems pass).

Back then, 224 million journeys were made by bus in GMPTE boundaries. Only five years earlier, 350 million. By the 21st century the decline has slowed down, which takes us to today’s figures.

Between 1991 and 2016, bus patronage in Greater Manchester has hovered above the 200 million mark. Last year it fell under the 200 million mark. Between 2014 and 2017, 15 million fewer journeys have been made by bus in the city region – a drop of 9%. Should figures continue to fall at that rate, the last bus to leave Piccadilly Gardens will be thirty-two years from now. Which if you need to save the date, could be the 16 April 2050 – the post-Easter set of service changes.

What’s eating into our bus routes?

Firstly, the hard stats, quoted from the BBC’s Shared Data Unit. Since 2014, Greater Manchester has:

  • Lost eight million bus miles – a 11.4% drop over three years;
  • Seen a 9% drop in bus patronage – or 15 million fewer journeys being made by bus;
  • A 10% drop in patronage on First Greater Manchester and Stagecoach Manchester routes. This is of great importance as splitting GM Buses into two did not enhance competition;
  • A 16% loss of mileage on subsidised routes – caused in no great small part by departmental cuts imposed on TfGM.

In spite of the damning figures, 79% of Greater Manchester’s public transport journeys are made by bus. 12% of which are made by tram with a 9% market share for rail journeys.

Throughout the nationwide survey, the North West of England has been worst hit by service cuts. The figures shouldn’t surprise anyone who has seen the worst excesses of Tory cuts post-May 2010. Especially in Northern England which has had more than its fair share of cuts to public services. So much so that some commentators have likened bus service cuts to Beeching style levels.

By 2014, in comparison with 2018, we had cut enough fat off the bones as far as bus routes are concerned. Four years later we have reached the point where bones and vital organs are being cut off. Spending cuts imposed on TfGM by Central Government has cut the budget for tendered services. Since 2014, we have seen:

  • Cuts to frequencies of some tendered services;
  • The partial loss or total loss of direct bus routes from Manchester city centre to Dukinfield (217/218, 220 and 221) and Norden (167);
  • Increased journey times due to congestion;
  • Service cuts on key corridors as well as less remunerative services;
  • The closure of First Greater Manchester’s Bury and Dukinfield garage – which have had a drastic effect on reliability.

It is easy to say that rail and tram patronage could be a factor. Their figures of 9% and 12% are too minimal to make an impact. It is reputed that four million people a year catch the 192 bus anywhere between Manchester and Hazel Grove. Over 30 million journeys are made by tram, which is about 30% of Stagecoach Manchester’s patronage per annum.

For many people in Greater Manchester, the tram or train is a premium priced option. Instead of taking a bus to the train or tram station, many commuters drive to their stop rather than take the bus. Most of Greater Manchester’s railway stations, and some Metrolink stations, offer free parking. Even with the fare, it is cheaper than driving to Manchester and finding a safe spot in the city.

Using Ashton-under-Lyne as an example, you could park at Ashton Moss or the railway station car park. If you live on Henrietta Street, you could drive or walk to the aforementioned stations. To travel to Manchester, two buses (333 and 216/219, or 331/231).

Though physically fit passengers can walk from The Old Ball stop to Ashton town centre, or The Broadoak Hotel, imagine if you had mobility issues. The bus is your lifeline, and a lot cheaper than the taxi if you have a concessionary pass. What if the 331 or 333 let you down? That’s another half hour till the next one. Or another hour on Sundays, evenings and Bank Holidays with the 332 service. If this happens often, you become more reluctant to leave the house. A trip to Ashton, let alone Droylsden or Manchester, becomes a challenge.

Which is why a reliable and affordable bus network is a social good as well as an economic one. In the words of Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, they are “the backbone of the transport network”.

If the trains and trams aren’t eating into our bus miles, what are the causes?

There are a multitude of factors including the most obvious and not-so obvious ones.

