East of the M60 looks at the possibility of trams returning to Stalybridge
It is 90 years ago since Stalybridge saw its last trams. Back then, the trams were facing competition with local express bus routes. In 1931, the Stalybridge, Hyde, Mossley, and Dukinfield Joint Tramway and Electricity Board began to phase out trams and replace most of its tram cars with buses.
Ninety years ago, Stalybridge station was a busy junction station with Trans-Pennine services from Liverpool to Newcastle. The Stockport to Stalybridge train had a more regular service than in 2021. Plus you had a choice of two Dukinfield stations to use and two in Ashton-under-Lyne (Charlestown and Park Parade; three if you count Guide Bridge). In 1931, Stalybridge people had more public transport choices than in 2021.
If you travel by public transport from Stalybridge, the choice is even more limited. Ridge Hill Estate buses are now two per hour and could be once hourly by April this year! As for direct buses to Manchester, peak hours only. Sure there may be trains from Stalybridge to Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Victoria, but present-day service levels have been cut dramatically in the last five years. The number of places served have been cut to levels last seen in the early noughties.
In 1996, Stalybridge had ten daytime buses per hour to Manchester city centre. Mayne of Manchester operated the 220 and 221 routes (the latter was a short-lived extension of the present-day Tennyson Avenue route). They also competed against FirstBus’ 32 to 35 circular routes with the 232 to 235 routes – long-distance circular routes which also served Littlemoss, Droylsden and Hartshead Estate.
GMS Buses – later Stagecoach Manchester in the spring of that year – operated half-hourly extensions of the 219 route into Stalybridge, continuing to Hyde via Hattersley. The 236 and 237 routes used to terminate at Piccadilly Gardens instead of Ashton-under-Lyne. Till autumn, Bee Line had two journeys per hour on the 219 route from Stalybridge to Piccadilly Gardens. In the AM and PM peaks, they also ran the 153 express route from Top Mossley, via Carrbrook and Millbrook.
25 years ago, Stalybridge’s Mancunian bus links were superior to present-pandemic-era tram frequencies. More parts of Stalybridge (from Hydes to Heyheads, and Carrbrook to Mottram Rise) had access to a direct Manchester bus route.
At face value, the changes over twenty-five years represent a clear case for bus franchising. It is symptomatic of how the deregulated environment has reduced choice for Stalybridge passengers with higher fares and fewer buses. If you look at the bigger picture, an effective franchised bus network needs a Tony Banks and a Mike Rutherford to our Phil Collins. The keys to this include connectivity with a Trans-Pennine rail network that links Tameside with the North West, North East, and Yorkshire. Providing a solid base is a suburban light rail network, a must for improved connectivity across our City Region.
In the local press, the people of Stalybridge seem to have given the plans a cold shoulder. Many of the detractors say they are fine with the train service and the buses. If you have tried getting from Ashton to Stalybridge on a Sunday or Bank Holiday, you may be better off walking. Three and a half buses per hour and one bus replacement service (as is often the case) is hardly a service with a turn-up-and-go frequency.
The case for Metrolink in Stalybridge
Possible routes via Beaufort Road, Tameside Hospital or Stamford Street
In our previous article, Metrolink Extensions: Where Next?, we singled out an Ashton-under-Lyne to Stalybridge extension as the next most likely move. We proposed at the time:
“intermediate stations would include St. Michael’s Square and Stamford Park. This would be an on-street extension, likely to use Stamford Street or Beaufort Road up to the junction by The Warrington Inn.”
We also suggested (and it has been suggested in some forums by other posters) that an Ashton-under-Lyne to Stalybridge tram route should serve Tameside Hospital. Here’s what we said in the previous article:
“This could continue east of Ashton Interchange via Wellington Road, Penny Meadow, Mossley Road and Darnton Road. Thereafter it could reach Stalybridge via Mellor Road or Astley Road… [which] would favour Ashton Sixth Form College instead of Tameside College students.”
We also said that:
“Whiteacre Road could be more favourable than Mossley Road, so long as an intermediate stop is added on Curzon Road. This could compensate for lost bus links in the locality.”
Trams to Dukinfield?
