Yellow buses are meant to become ‘an iconic symbol of Greater Manchester’, according to Mayor Andy Burnham – but passengers looking to catch one may be in for a wait.

Since the end of January, Bee Network bosses have been releasing data on the system’s punctuality data – a move the mayor said would be key in tracking how the network was doing.

According to the Government’s Senior Traffic Commissioner, a bus is considered ‘on time’ if it arrives between one minute early and five minutes late.

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But, according to Bolton News analysis of the data, the first tranche of the system – which includes franchised services in Bolton, Wigan, and parts of Bury and Salford – has only hit its punctuality target on 32 out of 105 days.

While punctuality does appear to be trending upwards, half of the days where the network managed to meet its target were the 16 consecutive days between Saturday, March 30 and Monday, April 15 – which parents of school children may recognise as being during the Easter Holidays.

The best days for punctuality were Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays – with the network reaching its target on a third of Saturdays, 60 per cent of Sundays and 53 per cent of Mondays.

The only times the network has reached its punctuality target on a Tuesday or a Friday was during Easter holidays.

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‘Take out bus stops’

Tom Forth knows about buses.

He lived in Manchester from 2018 to 2021, and as the head of data at Open Innovations in Leeds he’s previously worked with organisations including Transport for Greater Manchester to help them make sense of the data and deliver projects.

He has a range of suggestions for ways to improve the network – one of which he admits is controversial.

“You can take out bus stops. In Britain, we’ve got an unusually high number of bus stops.

“People sort of like that because they think ‘ah well, the bus stops near to my house, so that’s what I want.

“But, the thing is – once you’re on the bus, so the bus can stop near to everyone’s house, it stops 28 times.”

The Bolton News: Tom Forth says removal of some bus stops could speed up journey timesTom Forth says removal of some bus stops could speed up journey times (Image: Jack Fifield, Newsquest)

Indeed, Tom was unsurprised to find out that anyone travelling between Bolton Interchange and Manchester’s Shudehill would be subject to 57 stops and more than an hour’s journey time.

He continued: “That’s not normal, we think that’s normal in Britain, but if you were to do that same journey in other countries, it would be far fewer stops – it would be half as many.”

Tom pointed to work in Birmingham that he was involved in, which saw the removal of 60 bus stops.

While it was controversial, the change resulted in increased passenger numbers – bucking a trend which had seen passengers fall each month before the change.

Using a web tool he built, Tom pointed out that there are more than 2,000 bus stops within an eight kilometre (5 miles) radius of Bolton town centre, compared to under 1,000 in the same radius of the Dutch city of Utrecht, for example.

The Bolton News: Tom Forth is the head of data at Open InnovationsTom Forth is the head of data at Open Innovations (Image: Tom Forth)

Cutting bus stops wasn’t the only change Tom recommended, however.

Increasing the number of bus lanes, ticket simplification, and the addition of middle exit doors on double deckers, so that passengers do not have to wait for people to get off before boarding, would all help to reduce delays and increase punctuality, he said.

He said: “Once they’re able to roll out proper tap on the bus – tap, tap, tap, tap, tap – you don’t have to ask the driver for a destination, you don’t have to get a paper ticket printed, you don’t have to do anything like that – once that’s rolled out you should see a really big improvement in how fast the buses can go, just because they’ll be waiting at stops for much less time.

“At some times you can be looking at 30 per cent of the whole of the buses’ time sat at stops, negotiating to get people on to the bus. We know that when a bus stops in Leeds city centre it often takes five minutes just to get full of people.”

Mayor Andy Burnham has previously hinted the Bee Network could go cashless in the future, with the mayor saying last summer that there was ‘an argument both ways’ but that most felt it would be safer and speed up journeys.

Data shows services ‘more reliable’

According to Bee Network data, Bee Network buses are outperforming commercial services – with 74.6 per cent on time compared to 67.5 per cent on the commercial network between April 28 and May 4.

Transport bosses say installing bus lanes and adding bus priority at junctions and traffic lights which can go green for late buses are just some of the ways they’re planning to improve things – using some of the more than £1 billion received in 2022 from the government’s City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement to pay for it.

‘On-street bus improvements’ across 70km (43 miles) of bus routes are part of the plan to grow bus patronage by 50 million journeys, or 30 per cent, by 2030, when compared with 2022/23 levels.

Additionally, a network review – the first in the city-region – is now taking place in Bolton.

The network expects to bring ‘tap in and tap out’ to all buses across the region once all services come under control in January 2025.

A Transport for Greater Manchester spokesperson said: “‘Punctuality figures can be affected by the overall performance of the highway network, including a range of factors such as the presence of roadworks, weather conditions and changes such as school holidays.

“Whilst other innovations such as ticketing technologies and, in particular, the use of central doors on vehicles can speed up journey times, this needs to be balanced with the investment required and, in terms of the latter, can only be delivered if the whole of the area’s stop infrastructure is amended also.

“TfGM remains committed to maximising accessibility to the network and – whilst reviewing stop siting is always beneficial – ensuring the maximum number of passengers can easily access the network in terms of distance to a stop remains a critical outcome.”

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