Guided busways, with buses travelling along concrete guideways, kept on track by guide wheels on the bus sides by the front axles, aren’t a new idea. Based on a system in Essen, Germany, the first in the UK, on Streetly Road on the 65 in Birmingham, was introduced in October 1984. A victim of political bad timing, with deregulation approaching, the Tracline, as it was branded, was abandoned in September 1987. The 65 is now a route I occasionally drive at Perry Barr Garage! Despite this, other systems have been introduced in the UK, most notably on various sections of route in Leeds & Bradford. There’s also a short section of guided busway on First’s route 66 in Ipswich. More notably, two disused Railways have been converted to guided busway, from Cambridge-St Ives & Luton-Dunstable. Just a few weeks ago, a third guided busway along a former railway line had opened. And today, Phil Tonks and I went to ride on it!
So it was that I found myself arriving in Wolverhampton on Midland Metro CAF 25, crossing over the road at St Georges and spotting an NXWM Dennis Trident arrive on the 256 from Stourbridge. I also spotted Phil sitting on the nearside upstairs front seat so I waved! He thought, whose that loon waving at me before realising it was me and waved back! I met him around the corner at the bus station and we walked down to the railway station, popping into the Pumpkin café for a coffee and, most importantly, a bacon roll! We then bought our off peak returns to Manchester £32, with PlusBus tickets added for a mere extra £3.70, a bargain considering it gave us access to the entire Greater Manchester bus network. 220 034 was on our train, the 09.49 to Manchester, the highlight of this trip being our first trip over the new Norton Bridge flyover, built to reduce congestion at this busy junction on the West Coast main line.
We arrived in Manchester around eleven and made our way to Piccadilly Gardens, our intention being to travel first on Stagecoach’s 34 to Leigh, a service which competes to a degree with the Busways Vantage routes. As we nearly reached the stop though, a Stagecoach MMC E400 standing there pulled off! So we changed our plan and made our way to Stevenson Square, current terminus of Vantage routes V1 (Leigh) & V2 (Atherton).
We boarded Wright Gemini 3 bodied Volvo B5 hybrid 39242 on the V1, decked out in the restrained purple livery especially commissioned by First for the new Vantage routes along the busway. Inside, the interior was particularly sumptuous, with very luxurious leather clad seats, at the top end of the industry’s current fondness for “quality” specifications;
The original plan was for single deckers to be used on the Busway but, upon winning the contract to provide services along the Busway, First decided to use Double Deckers to this luxurious spec, a positive move in my opinion. With much controversy over the Busway’s construction, with many saying that it should have been a Metrolink tramway or a reopened Railway line, this specification really illustrates how good bus travel can be!
Both the V1 & V2 travel through Manchester City Centre, crossing over new tram tracks that will form part of Metrolink’s Second City crossing before we cross the River Irwell, which represents the boundary between the Cities of Manchester & Salford. Salford is a place that fades into the background in comparison with it’s more famous neighbour. The City has some wonderful old buildings, such as the 1912 cinema, now a church, and the Working class movement library (Rise up comrades! etc!) but these are greatly outnumbered by rather ugly buildings of 1960’s vintage, including many multi storey blocks of flats and the Salford Shopping centre. This later point is left to the many local services, whilst our Vantage services head onto the wide A6 dual carriageway, taking this to it’s junction with the A580 East Lancs Road. This dual carriageway was built between the wars, a result of moves to ease unemployment and reminds me of the A4123 Birmingham-Wolverhampton Road built in the same period. The road became the main route between Manchester & Liverpool until the opening of the M62 in the seventies, which took most of the through traffic. Nevertheless, the A580 remains a busy road and has recently been further widened, though, pleasingly, the extra space is to provide bus lanes, part of the improvement in priority’s on this corridor provided in connection with the Busway project.
The bus made good progress along the wide dual carriageway. The road was never well used by bus routes, as they served the community’s to either side, though deregulation changed that, with the new 34 to Liverpool and the rerouting of the 32 to Wigan using the road. I’ll talk more about the history of the bus routes in the area as I go along! We continued along the A580 for approximately five miles, passing the first of three Park & Ride site’s, which seemed quite sparsely used. Still, very early days yet, give it time. This is also now the terminus for Stagecoach’s 32 from Wigan, cutback to run as a Vantage feeder and seemingly converted to single decker into the bargain! A bit further on, we turn right off the main road, then immediately take a left turn onto the Busway. To the right, you can clearly see the track of the abandoned railway line, which has been built on, illustrating why it was either impractical or extremely costly to reopen the Railway or convert to Metrolink!