Reliability

More than anything, the reliability of bus services should be a selling point. If it doesn’t turn up on time or at all, the casual customer loses all faith in the ‘product’. The passenger may consider alternative means, with the motor car top of their priority. If the service doesn’t turn up, fewer people will use the route, leading to service cuts and withdrawal.

Congestion

Doing more to undermine the reliability of our services is that old chestnut. Some passengers who have lost faith in their local bus route may be inclined to drive the same direction as their bus route. Other factors like cack-handed junction design, roadworks, traffic signals, and lack of bus priority measures make the bus driver’s lot an unhappy one. No amount of free WiFi could comfort any passenger stuck on Hyde Road due to poorly positioned traffic cones.

Affordability

A single fare from Dukinfield [Albion Hotel] to Ashton-under-Lyne can cost up to £2.40. Three adults in a minicab can make the same journey and have enough left over for a packet of Chocolate Digestive biscuits. For £2.40, it is possible to travel three times the distance by car, excluding parking charges and insurance premiums. Given the choice of taking three on a bus to Ashton, or three in a car to Bury, many might choose the latter.

Complex fares

Even with half the number of operators compared with 1991, there are still a lot of fares to memorise. Unless you buy a System One season ticket (Buscard or CountyCard) or an Any Bus Day Saver. Once you’ve bought into the multi-operator eco-system, there’s a few other permutations to go at. That’s before we discuss half fares and two-thirds of adult fares.

Journey times

Besides affordably, the nature of local bus routes can put passengers off. To make the route pay, a direct route could be modified to serve (for example) housing estates or business parks. One case in point are the 370/371 routes from Stockport to Altrincham.

The 371 service, which takes a more direct route, has been usurped by the slower and more circuitous 11/11A routes. Whereas the 371 omits Wythenshawe, the 11 and 11A offers passengers a tour of the town proper. Which is good if you live in Benchill and need to get to Wythenshawe Hospital. If you travel from Stockport to Altrincham, the train is a better option speed wise.

Connections

Owing to the competitive nature of bus operations outside London and Northern Ireland, connections with other services and modes aren’t always guaranteed. For many passengers, the local bus is a stepping stone to a longer ride. Whether from one bus to another, or one bus to a tram, train, or ferry.

Rolling stock

It gives me great pleasure (with my passenger hat on instead of my enthusiast hat) to see low floor buses on every route. Due to depot allocations or the odd maintenance issue, the bus on your usual route could vary. On one day, a Volvo B9TL double decker could be seen on the 1538, whereas on another day you could get an Enviro300.

For some passengers, the kind of bus has a bearing on their comfort. There might not be enough room for buggies on single decker buses. The backrests could be uncomfortable on some seats (individual seats often the worst offenders here). Legroom could be tight for anyone taller than Warwick Davis (let alone Tom Cruise or Peter Crouch) on certain parts of the bus.

Besides maintenance issues, passenger comfort is another reason why municipal operators and PTE-based operators spent money on designing ‘a standard bus’. (See also the state of modern railway carriage design).

 

Information

Since 2014, Greater Manchester’s principal bus operators have openly publicised their apps and free on-board WiFi. For gadget geeks, being able to plan tight connections aboard is a boon. Paying for your bus travel on an iPhone or Android phone is another sensible move.

For passengers who cannot afford, use, nor have the inclination to purchase a smartphone, bus information means paper timetables. It should mean real time information displays at most bus stops. What is standard issue at Flowery Field railway station should also be true with the 340 and 343 buses which stop outside there.

Perception

Why do you never see pictures of Transdev’s swish Yorkshire Coastliner buses in glossy magazines? The image of bus transport remains a less complementary one, despite the efforts of Messrs Hornby and Stenning. Margaret Thatcher’s alleged quote about bus users losing out in life still resonates today. In 1989, Fatima Mansions even wrote a song entitled Only Losers Take The Bus.

