The Rise of GHA?

In recent years, GHA Coaches and its subsidiary Vale Travel have started to make inroads to Cheshire East that the North Wales operation hadn’t done until then. It all started with school bus contracts using mid-life double decker buses seemingly based in Macclesfield and that still is their base in the area.

Next, they won the contract for the Connect 88 service between Knutsford, Wilmslow and Altrincham from Arriva who had operated it using the route number of 288. New buses were acquired for the Monday to Saturday service, which must have come as a welcome surprise to those who were regular users of Arriva’s ageing and step entrance Dennis Darts. Low floor Optare Versas have been the mainstay since then although other older buses appear from time to time.

The 289 between Northwich, Knutsford and Altrincham was another service that GHA gained and I am not sure when that happened; my first sighting of it was of a sunny Friday evening in May 2012 when I glimpse the bus to Northwich passing through Knutsford. It again is a Monday to Saturday service and has something like five departures each way a day.

In recent months, the number of services coming under their custodianship has increased with the 200 between Wilmslow, Styal and Manchester Airport being the first that I noticed. That is a seven day hourly daytime service that always seems to escape the cuts that blighted others. Is it because it only needs one bus and one driver all day? They possibly are the most cost effective so that wouldn’t surprise me.

The Connect 19 service between Macclesfield, Whirley Barn and Prestbury is yet another hourly Monday to Saturday daytime service that they operate after taking over from High Peak, who had run it for a number of years. Sunday services between Macclesfield, Alderley Edge, Wilmslow and Manchester on the 130 route became yet another contract that they won, also from Arriva, and commenced in the middle of January and I got to seeing one of the Optare Versas for the Connect 88 running on it.

That wasn’t all because the P1 between Middlewood, Poynton and Hazel Grove became yet another entry on their roster of services and fitted the Monday to Friday hourly daytime service too. Thankfully, its institution meant the 392 and 393 services still run from Macclesfield into Stockport and don’t terminate in Hazel Grove as may have been feared.

Their most recent activity has involved a little risk taking on their part since they have applied to register a service along route 27 between Macclesfield and Knutsford. There is a little confusion about this since the council were in the throes of issuing a tender for contract when GHA appear to have looked at the ridership figures and decided to go running it commercially, albeit on a largely two hourly timetable as opposed to High Peak’s 90 minute one. It again is a Monday to Saturday daytime affair with the first and last services of a Saturday being dropped. Cheshire East Council are waiting for the actual registration to go to completion before telling anyone what is happening even if GHA already have a timetable on their website. Though the risk taking is to be welcomed, it all looks confused and I hope things work out for the new service and that it gets the patronage that it needs. There have been many lost bus services in our area already and more aren’t needed.

Along the route of the X1

When I first moved to Macclesfield, there was a bus service running from Manchester all the way to Derby that passed through the town. It was called the X1 and First operated it under contract to three councils: Cheshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire. Before First won the contract, Stagecoach ran it and nearly made it a commercial prospect too. In fact, it had been in existence at least since the Crosville/National Bus Company days and it wasn’t a commercial success even then.

When First ran the service, they used a mixture of coaches and buses and their timetable was a limited one with only four to five departures each way a day and they weren’t all that useful between Macclesfield and Stockport either since the times nearly coincided with the similarly rare 392 journeys to the same destination. There was an additional school service operated by Arriva between Macclesfield and Leek on Monday to Friday mornings too that some could use for commuting to work; getting home by bus at the end of the working day involved either an early finish or a long wait, hardly an ideal state of affair but the successor 108 timetable is even less workable than the old one was.

After First lost the contract, Trent Barton took it over and the service number became 108, one that covers part of the route even today. While I cannot tell you which depot was used to operate the route, the driver changeover took place in Macclesfield bus station so if the bus running in one direction was late, the one going the other way was made late and it hardly was the best state of affairs for maintaining on time running of buses.