If you look at the history of SHMD, ignoring Dukinfield’s link with its trams is like writing a potted history of The Beatles without John Lennon. The Albion Hotel was (and still is with today’s buses) an important terminus. Before the early 1970s, it had a brick-built shelter with public toilets behind the waiting area.
Dukinfield’s link with Manchester has shrunk to a derisory peak hour service with the 221 to Tennyson Avenue. The 220, once one of Stalybridge’s key Manchester buses, operates five times a week in one direction only. Its bus links with Stalybridge have deteriorated from seven buses an hour in 1996 to three buses an hour in 2021. By April of this year, it could be cut to two buses an hour, with the yawning gap being a missing link between the bottom and top parts of the town.
Even with forthcoming cuts to the 389 route, and the cessation of the 41A’s Sunday and Bank Holiday journeys after Easter, this could be solved by making the 221 a full time route. A basic hourly frequency with 221s every two hours after 7pm would do, further to the peak hour extras.
Metrolink could kill two birds with one stone by enhancing both town’s links with Manchester city centre. Trams (using pre-pandemic frequencies) could have a core service of every six minutes from MediaCityUK to Ashton-under-Lyne. Eccles trams could be every twelve minutes.
The Ashton-under-Lyne to Stalybridge section could be a loop with trams every twelve minutes. At 6, 18, 30, 42 and 54 minutes, they could go clockwise via Tameside Hospital and return to Ashton via Dukinfield. On the hour, then at 12, 24, 36 and 48 minutes, anticlockwise via Dukinfield then Stalybridge and Tameside Hospital. The stops could be as follows:
- Ashton-under-Lyne Interchange;
- Whiteacre Road;
- Darnton Road (for Tameside Hospital and Ashton Sixth Form College, interchange with 231, 387 and 389 buses);
- Stalybridge railway station (interchange with 387, 237 and 348 buses);
- Stanley Square (interchange with 343 to Mossley and Oldham);
- Albion Hotel (interchange with 343 and 346 to Hyde; also 335 to Denton and Dane Bank);
- Dukinfield Town Hall (interchange with 330 to Hyde and Stockport).
Then again, the Dukinfield and Stalybridge link could be part of a fork. This could follow the 330 route up to Dukinfield Town Hall and reach Stalybridge via Chapel Street, calling at the Albion Hotel and Stanley Square via High Street. The other route could be the Ashton-under-Lyne to Oldham line, which could give the people of Fitton Hill a direct Manchester link. Each branch could have a twelve minute frequency and – let’s face it – five trams an hour is a significant upgrade on five buses per week from Manchester to Stalybridge via Dukinfield.
Long overdue, especially as part of a fully integrated system
During the Edwardian times, Stalybridge’s tram system was a pioneering example of municipal ownership and cooperation. Long before ‘Tameside’ entered our vocabulary, the Municipal Boroughs of Hyde, Stalybridge and Dukinfield, and the Urban District Council of Mossley, pooled their resources in providing affordable electricity and public transport for its populace. In its early years it didn’t make much money, but the ultimate aim lay in providing a public service. Before the 1968 Transport Act, SHMD Joint Board offered a good value service that responded to local needs.
We would love to see the return of municipal bus operations or the return of Greater Manchester Transport. The Bus Services Act prohibits the creation of new public sector bus operations, though suggests franchised operations as an alternative. A halfway house where the fares and frequencies are set locally, albeit with certain areas operated by private sector companies to locally-mandated contracts.
Metrolink tram services enjoy the same sort of control as franchised bus operations in Greater London. Transport for Greater Manchester set the frequencies and the fares, supply the trams, own the depots and maintain the stops. A private company operates the trams to TfGM’s exacting standards. Before the pandemic, they were operated without a subsidy.
Some passengers may argue that “Metrolink will take their trains away”, when most of the damage to patronage came from the pandemic and (two years before then) the timetable changes under Chris Grayling’s watch as Transport Minister. One or two might say “the buses are fine”, but have they forgotten how Stalybridge’s bus network has been decimated in the last 25 years? Or the last ten years, even?
