Bus Route Numbers: Is 3, X3, 3A or 3x The Magic Number?

For East of the M60‘s 2000th article, we look at the art of bus route numbering

If you live in Oldham, you may be wondering why the 409 used to be the 9. You may be asking yourself why some operators use suffixes and prefixes in addition to numbers. Why, might you ask, do several express routes begin with X? This little post may answer some of your questions.

From a bus terminus far far away…

At one time, bus routes didn’t have numbers. The front indicator detailed the route’s ultimate destination and intermediate stops. Sometimes the route would be detailed on the side of the vehicle – almost like an early form of route branding. In some cases, each bus had a different livery to denote a given route.

As networks grew in complexity, adding numbers to each bus route was inevitable. In April 1906, London operator Vanguard introduced route numbers. They shortly merged with General and amassed 100 routes. 1912 saw the first use of letter suffixes with the 35A route.

Soon, the foundations were set for subsequent renumbering schemes across the UK. Some operators elected to have one set of numbers for trolleybus routes with another set for motor bus routes. One of the most celebrated renumbering schemes was the Bassom Scheme under the 1924 London Traffic Act. This set the trend for the shape of today’s TfL routes.

In Manchester, today’s routes owe their existence a network of cross-city express buses, trolleybuses and tramways. At one time, the 216 used to be the 26 trolleybus route with the ‘1’ added. Across the UK, many bus routes owe a debt to defunct tramways and trolleybus routes.

Renumber, Remodel

Many of today’s bus routes, despite minor and not-so-minor variations, use route numbers dating from the 1980s or earlier. In areas where the National Bus Company once operated, some numbers date from previous renumbering exercises by NBC’s Market Analysis Project (MAP). In Metropolitan areas outside London, many have been inherited from Passenger Transport Executives’ renumbering exercises.

Various cities and operators have their own ideas on allocating bus numbers. In Greater Manchester, their 1973 – 1974 scheme (in advance of GMPTE’s succession of SELNEC PTE) was as follows:

  • 1 – 299: Manchester, Salford and Trafford routes (inc. Lancashire United Transport services);
  • 199: Hale Barns Express;
  • 200: Airport Express;
  • 300 – 330: Stockport routes;
  • 331 – 357: Tameside and Saddleworth routes;
  • 358 – 399: Stockport, High Peak and Wilmslow routes;
  • 400: Trans-Lancs Express;
  • 401 – 499: Oldham, Rochdale and Bury routes;
  • 500: Bolton – Manchester Airport Express;
  • 501 – 599: Bolton and Leigh routes (inc. Lancashire United Transport services);
  • 600 – 699: Wigan routes;
  • 700 – 799: Works Services;
  • 800 – 899: School Services.

In later years, some of Wigan’s stage carriage routes had numbers higher than 700. The 900 series of numbers were reserved for occasional use. For example, the shuttle buses for Pope John Paul’s visit to Heaton Park were numbered from 901 upwards. Another possibility behind their occasional use could have been due to National Express routes being numbered from 800 to 999.

In 1934, London Transport’s first renumbering exercise had different sets of numbers for single decker routes and double decker routes as well as trolleybuses. Hence:

  • 1 – 199: Central Area (double decker routes);
  • 200 – 289: Central Area (single decker routes);
  • 290 – 299: Central Area night buses;
  • 300 – 399: Country Area (north) routes;
  • 400 – 499: Country Area (south) routes.

Upon the creation of London Transport that year, LT had two distinct areas. There was Central, which had the familiar red buses. The Country Area – London Country – had green buses. Whereas the Central Area stayed in London control at 55 Broadway, London Country (under the 1968 Transport Act which gave us GMPTE) became part of the National Bus Company. After deregulation, it was split and privatised, subject to the machinations of the Free Trade Experiment. The Central Area now falls under Transport for London’s franchised services.

Outside London, most of the PTE renumbering schemes were based around the most dominant city in each Metropolitan County. Whereas Manchester and Salford kept their own set of numbers, other parts of Greater Manchester bore the brunt of the renumbering scheme. What was 21 in Oldham became the 421; the 1 and 3 Ashton circular routes were renumbered 331 and 333 respectively.

Another approach was taken by Crosville in the late 1950s. This time with letter prefixes as seen below in their 1967 state.