Macclesfield to Stockport Bus Travel Improvements

2003 and 2004 saw Cheshire County Council spent money getting in some new buses for subsidised services. Seeing the cuts that are being made now makes those times a distant memory and I reckon it might be U.K. government cash that made this possible. Some of those buses were used by Arriva to operate an enhanced Macclesfield to Stockport bus services using the 392 and 393 routes that we still have today. These buses were stationed in Macclesfield around the time of the opening of the current bus station and then moved to a Manchester depot after that.

Both buses were used to offer an hourly timetable from Monday to Saturday instead of a much less frequent one seven days a week. That’s the basis that we still have today though those buses have been with different operators since Arriva lost the contract in 2008. One went to High Peak for an improved Macclesfield to Prestbury while the other went to GHA as a backup for the main buses on their routes serving Northwich, Knutsford, Wilmslow and Altrincham.

In their place, BakerBus had to bring their own buses when taking over from Arriva around four or five years ago. The timetable remained very similar though, apart maybe from re-branding it The Shuttle. Their tenure in charge of the route is coming to an end now with High Peak set to run it from next month. It will be interesting to see if their takeover means using older buses again. The 393 has been relegated to only a few journeys a day with the 392 becoming the main route for the new service. Timekeeping will be another matter to watch with the new timetable because the alternating 392 and 393 routes left some slack for keeping buses running on time because the 393 goes along the A523 via Adlington and 392 goes around by Bollington and Pott Shrigley.

Breakup

Those 392/393 improvements meant the end of a Manchester to Derby service that went via Leek and Ashbourne. Now the course of the route was broken in four on all days apart from Sunday: Manchester to Stockport, Stockport to Macclesfield, Macclesfield to Ashbourne, Ashbourne to Derby. The very regular 192 does the first section and the second is served by the 392/393. The third one is served by Clowes 108 service, a rump of what went before. Their use of older Mercedes midi-buses appears to be a cost-saving measure and I have seen these running without ticket machines either, hardly an encouraging sign. The last section is well served with the SW1 service operated by Trent Barton with only a few Monday to Wednesday contracted services run by Arriva Midlands.

The Monday to Saturday frequency of each of these is varied. The 192 offers a 10 minute one, the highest of the bunch. It is as good as hourly for the 392/393 and SW1. The lowest of these is the 108 with only a few services each way a day and it has not escaped spending cuts either.

In fact, what brought the whole story of the X1 route to mind in the first place is a change that is coming to the 108 service. Until the weekend after the coming one, we have evening journeys such as a 18:15 from Ashbourne to Macclesfield and a 19:10 going all of the other way. The last journey from Ashbourne leaves at 20:20 and terminates in Leek. There was a Monday to Friday morning school service that got canned and the loss of the aforementioned Friday and Saturday evening journeys is next, kicking in from March 8th. It’s a far cry from a full X1 that I used to get from Stockport to Macclesfield one Saturday around a decade ago. Not only has a coherent long distance bus route option been dismantled but you have to wonder if things could get even worse than they are. After all, I have seen Clowes operate the 108 using a bus with no ticket machine and they are being left to carry on for now.

With all this dismantling, a Manchester to Derby bus travel option effectively was removed. All those changes mean that it is far from an attractive way to go anymore unless you plan on stopping off here, there and everywhere. This is nice countryside so that would be no bad idea but there’s no way of having a teaser now like the TransPeak service.

There Once Was a Sunday Service…

Even the Sunday and bank holiday route of the 108 meant a change at Leek with operators changing at the end of every council contract. BakerBus and then D&G were the custodians of the northern section while TM Travel ran the southern one. There were three departures each way and the two halves awaited each other at Leek bus station. Sadly, that service now is no more and I seem to remember a reasonable level of usage when I used it too.

