The Ribble Bashes-Part Four-October 1999.

This part’s quite a rare one, in that this Ribble bash didn’t start from Blackpool! (Though I do end up there!) but instead started from home and involved a trip from Wolverhampton (reaching there on the then brand new Midland Metro!) on what was then a rare First North Western train service from Birmingham New Street-Manchester, operated by former “Clacton” line Class 309 units. This train left Wolverhampton around 06.50, in the days when you could get a reasonable fare at that time (Cross Country would change all that years latter, off peak fares strictly not starting now until 09.30!) and also meaning, despite the trains semi fast nature, an arrival time in Manchester of just before 09.00! I used the service on several occasions (the last time featuring a Class 323 after the elderly 309’s had been withdrawn) and mourn both it’s, and the more liberal off peak fares policies, passing!

Once in Manchester, a swift walk to Chorlton Street Coach Station took place and I waited for the next X43. Now several things had happened to Ribble since my last bash in the area (see “Part Three-June 1995”). First of all, Stagecoach had acquired two of the Lancashire municipalties. Accrington based Hyndburn had sold out first, followed by Burnley & Pendle, which came to Stagecoach in two parts! Pendle council sold their portion of the jointly owned company first, with Stagecoach being the successful bidder. The new owner’s wanted to invest in what was becoming an increasingly aged fleet but co owner Burnley had to put up it’s share of the dosh, something that it was unable to do. Eventually, around a year after the Pendle sale, Burnley gave in and sold it’s sharing to the Scottish giant (I believe the proceeds were used to fund a new leisure centre)

Complete Stagecoach control of Burnley & Pendle meant that the X43 was now operated by that company itself, as opposed to being out stationed in the Burnley & Pendle Garage and operated by buses allocated to Clitheroe Garage. And evidence of the Burnley & Pendle takeover was made abundantly clear by the bus that I would travel on, this being a former Burnley & Pendle Dual Purpose Double Deck Alexander bodied Volvo Citybus. Several journeys had been extended along the Burnley & Pendle route to Keighley too! The Interurban coaches allocated to the route during the spell of competition with Greater Manchester South’s Charterplan coach operation (now, of course, Greater Manchester South was owned by Stagecoach!) had largely moved on elsewhere and the Double Decker operation that had long been synonymous with the route had returned. So it was a comfortable and interesting run out of Manchester and along the M66 and down into Rawtenstall, where I alighted.

Rossendale

My intention in getting off in Rawtenstall was to get my final Lancashire municipal operator in the book, Rossendale! Formed out of the merger of the former Rawtenstall & Haslingden municipal fleets as a way to ensure both operators survival, occurred in the late sixties (nearby Ramsbottom had also considered joining in but fell into the net of the mighty SELNEC-what was to become Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive instead!), this preceding the formation of the Rossendale District Council that would embrace both Rawtenstall & Haslingden Urban District Councils in April 1974. I wonder if the fact that the combined bus fleet having already adopted the Rossendale (after the valley both towns were in) name influenced the new council to do likewise!

Rossendale’s main service was (and indeed, still is!) the 464 (originally the 4, before that a tram route) that ran from Accrington-Bacup via Haslingden & Rawtenstal, jointly with Hyndburn. At deregulation, Rossendale extended it’s journeys from Bacup (which was a bus terminus which couldn’t have been more northern, terminating outside a working man’s club that could have been straight out of the “Wheeltappers & Shunters Social Club” or the latter “Pheonix Nights!”) along the distinctly more rural road into Rochdale, which GM Buses (as replacements to GMPTE) had not registered. This was a precursor to Rossendale establishing a garage in Rochdale which went on to win many tenders in the town, as well as neighbouring Bury. The company also briefly indulged in competing with GM Buses but the fact that the larger operator then retaliated by competing on the 464 soon saw Rossendale scale back the Rochdale operation to the local tenders that it won, a fairly amicable arrangement, as GM Buses closed down their Rochdale Garage around the same time.

By 1999, more competition had arrived on the 464. Mainly interested in attacking the now Stagecoach operated former Hyndburn journeys, local independent Pilkingtons competed using the original Hyndburn Dark Blue and Red livery, one of two local independents to do so, taking advantage of the fiercely traditional local pride in the area, reflecting that livery’s origin’s as the colours of “the Accrington Pals” a section of the East Lancashire Regiment that were tragically wiped out in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, a tragedy that was commemorated by the local council adopting those colours for the trams. A lot of local feeling was thus angered when Stagecoach (perhaps unknowing of it’s origins) replaced the livery with it’s corporate style. Pilkingtons 4 also continued from Accrington-Blackburn, competing with Blackburn’s 346!

