Investigation reveals number of Wigan bus miles covered is at lowest for 28 years

A Vantage vehicle on the guided busway
A Vantage vehicle on the guided busway

Hundreds of thousands of fewer miles are now being covered by buses in Wigan borough as the national network shrinks to its lowest point in 28 years.

An investigation has revealed the number of miles clocked by buses in Britain is now at levels last seen in 1989.

Over the past decade, the UK bus network has shrunk by eight per cent, with 134 million fewer miles covered by buses each year - the equivalent of more than 5,000 trips around the world.

Wiganers have been affected by the reduction in bus journeys in the region, with subsidised routes among those most badly hit.

The investigation with the BBC Local News Partnership, using data from the Department for Transport, shows buses in Greater Manchester covered 7.79 million fewer miles in 2016-17 compared to 2013-14 - an 11.4 per cent reduction.

There was a 10.3 per cent drop in miles travelled on commercial routes and 16.4 per cent on subsidised routes.

Across the North West, there has been a 12.19 per cent reduction in miles since 2013-14, with a 39.62 per cent drop on subsidised routes and 5.81 per cent on commercial routes.

In 2013-14 19 per cent of bus miles were subsidised, but this dropped to 13 per cent in 2016-17.

The majority of Greater Manchester’s bus services are run by commercial operators who decide routes, timetables and fares.

Transport For Greater Manchester (TfGM), which is largely funded by the 10 local authorities, financially supports around 20 per cent of bus services. In 2016-17 £27.1m was spent on running essential buses.

Travellers in some areas have been affected by Lancashire County Council slashing subsidies.

Over the past 10 years, the bus network in the North West has shrunk by nearly a quarter, with a 23.3 per cent drop in the miles travelled.

Passengers in Greater Manchester made 6.75 per cent fewer journeys in 2016-17 than four years ago.

Coun Andrew Fender, chairman of the TfGM committee, said: “Buses are the backbone of our transport network, with three in every four public transport journeys made by bus.

“We’ve worked hard alongside the 10 local councils in Greater Manchester to improve bus services in recent years, through very substantial investment in infrastructure and by working closely with operators.

“Yet in spite of these efforts, there has been a steady decline in the number of people travelling by bus.

“It’s impossible to pinpoint one single reason why this is, rather the explanation is likely to be a combination of contributing factors, not least a reduction in the number of miles operated – across both commercial and subsidised bus services, the fact that the current bus network is not sufficiently well integrated, making multi-leg journeys sometimes quite complicated and the fact that ticketing remains confusing for many passengers.

“However, where there is a quality offer we know more people will be encouraged back onto buses and the guided busway is a prime example of that.

“As our population continues to grow so too does the demand to travel and it’s vital that the bus network plays a fuller role in connecting people with the places they wish to go.

“But it is not just about buses. The rail and tram networks across Greater Manchester are recording record levels of patronage and the Greater Manchester Transport Strategy 2040 sets out a vision for bus as part of a more joined-up transport network, with simple fares and ticketing and that puts the passenger first. It should be modern, low emission, accessible, and everyone should be able to use it.

“Greater Manchester is now investigating the new powers available to mayoral combined authorities through the Bus Services Act 2017 to improve services for passengers through reform of the local bus market.”

The multi-million pound guided busway from Leigh to Manchester city centre opened in May 2016.

It was used by 28,000 people in its first week and that almost doubled within the first year, with 20 per cent saying they had switched to travelling by bus since April 2016.

More than half said they had access to a car, either as a driver or passenger, but were choosing to use the busway instead.

Extra buses were laid on at peak times to cope with demand after the first few months, though the V3 service to Manchester Royal Infirmary was axed last year and other services rerouted.

People living in Top Lock criticised the decision to withdraw the 614 bus route in May, saying it meant they had just one service an hour to Wigan town centre. TfGM said its subsidy was taken away because not enough residents used it.

The Hindley Local Link, which uses shared minibuses to provide journeys in the area, was extended in May to take in more of Hindley Green, but at the same time journeys into Wigan were cut. Very low levels of demand were again blamed.

In October 2016, MP Chris Green hit out at the decision by Diamond Bus to axe its 518 route between Leigh and Horwich.

A spokesman for Stagecoach Manchester said: “These figures reflect a number of factors - much of the network which is funded by local authorities has been reduced due to budget cuts within local council areas, and wider factors such as changes in work, travel and shopping habits have also resulted in commercial changes to parts of the network to reflect these trends.

“Unfortunately traffic congestion is having a significant impact on bus passengers and continues to undermine the attractiveness of the bus.

“We carried more than eight million people on our services in Wigan in the past year and offer great value fares with unlimited travel from just £3.60 per day. We have also invested £5.8m in new vehicles for Wigan in the past six years.

“Buses are the solution to improving air quality and an effective local bus network can deliver a significant boost to the local economy.

“We urgently need local politicians to tackle the issue of congestion and look forward to working with them to take positive steps towards encouraging more people on to buses in the future.”

Congestion was also cited as “one of the biggest issues facing the bus industry” by First Manchester.

A spokesman said: “We are working in partnership with local authorities to combat road congestion so that we can improve the reliability of our services for customers.

“Equally, if more customers converted to using mTickets rather than paying with cash, then this would have a huge impact on boarding times and would be a step in the right direction and help us in the battle to speed up the bus.”

Gary Nolan, chief executive of Greater Manchester Bus Operators Association, said: “We regularly review our bus network to ensure that we offer a service that meets customer demand.

“The increase in bus journey times due to increased congestion has deterred some bus users and the growth of the Metrolink network has resulted in a rationalisation of bus mileage.

“As OneBus, we are working with TfGM to review bus priorities to speed up buses and we look forward to the Mayor’s report on congestion within

Greater Manchester, which we hope will encourage more bus use.”

The investigation revealed buses remain the most popular form of public transport, making up five per cent of all trips in England, compared to two per cent on the railways.

However, all methods of public transport were eclipsed by the car, which now accounts for 62 per cent of trips. A quarter of trips were made on foot, while cycling accounted for two per cent of trips.

A spokesman for the Department for Transport said: “Buses connect people, homes and businesses and that’s why we have given councils extra powers to work in partnership with bus companies to improve the service passengers expect and deserve.

“Long-term social and economic factors are affecting levels of bus usage. But to encourage it and improve journeys, we provide around £250m to support bus services every year.”