Saturday, 16 November 2013

A Few Hours In Manchester....

Stagecoach 192 at Hazel Grove terminus

I like Manchester. It's one of those places I've never really had time to explore properly, although I've been to the City numerous times when I used to work for Passenger Focus. You know the score - arrive, office, leave. 
I think it's the buildings that grab my attention. Victorian splendour adorns this great northern City. And it has trams. Loads of them. So in the area around Piccadilly Gardens, it almost reminds me of a European City. Manchester has also intrigued me from some of my earliest childhood memories - years before I ever visited the City: why orange for the colour of buses? One of my earliest toy buses was a Greater Manchester Atlantean, and it stood out amongst my mostly red collection. 
So on my day off, I decided to just take myself along with the flow and spend a few hours amongst the buses and trams of this gritty northern City. 
One thing that surprises me a little is the seemingly lack of multi-modal day ticket that covers the morning peak. Having searched web pages in recent days, I can't find an option that allows me freedom of the network of buses, trams and trains before 0930 on weekdays. Maybe there isn't demand, but I find that hard to believe. 
I arrive into Manchester Piccadilly railway station, which is always a pleasure. As gateways to Cities go, this is right up there. Roomy and airy, it says "welcome to Manchester" in a modern, pleasing way. You can connect directly onto the Metrolink trams here, but after the obligatory visit to the Ian Allan transport bookshop outside the station (Buses Annual 2012 for a quid purchased) I find myself sitting in the window at Greggs with a sandwich observing the comings and goings of route 192. 
This was the first route I ever tried in Manchester years ago, and it looks as busy as ever, with it's recently installed fleet of handsome Enviro 400 double decker hybrid buses, adorned in a very attractive green adaption of corporate Stagecoach squirls. 
I've been as far as Stockport before on this route, but never to the terminus at Hazel Grove, so I leave the warm surroundings of Greggs to jump on the first 192 that rolls up. But it isn't going to Hazel Grove - rather Stepping Hill Hospital. This appears to be a variation on the route, but I'm used to the West Midlands idea of adding an "A" or "E" to differentiate a route - in Manchester you have to look at the destination more closely! 
So I let this one go and 30 seconds later a Hazel Grove version arrives. 
"Can I buy a bus and tram day ticket please?" I ask the driver, who, sounding like a Coronation Street extra, tells me "yes, of course, it's £6.50". Armed with my paper passport to Manchester's public transport I'm off upstairs to view the delights of Manchester's suburbs along this famous route, which, Wikipedia tells us, dates back to 1889, when it was first operated by the Stockport Carriage & Tramway Co. Ltd. 
The impressive branding of my environmentally-friendly green machine hides a less than impressive interior. The bus is very untidy inside, with litter strewn all over the top deck, and muddy footprints up the front panels. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating journey out through the likes of Ardwick, Longsight and Levenshulme, all with fascinating glimpses of buildings from the past mixed with the new. This Enviro suffers from the same "noisy fan" syndrome as her West Midlands sisters...
We're informed that "electronic cigarettes are banned on this bus" (first time I've seen that anywhere), and I'm momentarily distracted by the sign outside Cape Cod's chip shop: "any pie and chips £2.95". Some good old northern roots still going strong here! 
I spot a Stagecoach Inspector with radio eyeballing our bus near Stockport and he obviously has his work cut out - the 192s are inevitably bunching all over the place - I spot 3 running in tandem in the opposite direction. 
The terminus at Hazel Grove is, like so many outer termini of City routes, completely underwhelming. It lies behind the Rising Sun pub next to a railway bridge and huge expanse of derelict land. It is here I jump off and consider a pint in said pub, but decide that 1 would probably lead to 2, and I've got more buses and trams to see! So I watch my 192 trundle off back to City whilst almost immediately another 192 has appeared. 
Drivers at Hazel Grove appear to check the upper and lower decks for anything untoward. My new driver does this, then asks if I want to get on, helpfully explaining he'll be a couple of minutes as he has to make a phone call. Buses from Hazel Grove are every 10 minutes and despite the bunching further up the route, all seems to be well regulated from this furthest outpost. We're soon on our way again, heading back towards the metropolis where other 192s emerge from the route variants, and we're soon bunching back into town, where another Inspector is scribbling onto his clipboard. This bus has marginally less litter, but is still a let down. Maybe the Mancunians could learn something from the West Midlands practice of daytime sweep outs at termini. There's seemingly adequate time for a bit of broom action at Hazel Grove...
Back in the City, I hop off at Piccadilly Gardens and marvel at the organised chaos there. Buses from Stagecoach, First, Arriva, Magic Bus, Finglands and Metrolink trams all jostle for space amongst throngs of people. I decide to try a Finglands service, as these will soon disappear as First is in the process of buying the bus operation. 
My 41 is a modern Wrights Gemini double decker, with less litter than its Stagecoach Sister, but still not great. Like Birmingham, I think it's a City thing...