The bus took the Busway at a steady thirty miles per hour, both Phil and I agreeing that the ride was much smoother than on the Cambridge-St Ives Busway, upon which the buses travel considerably faster. The route is mainly in the open, with good views over Chat Moss, with Fiddlers Ferry power station visible in the extreme distance. I thought we’d encountered the second park & ride site but it was actually a scrap yard! The real second park & ride site was just beyond and had a similarly low number of cars! There are several stops along the busway, convenient for nearby houses, and we soon stopped in the village of Tyldesley, where the V2 heads off towards Atherton (we’d do that latter!) but the V1 continues onward along the Busway, until it approach’s the final park & ride site, just as the Busway ends and we followed normal roads into Leigh Bus Station.
Leigh is a small former mining town where, since the closure of the last pit in 1992, the local populace has had to look elsewhere for employment opportunity’s, like many of the small industrial towns in these parts. Of course, the towns’ big disadvantage is that it lacked a rail link, meaning those without a car faced long bus journeys to potential employment centres like Manchester. The town once had a municipal bus fleet, which became the second smallest fleet (Ramsbottom was the smallest) to be absorbed into SELNEC (South East Lancashire, North East Cheshire) Passenger Transport Executive in November 1969, latter becoming Greater Manchester PTE. The main bus service from Manchester to Leigh was the Lancashire United 39 from Manchester-Liverpool, though there was also a more indirect 26, which was jointly operated between Lancashire United, Leigh & Salford. With the two municipalties passing to Selnec in 1969, successor GMPTE bought Lancashire United, then the UK’s largest independent bus operator, in 1976, keeping it as a separate subsidiary until 1980.
Deregulation saw the 39 cutback to terminate at Leigh but the Liverpool section became part of the 34, one of the “Express” branded Limited Stop services introduced at the time (joining some that had been longer established) and running into Manchester via the East Lancs Road. Arms length operator Greater Manchester Buses was eventually split into two, with this area falling under Greater Manchester North who then became involved with a big bus war with Merseybus in Merseyside,with both operators competing in the others territory. A truce was eventually called and one of the consequences of which was that the 34 was split at Leigh, with Merseybus taking over the Liverpool side. Subsequently, Merseybus’s eventual purchaser, Arriva, would cut the 34 back to St Helens, severing Leigh’s link to Liverpool. The GMN 34 to Manchester survived (complicated how both sections retained the same number!), running hourly and operated by Bolton & Wigan garages. When First (who took over GMN in 1996) sold it’s Wigan operations to Stagecoach (who had taken over Greater Manchester South in 1996) , this meant that the 34, by now renumbered X34, became a joint service!
I’d been to Leigh twice before, though I’d actually tried to get there on a couple of other occasions but had under estimated how long it took to get there from Manchester, having to bail in Atherton on both occasions! You can easily forget that the town is pretty much the half way point between Manchester & Liverpool! I’d first reached there on a Warrington Borough Transport service, from that operators home town in 1996. Warrington are still visible in the town, operating former Lancashire United routes that Greater Manchester buses abandoned at deregulation. I then boarded a GMN Leyland Atlantean on a service to Wigan, the borough of which the town of Leigh is in. Stagecoach still operate a number of routes to the borough centre. Most of Leigh Corporation’s local routes were also abandoned by GMB in the early deregulated years and these have mainly been picked up by well respected local independent Jim Stone, who operate a modern fleet of Enviro 200 midibuses on these local services. A livery more familiar to West Midlander’s such as Phil and me was the dark blue of Diamond North West, virtually identical to the Diamond operation back home, the only difference being the green diamond used here, as opposed to the red back home . The company have a small presence in the town, having taken over local independent South Lancashire Travel (not to be confused with the earlier South Lancashire Tramways, which I’ll mention latter!)
However, competition exists on the run to Manchester!
When it emerged that First had won the right to operate on the Busway, Stagecoach was obviously concerned about the effect it would have on it’s X34 journeys. Most operators would have probably just give up but Stagecoach saw things differently. A new batch of MMC E400’s were allocated to Wigan for use on a totally revised and improved route 34 & X34. The X34 was reduced to peaks only, with several journeys extended to Bryn, whilst the number 34 was revived for a new 20 minute service, running via Astley & Worsley, areas which had been served by First’s 12 (rerouted from Bolton in recent years) and 25 (which served areas covered by the 26-reduced to evening & Sunday and now operated by Diamond) and the 39 (reduced to peaks only and now withdrawn, though a peaks X39 covers some of it), representing a reasonable increase in frequency on this corridor. The MMC’s are branded;
We boarded 10448 (the photo of 10046 above was taken latter) and it was interesting to compare it with the Vantage buses. No leather trim but the mocquitte covered seats are to dual purpose standard and are very comfortable, with reasonable legroom. Before the growth of the “leather seat” brand of service sweeping the industry, this would have been considered top of the range and is still perfectly acceptable. The MMC interior appears to be brighter than the Gemini 3’s used on Vantage, partly down to the subtly subdued décor used inside the Vantage buses but also, I suspect, due to the smaller windows which, I think, is the main negative factor in that body’s design.