This takes us to another aspect…

Presentation

Thanks to the consolidation of FirstGroup, Stagecoach, Arriva and friends, the early image of bus deregulation has escaped our consciousness. Instead of seeing a cornucopia of independents undercutting the ex-PTE or ex-NBC operator, there seems to be more standardisation. Modern day buses are more energy efficient with blue smoke from its rear end a rare occurrence.

Thanks to the above, we notice a few inconsistencies: like the Optare Solo in original Barbie livery in a field of Olympia-liveried Volvo B9s. The cleanliness of our bus, especially for new travellers, paints a mental picture of the operation as a whole. Even the kind of vehicle (which is more a peeve or blessing for enthusiasts and heavy users like yours truly) has an effect.

Operators

The operator is always an easy target for our grievances, and our experience of one operator’s route may vary from others. Passenger A could wax lyrical over the promptness of their 350 bus from Delph. Passenger B could decry the tardiness of their 425 to Fitton Hill. Some people might say they are doing their best in awkward traffic conditions. Others think they are putting the shareholders before their passengers whilst cutting commercial services.

I personally believe that stage carriage services are too important to be left to the whims of the free market. If I can board a bus on a tendered service over the popular one, I would go for the former. On the other hand I am happy with Transdev’s PR machine and branding, and the friendliness of Stott’s and MCT Travel bus drivers. What ires me most is when services are cut – whether commercial or tendered. In the latter situation, it is always easy to blame…

Local authorities

The present government (propped up by a bunch of Sabbath Swing Chainers at this time of writing) wants you to do just that. If a subsidised route is cut or withdrawn, the first thing we do is blame our local authorities. In other words, County Councils or Integrated Transport Authorities.

In truth, our LA or ITA (Transport for Greater Manchester in our case) is allocated a set amount of money by central government. They are required to set a budget by the end of the financial year and live within their means. When departmental cuts are made in a Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Budget Statement, it affects (for our example) the Department for Transport. From the DfT’s orders, TfGM and other similar authorities are encouraged to make savings. This can eat into the budget of non-ring-fenced areas like tendered bus services.

Therefore, Central Government shifts the blame locally. Your favoured councillors get booted out of office, and our present government is laughing away and thinking ‘mission accomplished’.

The labour market

In the last 35 years, Greater Manchester’s labour market has become more service orientated. This has meant more small businesses, coffee shops, hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions. Having a more wide-ranging effect on Greater Manchester’s bus patronage was the closure of large manufacturing bases. Also the collieries within the Lancashire coalfield. Both sectors enabled GMT, SELNEC and predecessors to run Works Services which are largely a thing of the past in Greater Manchester.

If you have a 9 to 5 job, the timetable pattern of a full time bus service may be a suitable fit. More so if you work five days a week. If you have a job with a zero hour contract, your hours may be too sporadic to justify a season ticket. Or your hours could be outside the standard 7am to 7pm of many bus routes.

At one time, Greater Manchester Transport’s ClipperCard could have been a boon for casual workers. First Greater Manchester offer a Carnet style ticket for single fares which is great if you live in Oldham. If implemented at a Greater Manchester wide level through the GetMeThere eco-system, a useful addition if you don’t need a day rover ticket.

The Gig Economy

For reasons similar to workers on zero hour contracts, a season ticket may be a substantial expense. Being on call and getting from one place to another at short notice is only effective on personal transport. Which favours the bicycle, van or car over any form of public transport.

Online shopping

If you cannot bear to leave the house or feel overloaded after a trip ’round Tesco, online shopping is a boon. No checkout queues, no parking peeves, no waiting for buses, maybe no need to leave the house. Especially if you have no car.

Why is online shopping a possible co-conspirator? Firstly delivery vans, which add to road congestion. Secondly: shopping from the comfort of your home means the bus is superfluous, undermining our bus routes and town centres. Thirdly: we sacrifice social contact with real people for a relationship behind a tablet screen. This makes us less inclined to go to the pub or coffee shop (especially if you’re a smoker).