The 464, 21 & X63!

I chose to travel on a Rossendale bus, this being a Duple Dominant bus bodied Leyland Leopard. The Rossendale Valley is quite a picturesque place, with small rural gaps between the various former cotton mill towns that lie along its base. Haslingden came next and I mused how the small town must have looked with it’s own, blue liveried bus fleet! I arrived in Accrington all too soon and reverted back to Stagecoach, boarding one of their latest Alexander bodied Volvo Olympians, recently allocated to Burnley as part of the investment that the company had promised for it’s new subsidiary. It was on route 21, which you may recall that I had ridden on back in Part One, on an East Lancs bodied Bristol VR eleven years earlier. I took the 21 through Padiham to Burnley to see a town where the old Burnley & Pendle livery was disappearing in favour of Stagecoach stripes! It’s a shame that so many local and unique liveries have been lost but it was undeniable that Stagecoach were putting badly needed investment into the operation….investment that would turn out to be unrewarded, as I’ll mention latter!

I planned to head now towards Blackburn, the next bus due in this direction being a Stagecoach Interurban Volvo B10M on the X63 through to Preston. This route was another innovation caused by the recent takeovers, basically being an extension of the 163/173 Preston-Blackburn via Old Road service onto Burnley via the former Hyndburn service 246, which itself had been a linking of Hyndburn’s one bus turn on the joint with Blackburn 46 from Blackburn-Accrington service (Blackburn’s more frequent turns on the 46 at the same time being linked with the Blackburn-Darwin service to become the 346) with another Hyndburn service onto Burnley. The new X63 was made Limited Stop where parallel services existed alongside it, i.e, within the City of Preston and between Blackburn & Accrington, and fed into the 1995 introduced Stagecoach Express network in Preston, which consisted of the X51 (Morecambe-Southport) & X61 (Manchester-Blackpool). The route to Accrington was understandably more direct than that of the 21 and I was fully prepared to carry on the journey towards Blackburn, when a most welcome sight persuaded me to alight!

An Atlantean on the 46!

Back in 1988 (see “Part One”) I had travelled on the former 46 between Blackburn & Accrington on a Hyndburn Atlantean. As previously mentioned, 1989 had seen the two operators on this route split into the new 246 & 346 services. But then came competition from Pilkington’s 4! As the dominant operator on the corridor, Blackburn Transport decided to add a little more weight to it’s 346’s ten minute frequency by reintroducing some 46 journeys between Accrington & Blackburn, operated by the company’s now quite elderly fleet of East Lancs bodied Leyland Atlanteans! And one of these was loading in Accrington Market Place! Needless to say, I felt that alighting from the X63 and paying a fare for this beast was entirely worthwhile!

The journey was quite lightly loaded, probably reflecting the intensity of the competition that had seen the route restarted! Soon, we were in Blackburn and I said farewell to what was my oldest bus of the day!

The 123 & 124

Next up was a ride on a long established Ribble service that I’d never travelled on before (and, in fact, haven’t since!) Chorley Garage’s main Double Deck route has always traditionally been the Preston-Bolton 125/126 corridor (though as explained in previous parts, the 125 used to go to Wigan.) The 123 & 124 ran from Chorley-Blackburn and were routes that I’d been intending to travel on for a while. An Alexander bodied Volvo Olympian was my stead on the 124 for a pleasantly rural run away from Lancashire’s more urban areas. Another example of the joys of inter urban double deck bus travel. I believe the service (with a different number) is now operated by Transdev Lancashire United, the last time I saw it being operated with a single decker! Shame as I really enjoyed this run.

From Chorley, it was another Alexander bodied Volvo Olympian (Stagecoach bought a large batch of these in 1996 & 1997, just before construction of step entrance Double Deckers was made illegal, several of these passing to the Lancashire subsidiary and they served the company well over the years, providing a reliable, modern bus during the period when the industry was getting the low floor Double Decker into production) on the more well trod path of the 125 to Preston. Then it was onto a Northern Counties bodied Volvo Olympian from the same year on the equally well trod 168 to Blackpool via Lytham St Annes.