  • Axx: Deeside and Flintshire coastal routes;
  • Bxx: Mold local routes;
  • Cxx: Chester local routes;
  • Dxx: Wrexham local routes;
  • Exx: East Cheshire routes – or Cheshire East in today’s terminology;
  • Fxx: Wirral routes;
  • Gxx: used by two services;
  • Hxx: Liverpool and Halton Borough Council;
  • Jxx: some services in Widnes and Runcorn;
  • Kxx: Crewe and Nantwich local routes;
  • Lxx: Limited Stop routes;
  • Mxx: North Wales Coast, Rhyl, Colwyn Bay and Llandudno local services;
  • Nxx: Bangor, Caernarfon and Anglesey routes;
  • Rxx: Mid Gwynedd routes;
  • Sxx: South Gwynedd and Aberystwyth local routes;
  • Txx: Runcorn Busway.

In Greater Manchester, the use of prefixes was particularly frowned upon till bus deregulation came. Single letter prefixes were used by GM Buses to distinguish their minibus routes from services operated by standard buses. After local branding with Ashton Minilyne being a pioneering example, the local names gave way to a single identity: Little GeM. Or Little Gem, with the brand either meaning it’s a gem of a frequent route, or that it is a Little GM. A smaller GM Bus.

Historically, Greater Manchester’s bus routes used the lower case ‘x’ as a suffix to denote an extra service. The city region came late in to the Prefixing Every Express Route With An ‘X’ Party preferring to use round numbers. Hence 400 instead of X40, or 200 instead of X20.

Letters have commonly been used as suffixes to denote a variation of any given route. In Tameside, the main 21 route (today’s peak hour 221 route from Piccadilly Gardens to Dukinfield, Tennyson Avenue), had a variant in the 21A, which terminated at Stanley Square, Stalybridge. Upon renumbering this became the 220 to Stalybridge bus station, which is now a ghost route with one journey per weekday.

SHMD’s 4A was a variant of the 4 route, with its route in Micklehurst serving Winterford Road instead of Staley Road. In addition to the 10 route (Ashton-under-Lyne – Dukinfield), there was also the 10A and the 10B. They would form part of the 339 and 340 circular routes and – bringing the story up to date – Tameside’s version of the 41 route.

Sometimes, the letters ‘A’ and ‘C’ have been used as suffixes for circular routes. The ‘A’ would stand for anticlockwise with ‘C’ standing for clockwise. Upholding this practice is Birmingham’s celebrated 11A/11C Outer Circle bus routes which cover Perry Barr, Acocks Green and Bearwood.

Another common use of letter prefixes includes school bus routes. Since the Yellow School Bus scheme was launched by GMPTE, a new set of YSB routes were created with Y prefixes. For example, the Y77 to the Samuel Laycock school in Hartshead.

Over in the US of A, our friends in Dallas have another approach, as seen here:

  • 1 – 199: local buses;
  • 200 – 299: express bus routes;
  • 300 – 399: suburban routes;
  • 400 – 499: crosstown routes;
  • 500 – 599: bus routes which railway stations;
  • 600 – 699: local area shuttle routes or demand responsive transport. routes.

Had any given part of Greater Manchester opted for a Dallas style scheme, this could have been tricky to say the least. In Tameside, the 41 would have fallen into the 600s next to the Ashton circular routes. The definition of crosstown in the American sense would have seen the 346 in the 400 series, on account of it being a cross-town bus in Dukinfield. It could come under 1 – 199 as a local route. Or in the 300s as a suburban route like the 343 (which could also fall into the 400 series or the 500 series).

“Brought to you by the letters BF and E…”

At one time, the Borough of Preston’s bus operations used to use letters for some routes. Instead of numbers, the letters denoted the final destination. For example, a bus to Brookfield Park would be the BF route. Some of Oldham’s bus services had letters too. Oldham Corporation Transport’s routes used letters before switching to numbers. This included the O service to Lees [County End] which forms part of today’s 84/180/184 routes. Also the E bus to Upper Mossley which is the northern section of the 343 route (after being the 16 and – under GMT – the 416).

Further to operational reasons (i.e.: part routes, variations or regional identifiers), letters – whether in full, suffixed and prefixed forms – have been used for promotional purposes. One example is the STB: the Stonehenge Tour Bus operated by The Go-Ahead Group’s Salisbury Reds brand. A more mundane application is its use in promoting Park and Ride shuttle routes – PR1, PR2, PR3 and so forth. Beac is used to promote a twice-weekly circular route in Beaconsfield by Beaconsfield Community Bus.

