Leigh Guided Busway: ‘padded seats, tables but not enough services - my trip on problematic Manchester buses’

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The V1 and V2 Guided Busway isn’t like any other bus route in Greater Manchester, as part of it sees buses ride on rails like trams. Here’s what it’s like to commute on it.

After 40 minutes of waiting in the freezing temperatures and snow, a V1 bus finally arrived at Bridge Street in Manchester to take weary city workers and shoppers back to home.

It’s a service on the Leigh Guided Busway – the Greater Manchester transport system once dubbed the ‘misguided busway’ by critics, before becoming popular with commuters, shoppers and revellers travelling into Manchester, and the businesses that serve them along the route. It goes from the city centre, through Salford, to the towns in the borough of Wigan. It’s a demand you can gauge by the tut tuts and tapping of feet I see hear from passengers eager to get home.

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The Guided Busway, brought in back in 2016, isn’t like any other bus route in Greater Manchester, as part of it sees buses ride on rails like trams. Most of the buses on this First-operated route – excluding the back-ups – are ‘Vantage’ vehicles, hence the ‘V’, offering passengers ‘luxury’ – padded e-leather seats, tables upstairs and wi-fi.

This ‘guided’ section of the route – which requires a bus to have runners that guide the bus via the kerb – runs from Ellenbrook all the way to East Bond Street in Leigh. There are two buses that run along the route. The V1 runs between the Manchester Royal Infirmary (MRI) to Leigh, and the V2 from the MRI to Atherton.

During the coronavirus pandemic the V2 was put on a reduced service – which has controversially remained the same since. I had heard from councillors local to Wigan that capacity problems, in the wake of the V2 service being reduced, meant that buses would ‘fly past full of people’ during peak times. These complaints led to a petition being set up back in September demanding improvements.

‘One on, one off’

I was unsurprised to see the Bridge Street stop packed with people on a busy Thursday night. But on a December night when you could still feel the cold, through three layers, hat and mittens, I was hopeful there would be room for all of us.

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My hopes were raised by the glimpse of the words ‘Atherton’ and ‘V2’ coming towards me and dozens of other impatient souls, however the joy quickly vanished from what I saw inside the bus. Passengers were huddled around the driver like cattle. The bus did stop, but the driver proclaimed, “it’s one off, one on now”.

The golden ticket holder at the front of the queue got on and the V2 departed. Another 15 minutes went by before a V1 arrived at the stop opposite Crazy Pedro’s bar.

Bridge Street is the last bus stop in Manchester before the crossing the River Irwell into Salford. Many city centre commuters have already got on buses at previous stops and filling capacity, so at this point it was clear to see why one Wiganer, fellow bus user Rorey Scriven, previously told the Local Democracy Reporting Service it was “the worst stop to get on at”.

Myself and a few frozen commuters entered the bus and paid their fee or flashed a pass. Most had to stand as far as Pendleton in Salford, with many getting off at Broad Street and Frederick Road, proving that not only Wiganers, Athertonians and Leythers use the service, but Salfordians as well.

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Out and about in Leigh, you will hear Leythers half-joke about ‘making the route direct from the city centre to the guided busway section without stopping’.

It’s a symptom of the competition for places that some would like to cut out the stops along the way. But from what I saw, it wouldn’t only be Salfordians heading home who would lose out if it went direct, but Leigh-bound passengers getting on at these stops on their way home.

It’s all left me mystified why there aren’t more services on the route. When the V2 was cut from being a full service, running from early morning to midnight, to just peak travel times as a result of Covid reducing the number of passengers – it was never brought back. The reason given by Transport for Greater Manchester was low demand.

This point is contested by many objectors in Atherton and local politicians in Wigan Council who are seeking to bring back the V2 to its former run time. TfGM announced in October more buses had been added to the fleet to deal with capacity issues – but the following month they decided not to bring the V2 back to a full service.

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There are going to be further discussions about extending Leigh guided busway to Wigan town centreThere are going to be further discussions about extending Leigh guided busway to Wigan town centre
There are going to be further discussions about extending Leigh guided busway to Wigan town centre

Meanwhile TfGM conducted surveys on 18, 19 and 20 October on the replacement shuttle bus (that took passengers from Atherton to Tyldesley to get a V1) and found ‘there was low demand’.

Then in November, experts concluded that it was the belief that there was limited capacity – rather than actual capacity – that was a problem.