Therefore our smaller shops close; bus routes and public houses follow suit. Even public libraries, leisure centres, and access to scenic bus routes. We all lose by being hermits who haven’t experienced the joy of sitting upstairs on the 340, 343 or 350 bus. With friends, family, or on our own as an escape from the house.

Personal security

Once again we go back to our friends in Westminster. Why do fewer people catch buses after 7pm? Personal security. NEDs, Hoodlums, Hooligans…? Easy scapegoats when cuts to police funding form the bigger picture. Waiting for a bus after 7pm at anywhere besides a principal bus station can be intimidating. Especially if the stop is poorly lit or away from recognisable landmarks. Besides being intimidating for passengers, it can be dicey for bus drivers.

Too many operators

Due to competition and/or service tenders, the multiplicity of operators can be daunting on one route to casual passengers. Unless you live in a area where one operator has a virtual monopoly, it is hardly worth buying a single operator season ticket. Telling anyone new to Greater Manchester’s bus network that their desired route has more than one operator could be confusing to say the least. Even more so if one routes has Operator A running before 7pm with Operator B running after 7pm.

The above could be solved by telling them to buy an Any Bus Day Saver ticket, but the confusion is still there. Unless they check Google Maps, have a paper timetable, or seek alternative modes of transport.

Where next?

Try to picture the future shape of Greater Manchester in 2050. Imagine one free of buses, as per the doomsday scenario. Seriously, we do not want to go there. Personally, I don’t fancy the idea of chatting online about “The Good Old Days when you could catch a 346 after 7pm”. Or recall with great fondness “how beautiful the 350 route was” before driverless buses were seen on Friarmere Drive.

Oft mentioned by Graham Stringer MP (Blackley and Broughton) and Andy Burnham, re-regulation is the answer. The Bus Services Act 2017, which has great local support, allows for route franchising with standardised fares and a standard livery. Local control has been hailed as a success behind Metrolink and the Leigh Guided Busway.

In the last five years, we have seen the rise of third sector bus operations – Community Interest Companies. Leading the charge is MCT Travel – Manchester Community Transport. Formed as Wythenshawe Mobile in 1982, their existence predates bus deregulation by four years. Last year, HCT (Hackney Community Transport) took over the company, though MCT Travel is operated as a going concern.

Since 2015, South Pennine Community Transport have operated bus routes across the Pennines from Uppermill. Alongside their 352 service along the Isle of Skye Road, they have expanded with sister routes from Holmfirth to Glossop (351), and Ashton-under-Lyne (X50).

Where First and Stagecoach have retreated, third sector operators have filled the void. In some cases, local independents have stepped in and some have held their own against the big bus owning groups. In rural areas this has meant community transport schemes with minibuses driven by volunteers. A world away from bus operations driven by unionised labour.

The next of bus service changes will see a continuation of this trend. From the 08 April, MCT Travel will pick up a number of tendered services in the Tameside and Glossop area. A new service from Denshaw to Uppermill and Greenfield will be operated by a long established minicab operator.

A bus that thinks it’s a taxi?

Earlier this year, Transport Minister Chris Grayling suggested that bus routes could operate on an Uber style model. What the Epsom and Ewell Conservative MP has foreseen is an expansion of Demand Responsive Transport. Instead of ‘traditional’ timetabled bus services, he has claimed that a DRT style model would be good for secondary routes. A bus route could be modified to pick up another passenger just off the track. Which undermines the consistency of a standard bus route and defeats the object of having bus timetables in the first place!

Not only that, an Uber model could make bus drivers subservient to The Gig Economy. Bargaining could be undermined, with trade union recognition similarly so. Nicholas Ridley’s dream of drivers owning their own buses could become reality – albeit until driverless buses take over.

By the end of this decade there could be more convergence between bus and taxi operations. Stagecoach and Arriva have made strides in the DRT sector in the South East of England. The foundations for the Uberisation of secondary routes are almost there with dedicated apps. Not only for drivers but also some of Uber’s worst traits – mainly surge pricing at busy times.