Getting to the point

If letters aren’t enough for a three or four part numeric indicator, how else could one renumber a selection of bus routes? We could have National Rail style head code numbers like 1B00 or 2A46, but these wouldn’t trip off the tongue as well as 400 or 346. We could do away with numbers and only have named routes. A bus that says The Newton Rattler would be no use elsewhere other than the 346 route which means making sure named buses only run on given points.

Back in the early noughties, Trent Barton had a cunning plan. They suggested using decimal points for a set of routes in Alfreton. Running from Derby to Mansfield via Alfreton, The Nines is a couple of routes which run between the two places. Route 9.1 takes in Sutton-in-Ashfield which is omitted by Route 9.3. If you are travelling from Sheffield to Sutton-in-Ashfield on public transport, it may be better to change modes at Alfreton station instead of changing trains in Nottingham or Worksop for the Robin Hood Line.

The Nines were far from a one-off for Trent Barton, whose penchant for naming routes has won plaudits among passengers and bus industry figures. There is also The Sixes which offer eight permutations with and without decimal points from Derby to Belper, which are as follows:

  • 6.0: Derby – Belper;
  • 6.1: Derby – Belper – Matlock – Bakewell;
  • 6.2/6.3: Derby – Belper – Ripley;
  • 6.4: Derby – Duffield – Belper;
  • 6.X: Derby – Openwoodgate (Express route);
  • 6E/6N: Derby – Belper – Ripley.

As seen above, the main corridor is between Derby and Belper with the 6.1, 6.2 and 6.3 routes being extended versions of the 6.0 and 6.4 routes. The 6E is an evening version of the 6.2 and 6.3 routes, whereas the 6N is a circular Saturdays only night bus. The 6.X is self-explanatory: it is an express route that runs during the daytime.

With many of the 6.0’s variations being hourly alongside its half hourly parent, this makes for a Metro style frequency on its core corridor. Passengers would know that any bus starting with a 6 takes you from Derby to Belper and part of the same ‘family’. If the 6.0 was the 60, with its brethren known as the 61, 62, 63, 64, 60X, 60E and 60N, would they think of each route as being distinct from one or the other?

Sometimes, parts of hitherto cross-city routes could be renumbered to provide some deviation from its original. The 96, which begun at Whitefield and terminated at East Didsbury was split in 1995. The southern half from Piccadilly Gardens became the 196.

If you wish to go further back, the Hyde to Bolton route was split at Piccadilly Gardens in 1933. The Bolton to Manchester section is today’s 8 route, operated by Diamond Bus North West. The other 8 route was later absorbed by the Piccadilly – Hyde [Gee Cross] trolleybus service. Its true limited stop successor was the 208 service from Piccadilly Gardens to Hattersley (via today’s 201 route).

Common practice is the use of subtle changes in numbers for contracted services. The 221 also has a part route sister bus, working from Audenshaw School to Tennyson Avenue. Being a school service it falls under the 700 to 999 series of numbers as the 721.

Why haven’t other symbols or A-road style numbering schemes been considered?

Numbers and letters

The average numeric indicator panel of any given bus uses alphanumeric characters. Before the advent of full colour LED displays, the use of anything other than numbers and letters haven’t been considered, but the technology is there.

Instead of changing its route numbers from the 600 series to single figures, Stagecoach Wigan’s 1 route could have been given the number π1. The Kitt Green Circular could have been the π3. This number would be valid on two grounds: one, Wigan’s association with savoury pastry products; and two, the 3’s status as a circular route. (Perhaps there could be a Monster Raving Loony Party policy which states that all circular bus routes should prefaced with π or 3.142).

As for the Canterbury Triangle route via Whitstable and Herne Bay (this time in the Stagecoach heartland of Kent), the ∆ (Delta) symbol could be used. Which takes up less room on the front, rear and kerbside indicators than ‘Triangle’.

There is a good reason why anything other than alphanumeric characters aren’t used. Not everybody would be pleased with catching the 53˚ to Biggin Hill. Or the 99€ to Folkestone.

A-road style numbers

There are too many bus routes in the UK to consider a zonal system akin to Britain’s road network. For a start, our principal arterial roads – A, B, C and M – cover far greater distances than many bus routes. Some roads are shorter than sustainable bus routes.

