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Journey into the future

Since 1998 Manchester has been developing its own integrated mix of train, tram, bus, plane and even commandeered taxis. David Hayward has travelled them all to record the achievements of a city dubbed by the Government as integrated transport's first 'ce

Dawn over Daubhill on the outskirts of Bolton and Tom Hopkin's car sports a thin layer of white frost. He quickly scrapes the windscreen.

Five minutes later and the engine will not fire, the battery is now very flat and why did he not book that service?

He promised his elderly mother he would visit so his only option is to take public transport.

By car the 36km to Bowdon village near Altrincham is - during the morning peak - a direct if stressful one hour journey. And Tom has not forgotten the last time his car failed him for the same regular mission, nearly a decade ago in 1995, when he had to endure a two hour plus public transport epic involving two buses, train and Manchester's Metrolink tram.

It was a frustrating, tiring and largely uncontrollable trip. Lots of separate tickets, just missed connections and, above all, a feeling of incompetence as he frantically read bus fronts and train indicator boards attempting to navigate across an uncharted jungle.

But then he remembers the travel smartcard his daughter recently gave him and is soon undertaking the short walk to the bus stop. He is grateful to reach the welcoming, well lit and enclosed bus shelter laden with gadgets.

The real time indicator board reveals not only that his bus is two just minutes away but also the whereabouts of the following three buses, updated continuously by a satellite aided global positioning system. The extensive all mode timetable on the wall, speaking timetable controls beneath it and closed circuit TV camera above him make him feel confident and secure.

But he has no need to consult any timetable or even check the approaching bus front. A reassuring tanoy voice confirms it is his.

Last time Tom confronted a bus driver during the 1995 debacle he had embarrassingly not known what to do: Did the driver give tickets and change, and what was the name of his destination stop? This time Tom is slightly embarrassed again - but amusedly so as he waves his smartcard at a gizmo and asks simply for a multi-mode day ticket.

The smartcard came complete with credits so no fumbling for cash. He is given a ticket but later learns that this is mainly for customer confidence as it is not really needed - the card reveals all.

His bus speeds along dedicated bus lanes which motorists are truly deterred from invading for fear of £1,000 fines and where traffic lights turn to green as the bus approaches.

Tom's journey is eased by a personal door to door route planner which was faxed to him barely ten minutes earlier. Just before he left the house, he rang Manchester's central public transport information centre.

The call was answered, as usual, within 30 seconds and a 'real' person noted both his and his mother's postcodes. Within seconds the mobile phone fax had churned out the route planner detailing a timetable upgraded just minutes earlier.

That is how Tom knew exactly when to leave home avoiding any wait at the bus stop. He now has the fax with him, but can call up his route at any time using the mobile.

A customer assistant walks the bus aisle offering free coffee and newspapers, but Tom chooses to watch the news on the nearby TV. Within eight minutes he is in Bolton bus station - twice as quick as the 1995 journey.

'This is a quality bus corridor, ' explains the customer assistant.

'Bus companies provide the newest vehicles, a frequent reliable timetable and specially trained staff in return for dedicated, state of the art bus lanes all the way.'

Bolton bus station is the wrong side of town for the rail station leaving Tom to expect a ten minute walk. But instead a battery operated free shuttle bus takes two minutes to carry him along a dedicated cross town route to the rail terminus.

The train journey to Manchester's Piccadilly station again comes complete with real time information boards and electronic smartcard checks, while track rationalisation shaves five minutes off the old 25 minute trip. Similar time savings have been achieved by the tram to Altrincham, which Tom boards at Piccadilly's integral interchange station just minutes after leaving the train.

A sudden bleep on his mobile tells Tom there is traffic congestion at Altrincham. The text message advises him to exit the tram early and board a bus to his destination from a different pick up point to his original schedule.

Even with this change of plan, Tom completes the journey in 75 minutes - half the time taken a decade earlier; competitive with the car trip and much more relaxing. His multi-mode day ticket costs 40% less than the four tickets needed back in 1995.

Wind back the time capsule to January 2001, and Keith Howcroft breaks into a satisfied smile as he calculates the timings for this manufactured journey from Bolton to Altrincham.

'Our aim is to make even these complex multi-mode public transport trips attractive, competitive and a genuine alternative to the car, ' says Howcroft, Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive's director of planning and passenger services.

'The plan is to start reversing the current local decline in public transport use by 2005.'

He cites the first half of Tom's trip from Bolton to Manchester centre. Timed in 2005 at 38 minutes by bus, train and battery powered shuttle, this is twice as fast as 1995; easily equivalent to the car and without the stick of Manchester's already rising car parking prices and possibly road charging.

Manchester is not just planning integration - it is already achieving it. Three years of coordinating over 50 bus companies, building multi mode interchanges and marketing its ground breaking metro have already earned it the label 'Manchester - the integrated city'.

In 1998, deputy prime minister John Prescott dubbed Manchester the first 'centre of excellence' for integrated transport. What prompted that accolade was the city's self-instigated integration trials triggered by both its already acclaimed street running trams and the disorganisation resulting from bus and rail privatisation.

'We knew then that, although the political mood favoured public transport integration, there was no money for new metros or even the prospect or any enabling legislation, ' Howcroft recalls. 'So we set out to prove what could be done without legislation and through partnerships with transport operators.'

The result is a novel, somewhat brave, initiative called Integrate - a partnership between virtually all the area's transport controllers (see box, page 32).

