Could affordable cross-boundary express routes be a missing link in improving the attractiveness of our bus routes?
England’s deregulated bus network has a fair few cross-boundary routes. Many are conventional stage carriage services where the travel-to-work area happens to be a county or unitary authority away. One example is the 237 route from Ashton-under-Lyne to Glossop via Stalybridge. Another one is the 125, a Stagecoach Gold route between Preston and Bolton.
If you wish to take any of the two routes from start to finish, you will be in for a long ride. Due to the traffic and circuitous nature of the 125 and 237 routes, sandwiches are a must. A bog stop in Chorley or Mottram-in-Longdendale may be a good idea. Whereas train trumps the bus from Preston to Bolton, there is no faster alternative to the 237 (besides sitting in your own car and ‘enjoying’ the congestion). The train option from Ashton or Stalybridge to Glossop means changing modes at Guide Bridge (via 219 or 347) or Flowery Field (via the 343). Either way, they take almost as long as the 237 does!
In Tameside, the public transport offer is either train, tram or bus. National Express’ only stop in the borough is at The Gun Inn, Hollingworth – for a thrice daily coach to Sheffield. Other than the 237, there are three more cross-boundary routes – and two of them go to Hyde. Ashton’s second cross-boundary route is the excellent Tuesdays Only South Pennine Community Transport service to Holmfirth. In Hyde, there is Stott’s Tours’ 341 route to Glossop via Broadbottom.
From the 10 January 2022, Hyde’s link with Sheffield will be severed after less than a year in operation. Despite showing such promise, Hulley’s of Baslow’s X57 route from Manchester to Sheffield will be withdrawn. Personnel issues and patronage have been cited as the route’s main issues. Reports of its demise were stated as early as November 2021. Since then, The Snake has seen its slick branding go awry. Instead of branded vehicles, anything from an elderly Dennis Dart SLF to a slick Volvo Evo bodied single decker.
There could be two factors behind its demise. One is the lack of consistency; who is going to go from Manchester to Glossop, or Hyde to Glossop on a tatty secondhand bus with the previous operator’s moquette? The other one is its timetable. Every two hours isn’t competitive alongside local routes. Despite stopping at nearly every lamp post, the average Hydonian would choose Stagecoach’s seven buses an hour via Hyde Road. For a fast link between Hyde and Glossop town centres, every two hours is not enough. Especially when it may be quicker to get a bus to either Newton, Godley or Hattersley stations for your Glossop train. (Even so, it is a move that takes some faffing about, unless you want to take the circuitous 341 via Broadbottom and Gamesley).
Though The Snake will see its last passengers next week, its short-lived presence has established two things. Locally, the people of Hyde need a fast bus route to Glossop. Though the idea of The Snake was great, its execution was somewhat lacking. The present operator should have taken a leaf out of Alex Hornby of Transdev’s book and looked at how well his bus routes are promoted. Imagine how he and his partners in crime at Best Impressions would have promoted the route – not to mention a more consistent approach to fleet management.
Its withdrawal sees the loss of an important cross-boundary link with great potential. From Manchester, if you don’t mind the traffic, it is easier and cheaper to drive into Sheffield city centre. The express trains – often full, even in post-COVID times – take 45 minutes to complete the journey – an average speed of about 35 mph. As for National Express routes, your friendly booking agent at Chorlton Street might tell you to change at Leeds for more journey options.
The other elephant in the room is that England needs a coherent system of short to medium distance express bus routes. A recasting and revival of regional express and limited stop routes – the kind of services that would have been operated by dual-purpose buses. In some parts of England and Wales, we have a few great examples in the X43 from Manchester to Burnley and the ever-successful Yorkshire Coastliner routes.