If you were to consider a nationwide zonal system for bus routes, you could have to consider something similar to a code sharing agreement for certain sections. An M60 orbital equivalent for bus routes would have a code sharing reference number (i.e.: GMM60) covering the 2, 22, 471, 409, and 330 routes. One with common single fares from Woodley to Breightmet without being penalised for switching operators (from Stagecoach to First and Diamond Bus North West).

Furthermore, it can be a pain in the proverbial to try and remember several sets of numbers if you are flying, never mind bus routes. Code sharing exists to ensure through-ticketing with other airlines. Trying to remember GMM60 as well as 2, 22, 471, 409 and 330 could be hideous. Perhaps this idea should be considered for express bus routes with improved through-ticketing between local operators and National Express coaches. Only as an admin code on your ticket instead of on a route indicator.

Yorkshire Tractionus Logico-Philosophicus Brighouse and Rastrick

If you really want to confuse the passenger or stretch the capabilities of your beloved Enviro400H’s electronic display, take a tip from Ludwig Wittgenstein. In his celebrated work, Tractus Logico-Philosophicus, each primary point is accompanied by a comment in the next proposition. Therefore, 1.1 is a comment on point 1. Point 1.11 elaborates on Point 1.1, as does points 1.12 and 1.13. Likewise with 1.121 and 1.131 which links up to 1.1211 and 1.1311 respectively.

Each point is constructed like a root of a tree, or tributaries feeding into a river. Our A-roads are similar, with the A6 being fed by the A62, which in turn is fed by the A627 and the A6108 further down the line.

Supposing we had the same logic with our bus routes, the 330 would be our equivalent to the A6. Therefore, under that model, the 41, 335 and 345 should be numbered 3301, 3302, and 3303. The 343’s tributary would be the 348, which under The Yorkshire Tractionus Logico-Philosophicus Brighouse and Rastrick ruling should be the 3431. The 7, 408 and 425 routes should really be the 4091, 4092, and 4093 because each route shares part of its route with the 409.

If there was a variation, we could always stick a decimal point in the number. Perhaps the schooldays only journey of the 344 route could be 343.5 (the number after the point being five days a week). Evening journeys of the 348 could be numbered 348.18 – with the 18 meaning 6pm.

Apart from that, higher numbers on the front indicator would leave very little space for displaying the destination. Not unless you are happy to ditch the intermediate journey details by having the number above the final destination. Oh, and who on earth would like to stand in the bus queue and say “I see the 3431 is late or missing again?”

Why are sensible bus numbering schemes important?

Whether at local level or regional level, a sensible route numbering system should make for a more user-friendly network. Any renumbering exercise should maintain some continuity with previous numbers. Hence the retention of key route numbers in Manchester and Salford during the 1973 – 74 renumbering exercise. Also the incorporation of some lower numbers in the main numbering system, hence the 1 and 3 Hurst Circulars becoming 331 and 333.

As you would have noticed, I am a fan of the SELNEC/Greater Manchester PTE numbering system. The original premise of making sure there was only one route 1 in Greater Manchester was undermined by bus deregulation. In addition to the 42s, 82s and 1s, there was also W2s, M82s and P1s. In some cases, the prefixes denoted operators’ routes. Hence the W2 being Walls’ answer to the Wilmslow Road corridor routes. The P in P1 meant Pine Coaches’ local route from Dukinfield to Ashton.

Should the people of Greater Manchester opt for a franchised bus network, it wouldn’t surprise me if the city region considers a comprehensive renumbering scheme. Provision should also be considered for cross-boundary routes that require a permit from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

Taking into account present trends, there should be a place for the greater use of letter prefixes on local routes. The most comprehensive shift towards this has been undertaken by Transdev’s Rosso and Burnley Bus Company operations in Bury and Rochdale (where route numbers are prefaced by B or R). If Transdev’s precedent is successful, Greater Manchester’s routes could be renumbered like this:

