Bus services are set to be cut – but passengers say it won’t make a difference. Within 48 hours of mayor Andy Burnham announcing which companies would run the first publicly-controlled bus services in Greater Manchester since 1986, Diamond decided to pull around a fifth of its fleet from the Bolton depot. The loss of 30 buses means that fewer services will be running in Bolton, Bury and Rochdale, as well as parts of Salford, Trafford and Wigan, from mid-April.
This includes reducing the frequency of commuter services such as the 8, 36 and 37 from Bolton to Manchester city centre through Farnworth and Salford, and withdrawing most journeys on the 21, 163, 520, 561, 562 and 575 routes. However, some of these services could be saved before the changes come in.
Already affected by staffing shortages, the bus operator said the news that services would be taken over by Go North West in nine months’ time could ‘destabilise’ the workforce and a reduced timetable would be more reliable. But passengers who were patiently waiting at Bolton bus station on a freezing cold morning last week don’t believe it will get any better.
Andrew, a builder who lives in Salford, says he has waited for as long as two and a half hours for a bus to get back home from work near Bolton Royal Hospital. Describing the 36 service as a ‘joke’, he said: “It’s quicker going to Blackpool on the National Express than going from Bolton to Salford by bus.”
Hozefa Jawadwala, an accountant who lives in Breightmet, takes two buses to get to his office in Farnworth every day. He only spends 10 minutes on the bus each time – but he has to allow an hour for travel if he is to get to work on time. Resigned to the unreliability, he says: “Ultimately, it will come when it comes.”
Andrew Topp, a print finisher in Walkden, laughs when he is asked if there have been any issues with the 37. He says the service got worse when Diamond took over, but he has noticed a further deterioration in the last few months. He often waits nearly 40 minutes for a bus. He does not believe reducing the frequency of buses on the timetable will make any difference, but is hopeful that the service will get better when Go North West takes over later this year.
Another passenger, who asks not to be named, reports similar waiting times. But because he does not drive, his only alternative route to work in Farnworth is by train which he claims would cost more and be ‘a bit much’ for one stop.
“If the wait is going to be even longer, then I’ll have to set off earlier and I’ll get home later,” the Halliwell resident explains. “I just sort of have to put up with it.”
Richard, who lives in Great Lever, relies on the 575 to get to Horwich for his 9 to 5 job. This route is run by two operators – Diamond and Arriva. The former finishes at Horwich, while the latter continues to Lostock and Wigan. But according to him, the Diamond ones ‘don’t turn up’, so he won’t notice a difference when the company cuts almost all of its journeys on this route and the Arriva service continues unchanged. However, on other routes which are being partially withdrawn, passengers have no alternative.
Conservative councillor Jo Lancaster, who represents Radcliffe North and Ainsworth at Bury Council, asked the operator at a public meeting last week why Bolton, home to some of England’s most ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, has been ‘chosen’. “I just find it really sad that a lot of these routes are on social housing estates,” she said at the meeting on Friday (January 20).
“A lot of these people are relying on this transport to get to and from work.”
West Middleton councillor Phil Burke described the decision to cut the 163 which links Bury to Heywood, Middleton and Manchester, as ‘madness’. He urged Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) to save the ‘popular’ service. Speaking at the same meeting, the Labour councillor told his fellow members on the bus services sub-committee that cutting the service ‘make no sense economically or socially’. “We’d be cutting off whole communities,” he added.
But despite his desperation to save the ‘busy’ service, the Rochdale councillor repeatedly requested that operators which withdraw services – as Diamond is doing – are not given public money to continue running the routes in the short-term. TfGM already subsidises services on routes which are being withdrawn.
These subsidised services – mostly on early mornings, evenings and Sundays – will continue to be operated by Diamond and TfGM is now considering how it can save the services which are being withdrawn which could end up costing more public money. However, the bus operator has already said that it would ‘probably’ decline any subsidy offered to continue operating these services.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Diamond’s commercial manager Thomas Calderbank explained that usually, when services are withdrawn, it is for financial services, so subsidies can save them. But in this case, the services are not being withdrawn for financial services.
Representing Rotala – the company which owns Diamond – he told the bus services sub-committee this week that all of the routes which are affected are still profitable, but the reason for withdrawing services is down to staffing. Councillors on the committee expressed their scepticism over these claims.
Stockport councillor David Mellor said that some of the bus services which were saved last summer thanks to public subsidies are not being run to a ‘satisfactory standard’ by operators and echoed Coun Burke in asking for this to be taken into account when awarding franchising contracts in the future. “This does reek of sour grapes if I’m honest,” he said of Diamond’s decision.
Responding to the news of the bus company’s decision earlier this week, Bury councillor Kevin Peel said the move feels like ‘retaliation’ for not winning the largest contracts to run bus services under the first tranche of franchising. However, Diamond said that these claims ‘couldn’t be further from the truth’.
Last year, Rotala lost two legal challenges against Andy Burnham’s decision to bring buses under public control. However, in December, the company was one of only two operators which won contracts to run the first franchised services.
Last week, Mr Burnham told Local Democracy Reporting Service that he has asked TfGM to save services. But he stopped short of criticising Diamond.
“People will read into it what they want to,” he said. “I’ve got to recognise that the decisions we’re making have significant implications and this is going to be a slightly disruptive period as we move from the old world into the new world.”
