The Wigan borough town where people feel trapped by public transport
Kevin Jones points at the bus parked outside his shop.
“There are normally buses in front at all times and it’s so annoying, I don’t see why they stay here,” he says. “They’re here all day non-stop…that’ll be there for three hours.”
Kevin runs Atherton Tackle, the fishing supplies shop at the end of Market Street, Atherton. Businesses in the Wigan borough town saw a boom after a new bus route was introduced – the V2, back in 2016.
But then the service, part of a guided busway which sees buses run on rails, was cut. And the impact being felt by passengers and businesses has been stark, locals say.
The new timetable, Kevin believes, has left drivers with long periods with nothing to do – and so vehicles end up parked on Market Street.
“It’s impacting business in a negative way,” he adds. “Can they not rest in the station is my question? They use the chippy, I suppose, which is good for that business. Everyone is entitled to a meal but they need a place to go.
“I think cafes benefit more from the service than us. But they shouldn’t be parked here for three to four hours a day.
“The longest one has been parked here is six-and-a-half-hours. That was last summer.
“The problem is people can’t see the shop when they park there. We rely on passing trade and that blocks us. I think they’re here because they only go at peak times.”
Before the guided busway was introduced, with promises that it would drive regeneration in the borough, Atherton had four direct bus services to Manchester. The introduction of the V2 saw that reduced to one. Now, following the cuts, the V2 only runs at peak times, and doesn’t go all the way.
This means passengers bound for Atherton have to get off at Tyldesley interchange and catch another shuttle bus into Atherton, or get the other service on the guided busway, the V1, to Leigh, before catching another bus to Atherton.
The decision to cut direct services to Atherton came after Transport for Greater Manchester conducted surveys and concluded that the level of demand after Covid couldn’t justify a full V2 timetable.
Kevin Jones thought the V2 was “brilliant” – and has seen the effect of the decision to cut services for passengers, as well as for his business.
“My lad goes on it every day and I pick him up from Astley – it takes an extra 20 mins to get here [because it doesn’t come directly]. It’s quicker to get the V1.”
Brian Thomas, from the Dry Clean Centre on Market Street, is another disgruntled business owner. He believes Atherton’s fortunes have gone downhill, as the pedestrianisation which preceded the guided busway means motorists are less likely to shop in the town, and more likely to park in the area before getting the bus somewhere else.
“People filling up the car parks and going elsewhere [is a big problem],” he says. “No spaces left for people shopping in the centre.
“Car parks are rammed [from people parking and getting the bus] and no one is in town. When they did the guided busway Atherton didn’t get a car park like the other big towns (Leigh and Tyldesley).
“It’s gone downhill since pedestrianisation came in many years ago, people can’t drive into town. Because of that you can’t see the shops for passing trade.
“Pedestrianisation was the first nail in the coffin for the town. They tried to sell the V2 as people coming to Atherton to Manchester which was just not going to happen.”
Brian’s wife and business partner Anita says the diversity of shops in the last decade in the town has reduced because of the decline in passing trade, meaning it’s difficult for all but ‘hairdressers and cafes’ to survive in Atherton.
Rachael Flaszczak, owner of The Snug Coffee House venue, did see the benefits for business when the V2 was first brought in. She recalls buses pulling up, packed with revellers heading for Atherton’s bars.
But since the service has been reduced to peak-only hours the boom has ended. “We sold out a recent gig for 100 tickets but a portion of them didn’t come,” Rachael said. “We emailed them asking why and they said they booked the ticket and looked at the transport which said it could take around two hours to get here.
“We get people booking tickets seeing we’re in Greater Manchester, then they look at the public transport situation. You have to get one bus to Tyldesley then get another.
“We ran a survey to see if customers would return and everything was good except for public transport options. 30 per cent walked, 60 per cent drove, zero per cent came on the train, 10 per cent came on the bus.
“We are operating a music venue where 10 per cent of customers use public transport, not because they don’t want to but because they can’t. We don’t do well on the bar sales because of the cost of beer and people not being able to get home at the end of the night.
“Some of our artists are grassroots and are around 17/18 and aren’t driving. We have dropped some off at the train station and they’ve been left waiting for over an hour with all their gear. It is just embarrassing.”
Rachael also worries people are buying new housing in the area expecting great transport links. One man who falls into that bracket is 34-year-old Carl Kirkham, who came to Atherton 18 months ago and now says he wants to move.
“The V2 is not reliable, there are not enough services, it’s often very busy and during the evening times, because of the traffic around Salford way, it is often not on time,” Carl says. “I have found more often than not it is more reliable to get the bus to Leigh to get the V1 than to get the V2.
“I usually have to stand the entire way. My wife is disabled and there are times when we’ve got on the bus but had to get off at the next stop because it is just too much. It isn’t very user-friendly.
“If we have to go to town it costs £20+ in a taxi each way. It is preferable to do that than get the V2.” Carl says he and his wife now feel “trapped” in the area – and advise that people only move to Atherton if they have a car.
It’s a view shared by Brenda Wainwright, from Howe Bridge. “If you live in Walkden – you’ve got loads of buses every five minutes. If you live in Atherton you have to have a car unfortunately,” she says.
Waiting at the bus stop on Market Street, she added: “I used to go to work on them (V2) and when they stopped I couldn’t get to work. It’s the only bus you can get to Manchester now as well.
“Transport is a problem here. It stops people from wanting to go to Leigh or Manchester. “It stops people coming from Manchester as well. It is not good enough.
Brenda was waiting for a bus to Leigh like fellow passengers Pete and Ann Quigley.
“We’d go to Leigh to catch (the V1) because if you go to (Tyldesley) interchange (for the V2) it is full,” Pete said. “We can’t stand up so that puts us off getting on it.
“Transport as a whole is an issue in Atherton, it is very poor. We could be waiting here for 30 minutes then two or three come at once.
“We’ve used it many times but they cancel at a moment’s notice. You have to have a car living here. Unfortunately I’ve just given mine up.”
Pete’s wife Ann added: “We caught the bus from Manchester to Atherton and when we got past the Tyldesley stop he said ‘everyone for Atherton will have to get off and wait for the next one’. We had to wait 20 minutes for the shuttle bus.”
The Guided Busway which the V1 and V2 serves 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.
Nick Roberts, TfGM’s head of bus services and commercial development, said: “The Vantage V1 and V2 services continue to offer a quality experience to the thousands of people who travel daily along the guided busway.
“We introduced a reduced timetable on the V2 last year in response to low demand. We are continuing to review patronage across both Vantage services to help identify how we can improve services in a sustainable way.
“We are investigating the issues reported to us in relation to both V1 and V2 services, and I would urge anyone with issues to raise to get in touch.”
Despite TfGM stressing “low demand”, Wigan councillors say capacity has always been an issue for customers of the V1 and V2, with claims made in meetings of buses that “fly past full of people” during peak times. These complaints led to a petition being set up back in September demanding improvements.
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 previously. “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.
“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.”
Responding to questions raised about capacity on the V1 and V2, a spokesman for First said: “The Vantage buses can carry a maximum of 91 people safely and we encourage customers to assist drivers by moving down the aisles to enable as many customers to board as possible when capacity has reached standing only.
“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.”
Responding to Mr Jones’s complaints about buses blocking his shop, he added: “The bus should not have been parked outside the shop on Market Street and we apologise for any inconvenience to the owner. We have spoken to the driver to prevent any repeat of this and also reminded all our drivers to use designated areas for any waiting time.
“The situation in the same location last summer was a mistake by a driver who should have brought the bus back to the depot and is now no longer with the company.”