Dual purpose operations: a primer
Back in the early 1980s, National Bus Company used to have three types of bus and coach routes. There was your standard stage carriage routes which, depending on your locality, were seen in Poppy Red or Leaf Green. Then your National Express routes, which had an all white livery and the NATIONAL letters in red and blue. In smaller red text, you had the name of your local NBC constituent beside the entrance door (for example ‘CROSVILLE’ or ‘RIBBLE’ before being replaced by ‘NATIONAL TRAVEL WEST’).
In between your standard bus routes and National Express coach routes you had local express routes. Instead of taking you from Chorlton Street to London Victoria Coach Station, they would take you from Chorlton Street to Wellington Street, Leeds. These would call at a few on-street stops and at principal bus and coach stations. For example: Yorkshire’s express route from Manchester to Leeds would call at Oldham Coach Station and the Metro Travel Interchange at Bradford. The top half of each vehicle would be in white with a dash of Poppy Red or Leaf Green below the windows.
In some cases, regional express routes were branded. The X1 from Manchester to Flint (North Wales) was known as the Town Flier. The Yorkshire Coastliner brand has its roots in NBC’s Yorkshire and United constituents. It is probably one of the few branded bus routes to have survived bus deregulation.
Up until recently, Greater Manchester was blessed with a sizeable number of express routes. The TP Transpeak used to go to Chorlton Street before its terminus was cut back to Buxton. There was also the X60/X61 routes to Blackpool – at one time the most frequent express bus route in the UK – with many duplicates hired at short notice. The 130 – before being cut back to a shadow of its former self – used to be limited stop up to East Didsbury.
North of Manchester city centre, the X43 has held its own against a climate of lost express and limited stop routes. Since 1980, it was given express status after the M66 opened. To distinguish from its sister routes it was given a special livery with Timesaver branding. In March 1989, Ribble became part of Stagecoach Holdings and the route continued to have coaches and dual purpose double decker buses. There was also competition from GMS Buses who found a niche for their Dennis Falcon V buses.
By 2001, the East Lancashire part of Stagecoach Ribble was sold to Blazefield Holdings’ Lancashire United operation. Since then, the route has gone strength to strength with sleek new vehicles the norm. Known as The Witch Way, it now sees slick orange and black buses between Manchester and Burnley – giving NORTHERN’s rail service a run of their money.
The Witch Way and Yorkshire Coastliner aren’t the only success stories for Transdev; another success is the 36 route from Leeds to Harrogate and Ripon. Alongside NORTHERN’s rail service to Harrogate, it not only offers real competition between the two modes. It also offers an upmarket, sleek, frequent bus service between Harrogate and Ripon – a journey which could have been done by rail in pre-Beeching times.
Transdev’s approach shows how cross-boundary services can prosper. In the main, the ones that have prospered are in areas unserved by rail transport, or where rail journeys would be too complex for short distances.
Room for improvement
At present, most cross-boundary stage carriage services in the UK are run on a commercial basis or subsidised by local authorities at any point of the route. Using the 358 from Stockport to Hayfield for example, there are three higher tier local authorities to deal with for the recompense of concessionary fares: Derbyshire County Council, the unitary authority of Cheshire East, and Transport for Greater Manchester.
Under a franchised network, the operator has to apply for a permit from (for example) Transport for London to operate part of its route outside Greater London. In Greater Manchester, this could affect for example the 125 (Bolton to Preston), 100 (Warrington to Manchester) and 84 (Huddersfield to Manchester) routes.
Express coaches, such as these operated by National Express and Flixbus fall outside the franchised structure. They were deregulated under the 1980 Transport Act, which enabled private sector operators to compete against National Express. As for short to medium distance express routes with dual purpose buses, they fell under the 1985 Transport Act which deregulated stage carriage services.
As a lot of people depend upon cross-boundary routes, such improvements should be considered:
- Cross-boundary routes from franchised areas should utilise the same fare scale throughout its route. If, for example, the daily fare cap on an Oyster style smart card is £5.00 throughout Greater Manchester, it should be that amount on the 100 to Warrington.