The X61

No chance for tram riding on this visit to my favourite seaside resort, just enough time to get fish & chips from Frydays chippy on the corner of Talbot Road & Dickson Road and eat them in the subterranean, diesel fumed, Talbot Road Bus Station, listening to the echo of Blackpool Transport Leyland Atlanteans as they came to and thro! Next up was a ride on the Fleetwood-Manchester X61. This service, introduced in June 1995, had been immensely successful, providing an hourly, fast, pay as you board alternative to the two hourly book in advance National Express service between the two points. I’ve talked about the demise of the former X60 Manchester-Blackpool service in Part One. This went in 1980, after a gradual decline following the transfer of the Motorway service (formerly M61) to National Express in 1972.

The new X61 had warranted some double deck operation and duplication and I was hopeful for this here, particularly as a driver had bought in an ECW bodied Leyland Olympian and parked it to the far side of the stand. This driver got out of his cab with a cup of tea in his hand and began chatting to a female colleague about how thick he thought his passengers were, in a most condescending fashion! A fellow queue dweller came up to him and asked if his bus would become an X61.

“Well, obviously not, as it would have X61 on it!” was his condescending reply! Customer care in action?

A Stagecoach Interurban Plaxton Premiere bodied Volvo B10M arrived at the appointed time and I boarded along with the rest of the queue, leaving the rather rude driver to his tea! I settled down for a comfortable run, heading directly out of Blackpool along Yeadon Way, previously the track bed of the old, direct Marton Railway line from Kirkham & Wesham to Blackpool South & Central, which leads straight onto the M55 Motorway on the edge of town! We came off at Preston, serving the Bus Station for connections onto the Interurban X51 to Morecambe in one direction and Southport in the other, as well as the X63 to Burnley-and of course, an X61 was heading back to Blackpool & Fleetwood-Perfect interchange!

After Preston, it was onto the M61 in descending darkness as the autumn night drew in, and a smooth run-admittedly against the flow of peak traffic that was now heavily in force, coming off for a run along the dual carriagewayed A6 through Salford and into Manchester. From Chorlton Street Coach Station, I walked over to Piccadilly Station to catch a Class 47 hauled train of Mk 2 coaching stock back to Wolverhampton, then taking the Metro home.

So, given how successful the X61 was, why is it no longer with us? I suspect several reasons. When using the service from Blackpool-Preston in 2003, I noticed that the fares had risen heavily, making me suspect that perhaps the original fares had been priced too cheaply for the service to meet it’s operating costs. Then, increasing congestion on the M61 must have taken it’s toll, making the competing rail service ever more attractive. Latter on, the X61 was rerouted away from both motorways, serving Chorley in the Manchester direction and being integrated with the Preston-Blackpool via Kirkham service in the other, this even being renumbered from 58 to 61 to match it’s X61 sister, the 61 making a twenty minute service with the hourly X61. At this point, the service still used a short stretch of the M55, from Kirkham to the edge of Blackpool, a routing that had been pioneered by Preston Buses and City Of Lancaster back in 1988, with their competitive 39 & 41 services (see blog “Preston”) and latter adopted by Stagecoach for the Sunday only 152, then the X58. The 61 survives today, a legacy of the X61 but the through journeys to Manchester ceased not long after. Even that short stretch of M55 routing doesn’t exist, as Stagecoach rerouted the 61 via the traditional 154 route through Wrea Green shortly after the company had lost the tender for the Fylde Villager network of services that had served the village since the 154 was replaced by the X58!

As for the other Stagecoach Express services, the X51 was also withdrawn, the Morecambe section being left to the 40/41 all stop services whilst Southport became linked with the X63 to Burnley as the new X59. Pretty soon, the Burnley side was cutback to terminate at Blackburn. Today, the Southport side survives as a Limited Stop service (alongside the all stop 2) numbered X2 which continues onto Liverpool and, on a half hourly frequency with coach seated E400 bodied Scania’s, I’m pleased to say that the X2 is absolutely thriving (see blog “Liverpool & Southport with Phil”). Blackburn, meanwhile, is also Double Decked but is now all stop as the 59.