Some have said that Metrolink hasn’t brought visitors to Ashton-under-Lyne or Oldham, saying that everybody’s using it to go to Manchester. If you go to Shaw or Rochdale, it has had a marked effect on local bus patronage. The 181 and 182 routes have seen a halving of their frequencies in the last five years. Not every passenger from my observations travels all the way to Manchester. Some use it for local journeys, compensating for inadequate bus provision elsewhere.
Whether via Tameside Hospital, Tameside College or The Albion Hotel, I think an Ashton to Stalybridge extension would do well. If Stamford Street or Beaufort Road is chosen, it could be a winner for Tameside College students. Especially if it the next stop from Ashton or Stalybridge. The Tameside Hospital route, though a bit more circuitous, could be more useful for Ashton Sixth Form College students. A station at Fountain Street could cause conflict with emergency vehicles, taxis and patient transport which makes Darnton Road a more viable spot.
As for a Stalybridge extension via Dukinfield and Tameside Hospital, this would tick a few boxes in terms of social value. The middle part of Dukinfield could see the return of a direct link with Tameside Hospital – severed since 2008 though briefly restored from 2015 to 2016 on the 346 route. At five trams per hour, there could be a turn-up-and-go frequency on public transport between Stalybridge and Dukinfield. Moreover, both towns would see the restoration of full time links with Droylsden town centre. Even better if someone has the gumption to restore Stalybridge’s link with Denton!
If the tram is snubbed, enhanced bus services should be considered. This could be easier under a franchised system. Should the people of Stalybridge prefer the option of an enhanced bus network, it should:
- Allow passengers to travel from one end of Stalybridge to another without changing in the centre of Stalybridge;
- Be part of a hub and spoke system which covers the town, which itself is part of a Tameside-wide hub and spoke system;
- Have access to all of the eight other towns that make up the Tameside area, from Armentieres Square bus stops and the Bus Station;
- Have a full time link with Tameside Hospital, Ashton-under-Lyne Sixth Form College and Tameside College;
- Have evenly spaced timetables to ensure the viability of each route (no more five minutes between two buses then an hour or a two-hour wait for the next one);
- Have a full time link with Manchester city centre.
As with Metrolink, any enhanced bus network would only succeed with a dependable, easy-to-follow timetable and simple fares. Ideally as part of a Greater Manchester-wide scheme.
No amount of civil engineering work is without short term pain for long term gain. Most criticism about Metrolink lies in the maze of roadworks that Droylsdonians put up with from the late noughties to early 2010s. With Stalybridge, we remember the furore when National Grid upgraded its underground wiring system in the summer of 2018. The downturn in footfall at the Post Office on Trinity Street to a point where closure was on the cards.
Another problem is the post-pandemic future of public transport. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority has looked at four possible recovery scenarios, which also forms part of its consultation for franchised bus operation. One of them is the car-led growth scenario; a realisation that the car has won outright. A point where bus route frequencies may fall to rural service levels in urban housing estates.
With all three public transport modes that cover Greater Manchester, patronage has still to reach February 2020 levels. Rail has had the slowest recovery, whereas Metrolink trams have had the fastest recovery. Whereas bus timetables and rail timetables have had more frequent changes since the pandemic, Metrolink’s approach (service changes, social distancing) has been more measured. Double trams have been introduced to allow for social distancing on all routes. This has been helped by reduced demand for sports events, concerts and peak travel requirements.
Whether the 389 to Tennyson Avenue or the tram to St. Peter’s Square, it is going to take a lot of convincing to get everybody back on public transport. Since the early days of the pandemic, we had had been instructed to avoid all public transport before social distancing measures were introduced. Even with social distancing, cleaner buses and bus stop, and face coverings being worn on board, many of us in Tameside, it seems, have stayed away. Ultimately, it has also reinforced a previous Tory government’s message of buses being the transport of life’s failures.
Metrolink on its own isn’t a silver bullet. An effective bus network that fills the gaps unserved by trams is needed. Not only for hyperlocal links, but also as passenger conveyors to the trains and trams.
Before I go…
Does your 2030 vision of Stalybridge include Metrolink trams or enhanced buses? Will you be using Swift’s phone app on your wafer thin fifty-core smartphone from ALDI? Will you be showing off your electric car by then? Feel free to comment.
S.V., 21 January 2021.