The only existing remnant now goes between Derby and Ashbourne with only two return journeys extending as far as Leek, a loss of one from what went before. The service is the Sunday and bank holiday SW1 and Trent Barton is the operator. There are five journeys going each way, an improvement for the residents of Ashbourne and nearby Mayfield gains a few of the ones that don’t go as far as Mayfield too. It’s nowhere near as regular as the Monday to Saturday service but it’s good to see that it continues, which is more than could be said for the Sunday service along the rest of the route.

Any Sign of Better Times Ahead?

It seems that there has been a mixture of gains and losses along the length of the former X1 route with Sunday services decimated and the section between Macclesfield, Leek and Ashbourne seeing a reduced service on other days of the week. The continuing near hourly Macclesfield to Stockport bus service from Monday to Saturday is a bright spot though amongst the other gloom. Whenever there are bus services withdrawn, you have to ask if there ever can be a chance of some sort of return in the future. As gloomy as things appear now, it yet may surprise us though the “lost decade” isn’t over yet.

Public transport in Knutsford

Once, there was a comment from a young lady doing a school project on Knutsford bus services. Then, I directed her to Cheshire East Council’s website and I hope that she got what she needed from there. Yesterday saw me spend a few hours in Knutsford and the recent changes to the Macclesfield to Knutsford bus service reminded me of that question and got me thinking that saying a bit more on Knutsford’s public transport services wouldn’t go amiss. This information is intended for anyone who needs to make use of public transport for getting to and from Knutsford so I hope that I am not doing a school project for someone though that is a risk that I am taking with compiling what’s here.

Buses

The town’s bus connections do not operate on Sundays but provide a useful level of service on other days of the week. Until the start of October this year, the 27/27A/27B provided an hourly service to Chelford, Henbury and Macclesfield. Now, it’s been reduced to departures running every ninety minutes and Monday to Friday calls to Alderley Edge have been reduced considerably also. Most of the journeys taken by the current service diverts from the A537 to pass Radbroke and Over Peover. The service once was operated by Bakerbus before Bowers Coaches, now part of High Peak, took it over. Until last year, there was a summer Sunday and bank holiday service on offer too with extensions to Tatton Park and three journeys each way a day. Council funding cuts have seen to the end of that and may explain the recently curtailed frequency on other days of the week too.

The largely hourly Connect 88 service to Wilmslow to Altrincham remains though. Once the 288 operated by Arriva, this now is run by GHA’s Vale Travel mainly with Optare Versa single deckers dating from 2008. These fresh new buses were a far cry from the ageing step-entrance Dennis Darts that Arriva had been using. The service extends from around 07:00 until around 19:00 so covers a good part of the day goes by Ilford’s site at Mobberley and passes not far from Manchester Airport’s cargo handling facility either, offering something of use to anyone needing to go to work at either place.

The Connect 88 isn’t the only service going from Knutsford and Altrincham because there’s also the 289 that has Northwich as its other terminus. There are five services each way a day with the overall period of operation starting before 07:00 and finishing after 20:00, making for a long day.

After those, there’s the town service 300 to mention and it’s shared by High Peak and Tomlinson Travel with a decent spread of service from around 08:00 until after 23:00 and the frequency largely is half-hourly too so Knutsford residents cannot complain too much, especially it is escaping the planned council spending cuts unlike its counterparts in Macclesfield.

The mention of Tomlinson Travel brings me to the last service on the list: the Tuesday and Friday only service 47 from Holmes Chapel to Warrington. Knutsford gains two services to Warrington from this while Holmes Chapel only has the one. Saying that, the service finishes up in the early afternoon so it looks like a weekday shopping bus for some folk.

All of these services call at the town’s bus station, an unfussy but not grotesque annex to Booth’s supermarket. It’s away from the town centre though and a busy road needs crossing to get there. Like Knutsford’s train station, you have to go uphill to reach it too so that’s another consideration. It’s just as well that there are public toilets there and I saw a bus driver making use of them yesterday too. The adjacent Booth’s also operate a cafe so that could be a handy way to spend some time while awaiting a bus so it’s far from bad.

