Bee Network two months on: We tested out Andy Burnham's new network with trip from Manchester to Standish

The Greater Manchester Mayor's new transport system launched to much fanfare on September 24.
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It has been just over two months since the Bee Network was launched across Greater Manchester, and it is clear there are more changes than just the colour of the buses.

On September 24, the bus network came back under public control for the first time in decades. The initial launch has seen Bolton, Wigan and parts of Salford benefit from the first phase of the project. Although there have been instant benefits to the London-style integrated public transport system – there are still problems that need to be ironed out.

At a meeting of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) last week, metro mayor Andy Burnham said services are better but still not good enough. He told those in attendance that the number of bus passengers in Wigan and Manchester has increased by eight per cent following the launch.

The Bee Network will overtake the remainder of the bus services in the region by January 2025, with the next phase of the launch due in four months time. The takeover means the local authorities set the fares, choose routes and change timetables, rather than privately owned bus operators.

The Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham at the launch of his Bee Network. The Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham at the launch of his Bee Network.
The Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham at the launch of his Bee Network.

To test out the new yellow buses in the Wigan area, the Local Democracy Reporting Service decided to take a bus ride from Manchester’s city centre to the very edge of the county’s border with Lancashire – Standish. The one thing that stood out on the off-peak service, it ran to time.

Google Maps estimated a two hour and 20 minute journey from Portland Street in Manchester to Standish Police Station on High Street. Arriving promptly at 10.38am, the Bee Network certainly delivered with their revived V2 service as it rocked up to the stop currently covered in scaffolding next to St Peter’s Square. Following the coronavirus lockdown, the V2 – which runs along the Leigh Guided Busway between Manchester and Atherton – was controversially put on a part-time schedule due to low demand. Thanks to years of campaigning and the launch of the Bee Network, it finally returned with the same numbers as the V1 – which did not get reduced to a part-time service.

So jumping onto a V2 was something that would have been impossible before September 24 brought it back to life. The 40 minute journey was a comfortable one with the leather high back chairs and handy USB slots available. With a lack of traffic (and passengers) the V2 emptied its last customers off on Market Street in Atherton before buzzing off on another round. Having not had a full-time bus service direct to Manchester for over two years, the 30 minute wait for the 132 bus to Wigan meant there was time to gather the opinion of locals on the changes.

One lifelong resident said: “I used it from Bolton to here (Atherton) recently and it was fantastic. We have had more buses now than we’ve had for a while…It’s far more regular now. I would say the Bee Network has been a success so far. It has been an irregular service until now as bus operators couldn’t care less (as long as they got their profits). I’ve seen that bus shelter on Market Street packed but no buses come, now there is just one person there and here comes a bus to get them.”

Louise Stones, Atherton resident and regular bus user.Louise Stones, Atherton resident and regular bus user.
Louise Stones, Atherton resident and regular bus user.

However, that feeling is not the case for everyone in the area, with regular bus user Louise Stones saying more improvements are needed to convince her of the Bee Network’s success.

She said: “The buses are not reliable, you can get two or three turning up at the same time. The 582 is a popular bus but they don’t seem to be spread out, they are lumped together. It was a nightmare at the start of the launch (of the Bee Network) and then it has just got back to how it was before. The only thing that has improved is that I feel safer about the fact there is security at the bus stations now.”

Louise added that she was hopeful the service would continue to improve as things develop, after admitting that teething problems will always exist with big changes.

It was almost exactly midday when the 132 bus turned up to the bus shelter in Atherton – eight minutes late. The single decker was packed as it trundled through Hindley towards the bus station in the heart of Wigan’s town centre.

The luxury of the 132 was not on par with the V2, but it had not even had its yellow makeover yet, so a seating transformation would be low on the to-do list for Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM). After a 30 minute journey, the 132 pulled into Wigan Bus Station, which was a hive of activity.

The Bee Network logo taking pride of place at Wigan Bus Station The Bee Network logo taking pride of place at Wigan Bus Station
The Bee Network logo taking pride of place at Wigan Bus Station

A quick dash up the station concourse led to the sight of yet another single decker – but the 362 bus to Chorley was yellow. Google Maps explained that the last leg of the journey would take 18 minutes to get to Standish.

The bus was full to the brim with a few even having to stand on, what at this point, was an afternoon service. The last quarter of an hour flew by and just like that, and two hours and 20 minutes later, three separate buses had travelled from the heart of Manchester more than 24 miles to the edge of Greater Manchester. Despite this experiment proving that the bus timetable is reliable and punctual, it is still far slower than other methods of transport. To travel by car the trip would take 40 minutes outside of rush hour and just over one hour if you used a combination of trains and buses, according to Google Maps.

With a cost of £6 – three separate £2 singles – it was a fairly reasonable price. However, the need for signposting bus stop names on the buses themselves was clear. Without knowledge of the local area you want to stop at, it would be hard for passengers to know where to get off without keeping count of their stops and street names not always being visibly clear to the naked eye.

This problem may soon come to an end with plans to drastically improve the Bee Network app by January 2024. Currently the mobile app can identify how long you have to wait for your bus from a certain stop, but that is where its functions end from a practical sense. The upgrade is said to feature real-time data allowing passengers to see where their bus is, Mr Burnham said last week. This would be prioritised over a journey planning function which was also set to be introduced. Customers should be able to pay for tickets on the app using Google or Apple Pay from next month as well.