- Every Unitary Authority, Metropolitan Borough, County Council and Town Council must have access to a bare minimum of one cross-boundary bus route per hour from 0600 to 2330 on weekdays and Saturdays, and no less than every two hours from 0700 to 2230 on Sundays and Bank Holidays. On Christmas Day this could be from 0900 to 2030 and 0800 to 2130 on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day.
- A network of short to medium distance express and limited stop bus and coach routes throughout England and Wales, complementary to existing stage carriage operations with through-ticketing across all modes. In franchised areas, this could include bus, rail, tram, underground and boat services within a given region. Newly created routes could be the subject of: (a) franchising, should powers to allow this be an amendment to the 2017 Bus Services Act; or (b) by means of an Invitation To Tender under the 1985 Transport Act.
- Any franchising of short to medium distance express and limited stop routes could correspond with a given region (like the North West of England) or under an incumbent franchising zone as per the 2017 Bus Services Act. Under the latter, operators could bid to take on new routes from Subgroup A of the Greater Manchester Bus Franchising Scheme area.
The first point would be novel for the UK at least. Under the second point, I shall used Greater Manchester for my example. Whereas the Metropolitan Borough of Wigan has a healthy number of cross-boundary routes, there are parts of Greater Manchester that are lacking. With traffic concerns in the Peak District, there is a case for franchising cross-boundary routes from Manchester to Chesterfield and Buxton. The lack of a fast Manchester – Hyde – Glossop bus route is sorely missed. With Greenfield having the only railway station in Oldham Council boundaries, there is a solid case for reinstating the 562 to Halifax and improving the 84 to Huddersfield.
For the third point, an extensive network of short to medium distance cross-boundary express routes should complement today’s cross-boundary routes. To ensure its success, already popular routes like the Yorkshire Coastliner services from Leeds to Scarborough and Whitby need to coexist with brand new routes. Some of the brand new links could be revived routes or totally new links.
Using the North of England for example, these could include:
- Fleetwood [Euston Hotel] – Blackpool [Talbot Square] – Preston – Manchester [Chorlton Street] – based on Stagecoach Ribble’s 1998 version of the X60 route.
- Manchester [Piccadilly Gardens] – Hyde – Glossop – Sheffield (via Snake Pass) – based on Hulley’s of Baslow’s X57 Snake route.
- Manchester [Piccadilly Gardens] – Trafford Centre – Warrington Interchange – Liverpool [Liverpool ONE shopping centre] – non-stop to Trafford Centre then Port Salford for AJ Bell Stadium, Irlam and Warrington before going non-stop to Liverpool ONE.
- Bury – Bolton – Belmont – Hoghton – Preston – all stops between Dunscar and Hoghton Post Office, limited stop for rest of route (could be numbered 154 to complement Hotline routes).
- Oldham – Denshaw – Rishworth – Ripponden – Sowerby Bridge – Halifax – based on the late great 562 route; express to Denshaw with intermediate stop at Greenacres [TESCO], all stops to Ripponden and express to Halifax.
- Manchester [Piccadilly Gardens] – Hollinwood – Oldham – Greenfield – Holmfirth – Huddersfield – based on the pre-2018 version of the 180 route; limited stop to Greenfield railway station then all stops to Holmfirth; limited stop to Huddersfield following 312 Holmfirth Connection route.
- Manchester [Piccadilly Gardens] – East Didsbury – Cheadle – Wilmslow – Macclesfield – Congleton – Crewe – based on defunct 130 route up to Macclesfield with non-stop section from Manchester to East Didsbury; then express to Wilmslow, all stops from Wilmslow to Macclesfield, and limited stop to Crewe via Congleton and Sandbach.
- Preston – Lancaster – Morecambe/Heysham – express version of 41 route; part route journeys could run from Lancaster University to Lancaster city centre and Heysham Ferry Terminal to connect with Isle of Man ferries.
- Blackpool – Preston – Skipton – Harrogate – York – express route with summer extension to Blackpool, potential connections with Yorkshire Coastliner routes for Harrogate and Skipton passengers.