Under the co-ordination of GMPTE, the operators of trains, tram, roads, airport and - through their trade association - some 53 separate bus companies - have signed up jointly to develop an integrated transport policy aimed at attracting passengers back from the car.

Asked why so many competitive and highly commercial operators - especially the bus companies - should want to cooperate with each other and share passengers, Howcroft produces a convincing answer. 'Rail privatisation and, a decade earlier, bus deregulation, removed all semblance of public transport co-ordination, ' he claims. 'With numerous competing operators cutting each others throats, quality declined so we all lost out to the car.'

The intention now is not to attract each others' passengers but, through quality and especially reliability improvements, win new ones.

Metrolink's 14M passengers per year - double the start figure in 1992 - is impressive, but current metro routes are near capacity. Local rail passengers, at 12M/yr, remain fairly constant as train operators, soon to face refranchising competitions, are reluctant to invest.

This leaves the dominant mode, buses, which carry nearly 90 percent of Greater Manchester's 245M public transport passengers every year. But bus patronage is declining at around 3M passengers per year, so reversing this trends, on its own, is an attractive prospect.

Still lacking new legislation, but with funds appearing from a variety of public and private sector sources, the Integrate partners are now busy creating 'quality' bus routes, designing a guided busway and building interchanges with both train and tram. Using the soon to be expanded metro, improved bus routes will compliment, and feed into, the new tram routes - with Interchange show Manchester is set to feature strongly in the first ever event aimed specifically at the developing integrated transport industry. The Interchange show, at London Dockland's Excel arena on 3-5 April, is a two day conference and exhibition plus a gala awards night at London's Park Lane Hilton.

Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive director of planning Keith Howcroft will speak at the conference, where key Government and industry power brokers will debate the challenges of turbo-charging the UK's integrated transport market. Howcroft will outline the creation of an unusual partnership between virtually all the area's transport operators focused solely on promoting integration and developing multi-mode quality schemes.

Examples of the city's achievements - such as driving forward three metro extensions and developing a ground transport interchange at Manchester airport - will also be set out in the GMPTE's 30m 2stand at the show.

The executive's director general Chris Mulligan will sit on the panel of a prestigious BBC-style Question Time event to be chaired by ITN newsreader Julia Somerville. Other high profile speakers will be confirmed soon.

Boosting the reach of Metrolink The jewel in Manchester's public transport crown is Metrolink, Britain's first modern street running tram network and undeniably one of the country's most successful metro systems. The current 38km network opened in 1992 and includes 3km along city centre streets with most of the rest using converted rail routes.

Today the two route Bury to Altrincham scheme, with an extension to Eccles, boasts 14M passengers/year. But more important to Integrate is this figure's conversion to the removal of 3M car trips from Manchester's roads every year - an impressive 20M total since the tram system opened.

Although passenger numbers are low compared to the 220M carried by buses, Metrolink has the potential to be the most integrated transport mode.

Major stops will incorporate bus or train interchanges, with Manchester's Piccadilly and Victoria train stations already integrated into the network.

Over 50 metro stops will boast real time tram indicator boards and integrated timetables. Also displayed will be directions to the nearest bus route, several of which are being redesigned specifically to feed into the metro.

The current network is near saturation point with operator Altram unwilling to invest in new trams as its concession will cease next year when the system is set to be considerably enlarged. Such expansion is long overdue and astutely GMPTE obtained the necessary land acquisition powers a decade ago for five extensions totalling a further 70km.

Frustratingly little happened for years as light rapid transit plans nationwide lay frozen by successive governments unwilling to commit the majority cash input for these public private partnerships that were then, in practice, more Working together, separately Persuading 53 highly competitive bus operators effectively not to compete with each other, and to co-ordinate with train and tram rivals, proved the easy bit. Through their local trade association, the deregulated bus companies realised that throat and cost cutting - leading to quality and reliability reductions - helped only the motorist, leaving public transport as a whole the loser.

The key to attract new passengers was the exact opposite of what bus deregulation had, in practice, produced. Improving the overall integrated service - especially reliability and information - was seen as the only way to arrest the annual 1.5 percent decline in the existing 220M bus passengers by 2005. By 2010 the aim is to reverse this loss into a three percent gain.

The hard bit was, and remains, overcoming legislation which forbids private operators to co-operate over services or fares in any way that could be construed as a cartel. Keith Howcroft, Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive's director of planning and passenger services, insists that the prime aim is to provide a seamless service with no cartels and operators still setting their own fare structures. But he admits to 'grey areas, ' in the Competition Act and claims that Integrate's good relations with the Government is helping to broker a way through the current legal uncertainties.

Out in the bus lanes, such hurdles are secondary to improving customer service.

'Quality partnerships' have been set up between GMPTE and the local bus operators' association aimed at creating quality bus routes.

Policed bus lanes, bus friendly traffic lights and bus stops bristling with timetables and real time information, are all geared towards reliability and quality. In return, bus operators provide the latest low floor, large capacity vehicles and specially trained crews.

Two such routes on key city radials are already complete with a total of nine, covering 100km and costed at £40M, planned for 2005. Five years later and the number of quality bus corridors should have doubled again.

Where bus routes of any sort are uneconomic, taxis have been commandeered to offer a council subsidised dial a lift service.

Construction of an 8km, £20M guided busway will start in 2003 and all 12,000 bus stops in Greater Manchester are now being individually named.

'This is, in itself, a major challenge as we cannot use pub or shop names in case they change, ' says Howcroft, adding that the appointment of a dyslectic sign writer did not make that challenge any easier.

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