On the other hand, taxi companies have diversified into bus operations. Nexus Move, whom many of you will know as Radio Cabs, A1 Taxis, or Cavalier Radio Cars in the Tameside area, will be running the 356 route from Denshaw to Saddleworth Leisure Centre or Greenfield (via Uppermill). As Radio Cabs, they have operated the Mossley and Saddleworth Local Link service.

The shape of scheduled bus routes to come

Whether at ten to nine on a Saturday night or the year 2050, there will still be a need for trunk bus routes. If the tram or train is hamstrung by engineering works or disruption, we still need double decker buses. For transporting people from the Etihad Stadium to Manchester city centre, we still need 216s to lighten the load off our trams. Whereas the tram can take us from Cemetery Road to Etihad Campus, our 231 could take us from Fiveways roundabout and save us a walk to Droylsden town centre.

It is great to see our trunk routes getting good passenger numbers but its success shouldn’t be on the back of cutting off secondary services. Which takes us back to re-regulation, the notion of buses being a vital public service, and the need to get the network together.

Secondary routes perform an important role for their communities. Besides the trunk routes, they are the glue that enables them to access public services. They can save your ageing mother a walk or taxi fare, as well as a trip to the shops. Whether you are a pass holder or pay full fare, they are the most important routes for modest journeys. Also as part of a longer journey. They are a social service which goes beyond getting us out of the house now and then.

Whereas trunk routes have stood on their own six wheels, they haven’t escaped unscathed. In October 1986, the 409 service was every fourteen minutes. This was complemented by sister route 410, to Thornham – again every fourteen minutes. Adding the 400 Trans-Lancs Express, you had nine buses an hour between Thornham and Ashton-under-Lyne. Its evening service, every 20 minutes on the 409 route.

Today, the 409 runs every 9 to 10 minutes, or every fifteen minutes on Sunday and Bank Holiday daytimes. Its evening service is half hourly – down from every 20 minutes. The last 400s departed in 2004.

Since the 26 October 1986, bus deregulation has brought about some innovative thinking. It has meant the development of new bus routes early on. Also a novel approach to route branding and publicity in its later years.

On the whole it has been a dog’s breakfast. The good work seen on First Greater Manchester’s V1 and V2 services (thanks to cooperation with Transport for Greater Manchester) is counterbalanced by missing buses, service cuts and depot closures. Whereas Jim Stones Coaches and Stott’s Tours have held their own as independent operators, many have fallen to the likes of Arriva, First, and Stagecoach. The people of Droylsden probably miss A. Mayne and Son’s services to this day.

The free market has meant the lack of a coherent network which shifts on a quarterly basis. Central government departmental cuts exacerbate this, cutting the TfGM’s budget for tendered services. Thus meaning less frequent services, earlier finishes, and (for example) three operators sharing a bus route at differing times of the day or week. As a result, more cars on the road; and the lack of freedom of movement within their very own city region due to poor connections and gaps in services.

As for new routes, how do we appease the missing fifteen million passengers? Do we cut the fares? Should we have express bus routes complementing stopping services on key corridors? Are enhanced bus priority measures an answer? Stability wouldn’t be a bad thing either as well as proper funding. A change of government, even more so.

If ‘The Free Market Experiment’ meant sleek branded buses and cheaper fares across the UK, why are they an exception rather than the rule? Well, the clue is in the question with ‘free market’: if left untrammelled, anything goes.

References:

  • Bus services are being cut across Greater Manchester…: Manchester Evening News, 16 February 2018.
  • My Life in the Company of Buses (1986 – 2016): various blog posts on East of the M60, 1986 to 2016;
  • Tameside and Glossop Bus Service Changes: various blog posts on East of the M60 detailing bus service changes from Whitfield to Park Bridge since 2012;
  • Oldham and Saddleworth Bus Service Changes: various blog posts on East of the M60 detailing bus service changes from Denshaw to Hathershaw since 2012.

S.V., 15 February 2018.

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