Nick Roberts, Head of Services & Commercial Development at TfGM, put it this way. “When we looked at some of the figures when it appeared that passengers weren’t boarding the service because we thought the capacity was full, that wasn’t the case.

“Quite a lot of passengers on the Vantage services don’t get on the bus when they think it’s full, but they get on the bus because they’d rather wait sometimes for a branded vehicle, or sometimes because they just want a seat and don’t want to get on a crowded bus.

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“So the buses aren’t always full, but some people just like to wait for the next one because they’re guaranteed a seat. So we do think that we’ve got the capacity right on Vantage at the moment and the figures show that in terms of pre-Covid levels, capacity is averaging at around 70 % of those pre-Covid figures.”

On my route home, like many others, I saw passengers swapping between whichever of the two services offered the best hope of getting back to the borough of Wigan – even if the end destination of that particular bus wasn’t where they were bound.

So when the V1 caught up to the V2 that had eluded me earlier, on the guided section of the route, some got off the V2 before it rolled on to Tyldesley, darting backwards to get on the V1 to Leigh. Basically, commuters take the first bus they can – out of fear of several others flying past full.

‘The only way we’ll find out if it’s well served is to bring it back to full service’

This service is nicknamed the ‘Rocket’ by locals for a reason, it is quick. The bus managed the journey from city centre to Leigh in just under 40 minutes – justifying the satirical comparison to the V1 and V2 missiles used by the Germans in the Second World War.

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The vision former Leigh MP turned GM mayor Andy Burnham and fellow supporters sold this service on was that it could get from Leigh to Manchester in 40 minutes – and in my experience it has lived up to that promise.

Coun Stuart Gerrard, a bus driver by trade, has gathered cross-party support to bring back the full V2 service for Atherton. He thinks reduced services will just push people back into their cars.

“From my experience if the service isn’t frequent and unreliable then people will use the car,” he said. “The issue is the V2 replaced four direct services to Manchester with no need to change buses.

“This has forced more users to use their own car which adds to congestion. Before Covid the service was well used, in fact we were asking TfGM for a dedicated park and ride as so many were using the shoppers’ car park for the V2.

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“The only way we will find out if the service is still well used is to bring it back to full service as per the contract both TfGM and first have. If First can’t deliver that, then a different operator who can run the service at full capacity should be found.”

With no Metrolink or railway station, the guided busway is essential for many people living in Leigh, Tyldesley and Atherton, as Wigan, being one of the furthest boroughs from GM’s centre, can be difficult to access for people coming out of Manchester.

A spokesperson for First Manchester said: “Our passenger data shows services arriving at the Bridge Street stop at this time of day on Thursday, December 8 were extremely busy but capacity was still available. We added a service from Princess Street to support the 4.05pm from the MRI, which we know is a popular service and are monitoring this daily to see if we can put in extra capacity.

“The Vantage buses can carry a maximum of 91 people safely and we encourage customers to assist divers by moving down the aisles to enable as many customers to board as possible when capacity has reached standing only.

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“We appreciate that waiting to board is frustrating and can be uncomfortable due to the recent cold weather. Our operations team is providing regular feedback on capacity to Transport for Greater Manchester to see how fluctuations in demand can be managed with the driver resources available.”

Metrolink instead? But when?

For those in the borough wishing for better transport options into Manchester, Metrolink extension plans into Wigan, Bolton and Stockport remain on the cards but are still not in progress despite the Greater Manchester Mayor’s best intentions. Almost four years on from when Andy Burnham claimed these extensions could come in the next three years – little has changed.

Mr Burnham claimed it was ‘a bugbear’ for those in the three boroughs without a tram, it was reported back in January 2019. Currently there is only a feasibility study underway looking into a Metrolink extension towards Bolton.

A Transport for Greater Manchester spokeswoman said: “Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM)’s five-year Transport Delivery Plan 2021-26 sets out Greater Manchester’s ambitions for metro/tram-train services, and Map 3 sets out schemes that we will develop options for, subject to funding being secured. This includes developing options to potentially extend Metrolink to Bolton, Wigan and Stockport.

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“Our recent allocation from the government’s City Regional Sustainable Transport Scheme includes funding for scheme development as set out in our delivery plan. TfGM has also undertaken an initial feasibility study looking at an extension through to Bolton under the government’s Restoring Your Railway Ideas Fund and is awaiting a response from DfT.

“Developing new Metrolink lines is a long-term activity, taking many years from development of business bases and obtaining statutory powers through to construction. All of which remains subject to requisite levels of funding.”

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