Trains

The town sits on the mid-Cheshire line that connects Chester with the likes of Northwich, Altrincham and Stockport. Northern Rail is the sole operator here and there is a staffed ticket office at Knutsford’s none too shabby train station; it looks as if the main station building got a rebuild in the eighties or nineties but I have not been able to find anything about it so far. Service frequency is two-hourly on Sundays and that’s a vast improvement on the three services each way a day that it used to get. Apart from Monday to Friday peak times when additional services run, the frequency is hourly on other days of the week.

Other Thoughts

It’s a pity that Knutsford gets a bit more cut off from the world in terms of public transport of a Sunday since it’s a pretty place to visit and oozes plenty of character too. It started out as an estate village owned by the Egertons of Tatton Park and mercifully escaped the industrialisation of places like nearby Macclesfield. Tatton Park passed into National Trust hands in the middle of the last century with Cheshire East Council now managing it on their behalf. That was what drew me to Knutsford yesterday and I untidily tracked down a walking route around Tatton Mere; finding its source first wasn’t too bright.

What amazed me yesterday were the streams of slow moving cars in the two narrow one-way streets in the heart of the town: King Street and Princess Street. That made me wonder if it wasn’t possible to pedestrianise these but the need for car parking probably puts paid to that one. Shops were busy with folk too so those narrow footways in King Street could do with a bit more girth.

Maybe if we could persuade more folk to visit by bus, then the Sunday service situation could be sorted but council finances do not permit our testing that out again and there were a few years of half-heartedly trying too. Some of those Macclesfield Sunday services got extended as far as Manchester Airport’s viewing for some reason so there were some efforts made, as odd as they might seem now. For now though, train services are that little bit more dependable so they’ll need to be the public transport backstop until the economy and the public finances both improve enough for the bus travel option to be enhanced again.

Another escape from paper ticketting

Around two years ago, I was making use of Arriva’s m-Ticket app on a Blackberry Curve 8520 that I then owned. Apart from a certain sluggishness due to the hardware and its 2G internet connection, it worked fine until I forgot the PIN that it needed. From then on, I returned to paper bus tickets and stuck with them ever sense.

However, curiosity and a better phone have me having another go. This time it’s from Google’s Play Store from which I got the app. It remains free of charge and seems so that the world of Android and a HTC Desire S armed with 3G connectivity have made for a smoother and faster experience. The fact that it is a touchscreen phone allows the developers to make a better interface too.

Also, there are some savings to be had. For instance, a North West four weekly ticket costs £56.70 and a day ticket for the same area is £4.20. The paper counterpart to the latter is £4.60 and four weekly tickets will set you back £72.00. Interestingly, weekly tickets cost the same via the app as they do from a bus driver.

To work the app needs personal details such as name, address and date of birth. For payment, you can store a credit (or debit) card number in the app with the card’s security code and a PIN provided by Arriva needed for any transactions. Topping up beforehand is another option if you don’t like the idea of card details on a phone.

With the app, you can see ticket prices before you buy and activate any that you buy price to use. There are no single journey tickets on here so they need to be bought from a bus driver. That must make the app easier to maintain for the developers and means that the range of tickets is easier to browse. While doing, I found some for areas that I might be inclined to visit such as Northumberland’s coast. It’s good to see what’s out there ahead of time instead of holding up a bus trying to get the information. That it’s all doable on the move only helps too.

This time around, that PIN will be stored somewhere for safekeeping and my hope is that my time with mobile bus ticketting will continue longer than it did two years ago. It might surprise you now but I had put this option out of my mind until I spotted someone else showing a phone to a bus driver on getting aboard. That was enough to make me go investigating again.

Back to darker ages?

It was in August 11th of 2009 that Cheshire East Council launched a new and very welcome innovation: a real time bus tracker for two of the bus routes in the borough. One was the 130 between Macclesfield and Manchester and the other was the 27 between Macclesfield and Knutsford.