The 34 travel’s to the south of the Busway, giving a good service to community’s away from it. We spotted a First Wright/Volvo B7 saloon on the 35, the hourly service from Leigh-Swinton (with some evening journeys to/from Manchester) which has replaced First’s 25. One wonders if First would have provided a better service for these community’s had Stagecoach not plugged the gap before the Busway opened with the 34! I expect they probably would have. The bus was reasonably loaded, mostly with local passenger’s, Phil & I being the only passengers throughout the run. Therefore, I suppose the competition between the two services isn’t as intense as it first appeared, with Vantage being the obvious choice for through passengers and the 34 serving the intermediate points. Nevertheless, the V1’s fifteen minute frequency, along with the 34’s twenty minute headway means that the local residents have benefited from a vastly increased service. Entering the city of Salford, we passed through the delightful suburb of Worsley , with a lovely, timbered house signalling the terminus of First’s route 33, which reach’s Manchester via Eccles, whilst we headed for the East Lancs Road and headed into the City via the same route as the Vantage services. Entering Manchester, we noticed that the bus took several back streets that we’d never seen before, this area consisting of some particularly fine Victorian buildings. We concluded that this was a diversion caused by work on Metrolink’s Second City Crossing.
From Piccadilly, we walked over to Stevenson Square again, and boarded Wright Gemini 3/Volvo B5H 39256 on the V2 Atherton service. This time, we decided to sample one of the upstairs table seats! This certainly gives an ambience evocative of the very best in train travel! Ironically, the railways seem to be heading towards more airline style seating in standard class, as they attempt to provide more seats for their ever growing clientele, whilst the bus industry, eager to gain an ever growing clientele, are seemingly pushing passenger comfort to the very core of bus design! And a good thing too in my opinion! Phil & I compared Vantage to the similar, though non hybrid buses on Transdev Harrogate’s 36 (see blog “36”). Phil’s thoughts were that, although the tables were a unique feature on Vantage, he felt that the 36 buses just had the edge over these. Frankly, I think the difference is very small. We both concurred though, that Vantage and the 36 represents the very, very best that the British bus industry has to offer! Very impressive! We followed the same route as the V1, out through Salford and along the A580 out to the Busway, which we followed to the terraced house mecca that is Tyldesley! Travelling through that village, we were soon in Atherton, a town that feels very Northern. More terraced houses, Rovers Return type pubs and several working mans (affiliated!) clubs!
Upon alighting, we walked around the towns one way system looking for the 582 stop in the Bolton direction. Whilst doing so, I was absolutely delighted to spot the Punch Bowl pub, the centre of the South Lancs Tramways Trolleybus system! This was an independent tram operator whose main depot was in Atherton. The various tram routes were replaced by three trolleybus routes in the 1930’s, all three meeting at the Punch Bowl. Two of these routes were very indirect, linking different tram routes together and both of these routes started from the Punch Bowl, the 1 heading to St Helens (joint with St Helens Corporation) whilst the 2 headed in the opposite direction, to Farnworth via Swinton. Lancashire United was a motor bus operating subsidiary of South Lancashire (with the main garage next door to the Tram/Trolleybus depot) so, when the Trolleybuses were withdrawn in the 1950’s, Lancashire United buses quite logically replaced them! The 1 & 2 survived into the seventies when they were broken up to be served by separate routes.
The third Trolleybus service, however, unlike the other two, ran in a direct line, from Leigh-Bolton via Atherton, this was the 82, joint with Bolton Corporation, who possessed four trolleybuses especially for this, their only trolleybus route. And unlike the two other routes, as First’s 582,still survives today! I’ve heard that, when the 82 was converted to motor buses, Leigh Corporation demanded a share (the tramway was running before Leigh Corporation began operating buses, the undertaking never being a tram operator) but the Soulh Lancashire/Lancashire United manager said that he would rather continue running trolleybuses than allow Leigh a share of the route! Leigh didn’t get it’s share!
Having found the bus stop, we waited for the next bus when our V2 passed us, beginning it’s return to Manchester. Phil & I made some positive comment or other when the lady who was waiting in the shelter with us also commented!
“Only takes forty minutes to get to Manchester, that does! I’ve been on it twice, it’s brilliant”
Very encouraging to hear such a positive comment from a person at a bus stop! All you normally get is moans and groans! Wright Eclipse/Volvo B7 saloon 69531 soon appeared on this ten minute trunk route and we boarded for a run through more tidy red brick terraces. I couldn’t help reflecting that this looked quite a nice area to live! Phil & I were talking quite animatedly when the old lady sitting opposite us said;
“Do you need to be so loud?” Oh dear! I apologised and we quietened down a bit!