October 2000

I thought about writing this trip as a separate blog but I felt things were getting a tad repetitive, so I’m briefly mentioning it here! It was back to the usual system of a “Ribble” (ok, it was Stagecoach Lancashire by now, but it’s still Ribble to me!) bash whilst on holiday in Blackpool, this one taking place on the middle Saturday of a fortnight stay. I was accompanied by my wife Lynn and we set off from Blackpool on a Northern Counties bodied Volvo Olympian on the 167 to Preston, following this with an Alexander bodied Olympian on the 125 through to Bolton. Then it was a trip on the 225 to Clitheroe via Blackburn. Since I last travelled on this corridor on the short lived X25 (see Part Three) the route had obviously been routed away from the previous low bridge, as we travelled on another Alexander bodied Olympian, the top deck making an ideal viewing platform for moors between Bolton & Darwen, as well as the delightfully rural section to the north of Blackburn, through Whalley & Langho. We’d never been to Clitheroe before and found it a very pleasant town. Soon though, we were on an Alexander bodied Volvo B10M saloon heading for Burnley (think the route number was 27 but I’m not 100%!) from where we caught a Plaxton Premiere Interurban Volvo B10M on the X63 through to Preston, connecting straight into a Northern Counties bodied Olympian on the X61, which we caught through to Cleveleys. Managed to get a Double Decker on the X61, on this section at least! We then caught a tram back to our digs on North Shore and spent the evening amongst the illuminations!

This was the last time I would travel on the Stagecoach Lancashire network before it shrunk considerably! As I’ve already mentioned, the local’s in the Accrington area were very much less than impressed when Stagecoach replaced their much respected local livery with standard Stagecoach stripes. This had seen two operators, Pilkingtons and a minibus operator that I can’t remember the name of, using that livery on competitive services. Similarly, the Burnley & Pendle takeover wasn’t as successful as the group was obviously expecting, so Stagecoach head Brian Souter admitted defeat! The East Lancashire area, consisting of garages at Burnley, Blackburn (from where the former Hyndburn network was operated from) & Bolton, were sold to Blazefield Holdings, a company that had arose from the privatisation of National Bus Company subsidiary West Yorkshire Road Car, with that company splitting the operation into smaller, garage based companies, a philosophy it would apply across the Pennines, with the Burnley operation reviving the name “Burnley & Pendle” whilst the other garages became Lancashire United, after the Atherton based independent taken over by GMPTE in 1976. These more local identities seemed to draw a more favourable response from the local populace than Stagecoach’s “could be anywhere” corporate scheme!

Blazefield had a policy of being quite ruthless with financial targets, getting rid of routes which didn’t comply but investing heavily to improve the quality of the routes that were profitable enough to justify it. This meant that the previously competitive independents found a niche taking over the routes that Blazefield had withdrawn, including the whole of Bolton Garage, which was sold to Blue Bus of Horwich (who would subsequently sell out to Arriva). Blazefield themselves would sell out to French group Transdev, who have continued the good work! The services which received that investment included the X43, which initially received a batch of Plaxton President bodied Volvo B7 Double Deckers, which were replaced latter by leather seated Wright Gemini bodied Volvo B9’s. These were branded “The Witch Way” and have helped the service continue to grow, including the restoration recently of an hourly journey to the routes traditional terminus at Skipton, this being made possible by the closure of the independent Pennine, who had taken over the Burnley-Skipton service after deregulation.

I’ve managed to travel on the X43 only once since the Gemini’s took over. That was for a journey between Manchester & Rawtenstall on a Wayfarer ticket (see blog “Day Tickets”), with me then heading that day on Rossendale’s 464 in the other direction to that bash in 1999, going to Rochdale. Other than that, I’ve not had the opportunity to sample the Blazefield/Transdev East Lancs operation, something I intend to put right at some point! Expect a blog when I do! (I have briefly since! See blog “City Zapping With Phil!”)

Stagecoach retained operation of the Preston, Fleetwood & Chorley operations, which formed Stagecoach Lancashire, the Morecambe Garage, meanwhile being part of Stagecoach Cumbria and operating as Stagecoach Lancaster. More recently, the Lancashire operations have combined with the former Glenvale operations on Merseyside, plus the Wirral & Chester operations taken over from First to become Stagecoach Mersey & Lancashire. On the debit side, however both Fleetwood & Chorley Garages have closed.

Details of some bashes on this patch, most notably one from September 2010, will feature in Part Six of this series. In Part Five, meanwhile, we’re heading away from the urban, dark, (I don’t know about satanic but these days, mostly disused!) mill infested Lancashire, up into the hills and around the lakes of the beautiful county of Cumbria!

To Be Continued………!

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