After more than three years, it seems that we are being relieved of this useful service from October 6th. It only ever may have been a pilot but it came in handy during many a disruption, particularly when I worked at a place based in the countryside and not in a town as I do now. As it happened, my bus home today was delayed by nearly twenty minutes and the Timeline (that’s its proper name) service proved its worth in keeping me posted as to when it would arrive.

Of course, it hasn’t been perfect. For one thing, streetside screens providing real time information were limited and ended up being installed in strange places: Alderley Edge instead of Wilmslow’s Green Lane, Fallibroome Road in Macclesfield instead of somewhere more central like Churchill Way. However, there was a screen installed at Macclesfield General Hospital so it wasn’t all unusual. However, these placements meant that it was the web-based service that came in most handy with being in possession of a smartphone allowing access to the latest arrival times while waiting at a bus stop.

Latterly, performance hasn’t been perfect either with parts being needed for the system earlier in the year and taking a while to be put in place too. Not every bus operating a service had the required tracking equipment either so scheduled times were what appeared for those and they could be very misleading when a bus has been cancelled because of a breakdown.

What has reduced my own dependency on the service in recent times has been timely running of services apart from tonight. The summer holidays have helped too as has the opening of the Alderley Edge bypass and the better performance of the M6. Getting home on winter evenings often involved a deal of uncertainty when traffic conditions clearly were far from ideal. There have been waits in the dark of around 60-90 minutes when road traffic accidents and winter storms, including snow and ice, caused chaos. November often turned out to be an eventful month along the A34 but January gales caused their share of disruption too when they caused electricity power supply failure that turned off traffic lights. Those events don’t seem to have intruded for a while but maybe I have other means of dealing with these.

Working from home is one option that has come my way and comes in handy when there’s a fall of snow or some other weather event. That it keeps me productive too during times when the road system doesn’t work as well as it should helps too. My workplace also has an urban situation as I mentioned earlier so evenings of catching buses on dark roads through the countryside are behind me for now; it’s not the best of circumstances when things don’t run so smoothly. In fact, it offers the fallback of going home by train should road traffic really become gridlocked.

Another factor could be that bus operators have got better at timing their services. Even the this year’s two week closure of the Alderley Edge bypass around the end of June and the start of July had little effect on service running for the 130, much to my surprise. That we have an economic downturn probably helps too because it cuts down on the number of cars on the road.

Even with more reliable bus services, it remains a shame to see real time bus tracking going from us in Cheshire East. Sadly, it looks unlikely too that it will be replaced for a while given the current constraints on public spending. While that makes me think about contingency measures, I am left wondering about how many were making use of the service as well. In the beginning, it got its share of publicity but that later waned. Also, the unreliability that it suffered and the changeover to a web based map interface made it less convenience for smartphone users unless you had links to parts of the older site like I did. Looking at it now, it probably needed investment to make it better and more comprehensive and it appears this is the wrong time for that.

So, could we manage without it by doing better than standing at bus stops in hope like before. Twitter seems an obvious candidate for such things and that may be something the council may wish to explore but it needs manpower and I am not sure that they have that. There has been a lot of talk about the “Big Society” and Cheshire East’s answer to Torbay Bus Routes would be commendable. It would take more than a one man effort though seeing as my own are limited as things stand.

Bus companies are active on Twitter too and High Peak have their own account. With the provision of delay information to the nearest minute, that could be a substitute but it needs an investment of time and effort to rise above the provision of general information. There is an unused Arriva Northwest Twitter account or at least it purports to be that with someone’s name attached to it. It would be good to see Arriva’s bus operation in this part of the world being as active on Twitter as those in the Northeast and Yorkshire and there’s room for bettering those too.

Real time bus tracking will be no more in Cheshire East on the same day that the Macclesfield to Knutsford bus service becomes a commercial enterprise without council financial support. The coincidence looks linked and is a sign of the austere times through which we are living. Would a more vibrant economy with stable public finances bring us better things, the ever handy real time bus tracking among them? It is hard to answer that but time could tell an interesting story.