Another reason to live around here was the reason we were visiting Bolton! I’d introduced Phil to the delights of the Olympus chippy on our last visit (see blog “Sapphire hunting with Phil”) so it wasn’t too difficult to persuade him to divert to Bolton for some more! We both purchased cod & chips and took them to the bus station where we consumed them with relish! Afterwards, we joined the queue for the next 582, which seemed to be getting longer! We deduced that a bus was missing but, after about eight minute , Wright Eclipse/Volvo B7 saloon 69524 appeared and we all boarded. We managed to get a seat but several passengers were standing! We made our way back towards Atherton, gradually losing passengers as we went! We stayed on for the rest of the run to Leigh, along with a fair number of other passengers!
It was now the middle of the peak and we decided to take the next V1 back to Manchester (getting the other track on the Busway in the book!) and study the loadings on the V1 & V2 coming out of the City. We consulted the automatic time display and soon realised that it wasn’t real time! Just after the time stated for the next V1 had gone, 39251 appeared with “Not in service” on the front. It parked at the stop and it’s driver was a craggy, dour faced chap who looked a proper old school bus driver who probably felt customer care was for wimps! He handed over to a younger guy who looked much more cheerful. Most of the drivers for Vantage are new recruits apparently! We soon boarded and were on our way. The buses on the way out were quite lightly loaded but seemed to be fuller the closer we got to Manchester, not unnaturally! As I said earlier, though, it’s still very much early days. One bus was broken down on the East Lancs Road but all else seemed to be running smoothly. As I said earlier, the aim of the Busway is to improve access from the Leigh area to jobs and other activity’s in the Manchester area, a task normally performed in similar towns by rail or Metrolink but the cost of providing such solutions here would be prohibitive due to part of the old railway having been built upon. People seem to view the bus very much as the poor man’s alternative but, in this case, the level of comfort is easily superior to that offered by the local trams and trains! Yes, the route is still vulnerable to congestion in Manchester City Centre but the bus lanes along the East Lancs Road seem to be keeping the service moving most successfully! I wish it every success!
We alighted at Piccadilly and decided to have a sample of Stagecoach 192, which is one of Phil’s favourite routes! The 192 is ranked as one of the most frequent single routes in the provinces, probably it’s only real competitor here being NXWM’s route 50 in Birmingham! One of the routes branded Enviro 400H hybrids turned up but was blinded for Stockport College. The driver got out and talked to an inspector. Obviously there was something wrong with the bus as the driver then got back in, put “Sorry not in service” on the blinds and drove off! Fortunately, another bus turned up with Stockport on the blinds, this taking most of the queue, leaving plenty of space for us on 12200, another of the 192 branded E400H’s, which pulled up behind and was going all the way to the final terminus at Hazel Grove. We soon set off and made our way out through inner city Levenshulme before heading past the McVities factory (PPPPP Pick up a penguin!) and into Stockport town centre where more boarded for the remainder of the run along the A6 through a rather dowdy area of shops and takeaways, until we reached the Hazel Grove terminus, home of a recently constructed Park & Ride site;
This impressive site was actually planned, paid for and built by Stagecoach themselves, to encourage yet more passengers to take advantage of the frequent 192 and approach Manchester along the various bus lanes. The building to the right of the photo contains a waiting room complete with toilets and relevant timetables. There are other sites like this in various parts of the country but they’ve all been built by local council’s and I believe this is the first example of a site of this quality being funded by an operator! Highly commendable considering the financial constraints councils now face mean more schemes financed by them seems highly unlikely! The single decker at the rear is on the 373 Hazel Grove Circular, which provides an alternative for those on the route to reach the 192 without using their cars. Everything has been so well thought out! There weren’t many cars left in the car park but it was 19.00, so the peak had now passed. As a further encouragement, stagecoach now even run a 15 minute peak Limited stop X92 to get you into Manchester even quicker! Do you still want the hassle of driving into the big city?
We boarded the bus in front, diesel E400 19630, which departed at just the right time, as Stockport was suddenly engulfed by a tremendous snowstorm! We alighted at Stockport Railway station and hit the platform just in time for the arrival of 220 031 on the 19.35 to Southampton Central which we took back to Wolverhampton. Phil had just missed a bus home, so I waited with him for the next one, continuing our never ending chat about buses! Eventually, a Trident appeared on the 256 and we said our farewells. I started walking towards the Metro but noticed Trident 4569 loading on the 79, so I decided to board this for home instead, a pleasant end to an excellent day!