Later in the week, the bus-services sub-committee questioned whether this is likely to happen again as the rest of the franchised network is rolled out. All buses in Greater Manchester will be under public control by January 5, 2025.
Starting with buses, the Bee Network – the name given to the new London-style integrated public transport system – will be rolled out in three phases with the next one affecting Bury, Rochdale, Oldham and North Manchester.
TfGM bus director Stephen Rhodes described the decision by Diamond as a ‘distraction’ from the preparations being made before the launch of the Bee Network in September. But he said uncertainty is ‘inevitable’ as the current deregulated system is brought under public control over the next two years.
Salford councillor Roger Jones, who chairs the sub-committee, said that the affected local authorities were ‘shocked’ by the speed of Diamond’s decision. “We were expecting, if there was any fallout from franchising, changes would happen in the summer,” he told Rotala’s representative at the meeting. “What we weren’t expecting were these huge changes immediately from April.
“You can imagine, behind the scenes, there’s a lot of aggravation about this, saying this isn’t fair. We’ve got a franchising process where services start in September and yet here we are in January and decisions have been made straight away.”
Mr Calderbank explained that under the current system, operators must give 112 days notice of any changes to services, but said that he ‘fully appreciates’ the frustration that the timing of the announcement has caused. He said that the new timetable would improve services by making them more reliable.
“It will be a reliable 15 minute service instead of what at the minute is quite an unreliable 10 minute service,” he said of the 524 from Bolton to Bury and the 582 from Bolton to Leigh. “Whilst on paper it’s obviously a deterioration in the level of service, I think in reality, on the ground, it will be an improvement.”
“We’ve tried as best we can to mitigate the impact on people,” he added. “I appreciate that certain people will disagree with that – the people of Lostock and Chew Moor will certainly disagree.
“But I do think the service on the ground, where we’ve reduced frequency might improve. It certainly shouldn’t get any worse than it is today in reality.”
Addressing accusations of ‘retaliation’ by Rotala to the first bus franchising decisions in December, he said: “I’m aware that people have said it’s sour grapes and we’re spitting dummy out because we’ve not won a large franchise.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth. All of these services are commercially viable. They’re profitable. We make money from operating them. It would be unusual for a commercial operator to cut their nose to spite their face in that way.”
Asked to defer Diamond’s decision by a month, Mr Calderbank said that he was not in a position to do that, but promised to continue working with TfGM. He confirmed that there are no further cuts to bus timetables planned before September other than some smaller changes during the summer holidays.
Some services could be saved. However, as of Friday (January 20), the services changes which are due to come into effect from April 16, 2023 are as follows.
8: Bolton – Farnworth – Pendlebury – Salford Shopping Centre – Manchester Market St/Deansgate.
The Monday to Saturday daytime timetable revised to operate every 15 minutes. From week Commencing January 29, 2023, the route of this service will be revised to no longer operate to and from Manchester Shudehill Interchange and will instead terminate at Market Street/Start at Deansgate.
21: Agecroft – Pendlebury – Swinton – Eccles – The Trafford Centre.
The majority of Monday to Friday daytime journeys are withdrawn. TfGM supported journeys will still operate on evenings, early mornings, Saturdays and Sunday. The 22 service from Bolton to The Trafford Centre which is unchanged still operates between Pendlebury and The Trafford Centre.
36/37: Bolton – Walkden – Swinton – Salford Shopping Centre – Manchester Piccadilly.
The Monday to Friday daytime timetable will be revised to operate every 15 minutes on each service and will still operate frequently between Manchester and Walkden.
163: Bury – Darn Hill – Heywood – Langley – Middleton – Manchester Piccadilly.
The majority of journeys are withdrawn. TfGM supported journeys will still operate early morning, evenings and Sunday daytime. The unchanged 471 service from Bolton to Rochdale still operates between Bury and Heywood.
520: Bolton – Deane – Ladybridge – Lostock – Westhoughton circular.
The majority of journeys are withdrawn. TfGM supported journeys will still operate early morning, Evenings and Sunday. Unchanged Service 20 (Bolton to The Trafford Centre) still operates between Bolton and Deane Hulton Lane.
524: Bolton – Little Lever – Radcliffe – Bury.
The Monday to Saturday daytime timetable will be revised to operate every 15 minutes.
561/562: Bolton – Breightmet/Withins circular.
The majority of journeys are withdrawn. TfGM supported journeys will still operate early morning and evenings. The unchange 471 service from Bolton to Rochdale still operates between Bolton and Breightmet.
575: Bolton – Heaton – Lostock – Horwich Old Lords Estate.
The majority of journeys are withdrawn. TfGM supported journeys will still operate early morning and evenings.
582: Bolton – Daubhill – Over Hulton – Atherton – Leigh.
The Monday to Saturday daytime timetable will be revised to operate every 15 minutes. The Sunday daytime timetable will be revised to every 30 minutes.
Vision Bus is withdrawing all commercial journeys on the 527 circular route from Bolton to Halliwell, Smithills and Hall i’ th’ Wood. This affects the hourly daytime services, but daily evening and Sunday journeys remain unchanged.
The 525 service, which is a circular route that travels in the opposite direction already operates with a TfGM subsidy and is expected to continue unchanged. The Bolton-based company, which did not secure any of the contracts to run the first franchised bus services this year, has been contacted for comment.