I'm heading along the famous Wilmslow Road. Famous as it's often cited as the busiest bus corridor in Europe. This is student-ville, and as it's mid afternoon, I'm watching from my top deck vantage point as literally thousands of scholars besiege the numerous buses on the corridor. 
Finglands might have been the post-deregulation pioneer of cheap student deals, but today it is Stagecoach's Magic Bus service that appears to be the market leader. Our bus hovers around stops, but many students stand back and wait for the deep blue Magic Buses instead, of which there appears to be a never-ending stream. It's been a few years since I've been down here, but I am still fascinated at the incredible demand for buses down here. It looks like Brian Souter has again read the market extremely well, as his motley line up of elderly no-frills services have clearly attained cult status amongst the student fraternity. 
Other Stagecoach buses ply the route as well as Finglands and Magic Bus, and I spot one lone First vehicle in amongst the action, but with their impending take over of Finglands, they appear to be on the verge of becoming a more significant player in this incredible game. 
I hop off after a while and cross over the road, but I don't have long to wait for a bus. I make it about 17 seconds before one of Souters cheap and cheerful 10 year old-plus Magic Buses rolls up. Ironically, this has been the tidiest bus to date with very little litter rolling about! As I head back into the City Centre, I observe the outgoing services - it is virtually a sea of buses, each crammed full of people akin to a scene from Indian railways! 
I'm back in Piccadilly Gardens. 
Transport for Greater Manchester does decent timetables for its stops, but they appear not to show specific operators on journeys, which may be an issue for those who buy operator-specific tickets. I have a wander round, catching glimpse of the recently-refreshed Witch Way buses, with their red stiletto wearing witches adorning the sides of the vehicles. I decide I'll return in the future to have a ride on one of these. The numerous MetroShuttle free buses are also roaming the streets of the City. First seem to have the majority of their buses in their new, cleaner purple livery, which is growing on me all the time. It's a very colourful bus scene...
Next I'm off for a bit of tram action. 
We're heading into the evening peak and Piccadilly Gardens is awash with commuters. I join the crush and head for somewhere no self-respecting Manchester United fan should consider: Etihad Campus - home of Manchester City! 
This stop has only recently opened earlier this year in February 2013 and I've never been to the "noisy neighbours"! This evening, it isn't very noisy at all. In fact it's deserted as I hop off and wander around the outside of the stadium, adorned with faces of the players. It's pretty chilly and I feel like I'm in enemy territory (!) being a lifelong red, but it's an impressive place to be fair. I head back down to the deserted platforms, save for one guy who looks bewildered at the self-service ticket machines and hop on a tram up towards Bury. 
Metrolink is impressive. When it comes to public transport, I always like to compare what we have in my native West Midlands to Manchester, as it's much more comparative then, say, London. And I have to say, in some respects (although not all!) our northern friends have stolen a march on us West Midlanders. Metrolink has expanded into a superb tram network, comparable to many European Cities. The West Midlands has, for many political reasons I guess, fallen behind. Yes, we're getting new rolling stock, but so indeed are Manchester. 
I'm riding an evening peak service to Bury aboard a Bombardier M5000 tram. Standing room only, these vehicles are impressive. We pass through some great names, including Abraham Moss, Crumpsall and the delightful-sounding Besses o' th' Barn. Goodness knows what goes on here after dark. 
Bury is the final stop, and I wander up the stairs to the bus station at the top, and manage to spend 40p attempting to gain access to the toilets, as my first 20p attempt fails to get me into the jail-like grill that guards the facility against freeloaders. 
I consider catching a bus back to Manchester, but my options all look like they take around an hour, and I have a time-specific train ticket for my journey home, so no mishaps can be tolerated! 
So I return to the Metrolink platforms, where a much older tram - one of the original T-68s - is awaiting departure. I hop on to sample it - probably one of the last times I will do so as all of the remaining versions of this vehicle are scheduled to be withdrawn next year in 2014. They're showing their age, but they've earned their keep in the City. 
My trip back into town is a curious mix of commuter stragglers and the first of the evening party people. Manchester's bright young things are appearing for a night on the town, and Metrolink will take them to the bright lights of the City. 
But Metrolink is taking me back to Piccadilly station, where I'm homeward bound. It's early evening in the station but it's still very busy, as people queue for burgers and peruse the departure boards. I'm hunting for a litter bin (of which an example doesn't appear to exist) but a kindly man with rubbish trolley accepts my waste papers before I head onto platform 9 where my CrossCountry Voyager will sail southbound via Wolverhampton where National Express West Midlands' 256 bus will deliver me home. 
Wolves bus station is magnificent enough to rival anything Manchester can offer. Except my 256 doesn't exist according to the digital technology. (I know better of course!) 
Centro are currently canvassing views on plans to extend our Midland Metro trams to and from the rail station via the bus station, and whilst this may be a good thing, I just get the impression Manchester has already been there, done that and got the t-shirt! 

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