The revolution, when it came, was thankfully on time. The first bus in England to be brought back into public control since the 1980s steered out of its depot near Bolton at 4.30am sharp, beginning what one passenger (the mayor, Andy Burnham) hailed as “a new dawn” for public transport.
The service – a 521 from Farnworth to Westhoughton – marked a “coming-of-age moment for English devolution” and a “revolution” for buses, said Burnham, before a bright yellow fleet of electric doubledeckers fanned out across Greater Manchester on Monday.
“It’s very nice,” said Ken Leech, 56, stepping off a brand new 36 service at Bolton interchange, which had been spruced up with black-and-yellow bee logos ready for the launch of the Bee Network. Leech used to pay £4 each way for his short trip from north Manchester, a fare now cut to £2 as part of a pledge to reduce travel costs by up to 20%.
As in many cities outside London, commuters in Greater Manchester have for years contended with a dizzying array of private companies running ever-shrinking services on ageing buses while charging higher fares.
Highlighting the problem, six buses run by four separate firms were due to depart Manchester’s Shudehill interchange in just 23 minutes on Monday, with no easy way for passengers to buy a ticket that allows travel between them.
From Sunday, local politicians will oversee the bus network in Bolton, Wigan and parts of Salford and Bury, with the rest of Greater Manchester to follow over the next 18 months.
Other regions across England are expected to introduce their own publicly-owned franchises if Burnham’s plan works. If it doesn’t – and much of its success relies on increasing commuter numbers to keep fares low – then it could crash the mayor’s ambitious legacy.
The first weekday of this bold new era saw the same old problems: Bee Network officials apologised to some passengers for “delays to several services” caused, it said, by “operational issues”. Some parents said their children had ended up directing their bus drivers to schools as they were apparently new to the route.
Mary Minch, 79, summarises the region’s bus network in one word: “Crap. Literally.” She added: “The buses are disgusting – the older ones. You’re waiting for hours, especially that 474,” she said, shaking her head. “That is the worst bus.”
Minch needs a walking frame to get around and had to wait 45 minutes to catch a bus that had space for her on Monday. Despite that, she was pleased with the new livery: “They’re brilliant, those yellow buses. I’ve got to put my hands up there.”
Away from the fanfare at Bolton interchange, the main difference noted by commuters was the colour and cleanliness of the new fleet.
Veterans of the region’s buses talk grimly of how many are decorated with chewing gum and hand-drawn penises, empty beer cans rolling backwards and forwards on the upper decks. The new livery is pristine in comparison.
On the 36 bus from Manchester to Bolton, Kimberley Fitzpatrick, a 17-year-old college student, was impressed with the screen displaying the next stop – and with the phone chargers on the back of the seats.
Steve Hardie, 57, was underwhelmed: “It’s a yellow bus taking me to Swinton whereas yesterday it was a blue bus,” he said, adding that he would give the service time to bed in before giving a more fulsome verdict.
Hardie sounded sceptical about taking transport back into public ownership but was angry about the threat to HS2, the high-speed rail line from London to Manchester widely expected to be junked or curtailed by Rishi Sunak’s government.
“The whole ‘northern powerhouse’ thing pretty much goes down the pan with the scrapping of HS2,” he said.
Liz Nicholls, 69, and her husband, John Nicholls, 67, compared the contrasting fortunes of Greater Manchester in a week benefiting from the launch of the Bee Network but perhaps losing HS2.
“I’ve always said if you can integrate public transport I will use it. This [the Bee Network] is great,” said John. “The disappointing thing as a country on HS2 is we don’t seem able to do these big projects. Longer term, are we going to be able to do them again?”