Like the rail network, a nationwide network of short to medium distance turn-up-and-go cross-boundary routes (whether bog-standard, limited stop or express) need a nationwide ticketing system. At present, a cross-boundary bus journey may require two or more different tickets. A simple journey from Broadbottom to Glossop, for example, may be the same fare for the full journey for an adult passenger. Up to the Tameside boundary, a concessionary passenger would have to pay half fare. For the Derbyshire section, it is one-third of the adult fare.
Sometimes, for some long journeys, you might need more than one ticket on the bus. If your pass covers (for example) the whole of Greater Manchester and you want to go to Huddersfield by bus, you need to get another ticket east of the former Great Western Hotel. (Then again, you could leave that System One or GetMeThere pass in your pocket and buy a FirstDay ticket for the whole journey instead).
A customer journey
Thanks to an advert on Legendary Songs Radio, George Butler (47 of Fulwood) was wowed by his bargain £15 return fare to York. He is amazed by the fact he could board the 23 to Preston bus station to catch his coach to York.
Though the train takes 2 hours and 15 minutes from Preston to York, his rail connection with the 23 is pretty poor. For a start, it is a good 20 minutes on foot between bus and rail stations if he takes his time. With the X59 to York, he makes a short walk from one stand to another and his coach appears five minutes later. He sits down, relaxed, using the free WiFi. Or he could look through the window and take in the Yorkshire Dales via Skipton and Harrogate.
Three hours (and about a few millimetres of shoe leather saved) later, he is at Betty’s Tea Rooms in York. There he could enjoy the city. For another tenner he could have gone to Scarborough on the Yorkshire Coastliner.
In this hypothetical customer journey, our George could have:
- Booked his ticket on the operator’s mobile app; or
- Turned up on the day and paid with his debit card or smartphone on the first bus he caught; then
- After walking to his coach, he would show the e-ticket or paper ticket to his driver – or scanned the QR code on the ticket machine;
- For the best part of three hours, George would take in the scenic route to York via Clitheroe, Skipton, Blubberhouses and Harrogate.
As the hypothetical journey may be five years from now, his coach may be an all-singing all-dancing electric one. The seats will be more comfortable than anything on today’s trains, and there may be somewhere to rest his brew and/or an iPad.
Could the price be right?
Affordability should also be an issue. Historically, passengers who have been priced out by rail transport have turned to the coach or private car. It is important that fares are kept as low as possible to entice passengers onto a franchised network of short to medium distance express coaches (and existing routes).
In the last ten years, commercial operators have launched cheap and cheerful coach services with Megabus and Flixbus the best known operators. Whereas such providers focus on key corridors like Manchester to London, there is nothing besides the car that can take us from Oldham to Halifax in less than an hour. Without the 562, Oldhamers have to get a 409 to Rochdale for a bus to Halifax. If s/he cops for the bus via Todmorden instead of Ripponden, it is a Bring Your Sandwiches job. (The tram and train option means being financially penalised for switching modes).
One caveat with Megabus and Flixbus is tickets need to be booked in advance. As well as being lengthy, the turn-up-and-go option can be expensive. For last minute day-to-day travel arrangements – and everyday travel – the turn-up-and-go option should always be inexpensive.
A serious cross-boundary bus strategy should:
- Have a comprehensive network of cross-boundary routes with a mix of incumbent routes and fully franchised routes.
- Have nationwide through-ticketing as standard with local buses inside a given locality, local cross-boundary buses, and short to medium distance express and limited stop routes.
- Have affordable fares between any two given points without financial penalty for changing operators or breaking a journey on any given route.
- Encourage spontaneous turn-up-and-go travel without be penalised for making last minute journeys.
Do you think we need a meaningful strategy for cross-boundary bus routes or short to medium distance express routes? As always on this blog, feel free to comment.
S.V., 01 January 2022.