  • 1, 2, 3: TfGM city centre Free Bus services;
  • 4 – 299: Manchester, Salford and Trafford trunk routes;
  • 300 – 399: Stockport and Tameside trunk routes;
  • 400 – 499: Oldham, Rochdale and Bury trunk routes;
  • 500 – 599: Bolton and Leigh trunk routes;
  • 600 – 699: Wigan trunk routes;
  • 700 – 999: schools and works services;
  • A1 – 99: Trafford local routes;
  • AM1 – 9: Trafford Local Link and short distance town services;
  • B1 – 99: Bury and Bolton local routes;
  • BN1 – 9: Bolton Local Link and short distance town services;
  • BY1 – 9: Bury Local Link and short distance town services;
  • C1 – 99: Manchester and Salford local routes;
  • MR1 – 9: Manchester Local Link and short distance town services;
  • SD1 – 9: Salford Local Link and short distance town services;
  • O1 – 99: Oldham local routes;
  • OM1 – 9: Oldham Local Link and short distance town services;
  • R1 – 99: Rochdale local routes;
  • RE1 – 9: Rochdale Local Link and short distance town services;
  • S1 – 99: Stockport local routes;
  • ST1 – 9: Stockport Local Link and short distance town services;
  • T1 – 99: Tameside and Glossop local routes;
  • TE1 – 9: Tameside and Glossop Local Link and short distance town services;
  • W1 – 99: Wigan and Leigh local routes;
  • WN1 – 9: Wigan Local Link and short distance town services;
  • LH1 – 9: Leigh Local Link and short distance town services.

Any local Free Bus services like the Bolton Metroshuttle could also be numbered BN1 instead of 500. Preferably, express routes should be numbered 100, 200, 300, 400 and 500.

For the purpose of this table, a trunk route means any service that crosses county boundaries or Metropolitan Borough Council boundaries. For example: the 330 to Stockport; the 471 from Bolton to Rochdale; or the 353 from Ashton-under-Lyne to Uppermill. Under a franchised system, they could become part of a Large Area Contract or in some cases (like the 353 route) a Local Service Contract.

A local route would be self-explanatory: any bus route that serves its passengers within the Metropolitan Borough Council boundary. For example: the 335 from Denton [Town Lane] to Ashton-under-Lyne, which could be T1 if a prefixed system is used. The 41 could be the T2 which could be a useful mnemonic for Tennyson Avenue. In a franchised world, such routes could be part of a Local Service Contract.

Last but not least are the Town Services, which are short distance radial or circular routes that go from one part of a given town to another. Using the 336 and 337 routes [Hartshead Circular] as our example, they could be renumbered TE1 and TE2 with sister route 339 being the TE3. The Sunday and Bank Holiday version of the 396 to Limehurst Farm could be renumbered TE4. These routes could be part of a Local Service Contract if a franchised system is considered. TE8 and TE9 could be used for LocalLink Demand Responsive Transport services.

With the exception of Manchester and Salford local routes, it is worth noting that the two letter prefixes reflect former Greater Manchester Transport depot codes.

Before I go…

What are your thoughts on the numbering and renumbering of local bus routes? Are you confused with the idea that any given county or City Region may have more than one lot of 1 routes? Are you happy with the present state of bus route numbering systems? Do you support the idea of using letter prefixes for promotional instead of operational motives? Feel free to comment.

S.V., 08 January 2020.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Andrew Bowden says:

    A word should be given here to the only five character bus route number I’ve come across (I’m assuming it’s unique, but it may not be.)

    The AD122 runs along the Northumberland section of Hadrian’s Wall.

    Like

    1. Hi Andrew,

      There is another bus route that has a five character number besides the AD122 route (back this Eastertide). It is Warrington’s Own Buses’ CAT5A route, a variation of the CAT5 route from Warrington to Altrincham (via Dunham Massey). The CAT5A varies from the core route by serving Partington instead of Bowden. In timetables, it is known as the 5A route (though the indicators read CAT5A).

      Warmly,

      Stuart.

      Like

  2. andy says:

    Hi Stuart , off subject ,check Merseyside Dennis Dart Forum .
    On the bus section check out TFGM SUBSIDISED SERVICE REVIEW APRIL 2020
    I think you will find it rather interesting.

    Like

    1. Hi Andy,

      From what I have noticed, the most far reaching change proposed is the expansion of the 356 Saddleworth Rambler service. This by means of absorbing the 353, 355 and 407 routes. The section from Mossley station to Greenfield – served by the 354 route – could be ditched.

      The other notable proposal I have seen is this neck of the woods is a change to the daytime route of the 343. This would absorb part of the 418 service (from Royal Oldham Hospital to Lees).

      The most retrograde step I have seen is the proposed withdrawal of the 387 route. This offers the most direct route to Tameside Hospital for Stalybridge and Hattersley residents. Without that, Hattersley passengers will be forced to change at Ashton.

      Warmly,

      Stuart.

      Like

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