R is for Runcorn

Saturday 17th September 2022

It’s got the original and best busway you’ll find anywhere in Britain. Indeed it’s said Runcorn has “the world’s first bus rapid transit system”. Yet you hardly ever hear it getting a mention these days. Conceived as part of the Runcorn New Town Masterplan in 1955, the 14 mile exclusive road network opened for bus services in October 1971.

No fancy guide wheels or barriers. Just boring normal roads, except it’s a totally separate network exclusively for buses and designed so most residents live within around 500 yards of a bus stop.

To plan my Runcorn ride-abouts, as per my usual practice I searched online for a bus map and soon found this one produced by Halton Council which helpfully shows all the busway roads in orange with other bus routes in green.

Shopping City is shown in grey in the centre of the map

It didn’t take long to realise the bus numbers are way out of date but at least I got a sense of the busway’s geography – an irregular circle with two spindly legs and an isolated stretch of road to the north.

More helpful was Arriva’s bus map, characteristically hidden in the depths of the company’s website under ‘Tickets’. But at least there is one, and being the main operator in the town with a locally based bus garage, it proved a huge help to work out what goes where; so well done Arriva.

The focal point of the busway’s large circuit is Runcorn’s Shopping City where buses arrive and depart on dedicated raised roads with a bus station at either end of the retail complex – a north and south bus station.

Runcorn is exactly the kind of mid-size town I’ve been visiting during this series having a population of around 63,000 and a unitary council – now one of five local authorities in the mayoral controlled Liverpool City Region. It lies on the south side of the River Mersey bounded in the southwest by the Weaver Navigation, to the south by the Chester to Manchester and Crewe to Liverpool railway lines and to the east by the West Coast Main Line.

Liverpool is 16 miles north west; Warrington nine miles north east; Chester 18 miles south west and Crewe 25 miles south east of Runcorn. Widnes lies adjacent to Runcorn also within Halton Council’s area rather like Hove is to Brighton and Poole to Bournemouth, except the River Mersey acts as a barrier albeit links between the two were much improved by the tolled Mersey Gateway Bridge opening in 2017.

Runcorn has two railway stations. The main station in the extreme north west corner of the town is close to Runcorn “old town” with the original High Street, now very much overshadowed by the “new town” and Shopping City. The other station, Runcorn East, as its name implies is on the town’s eastern boundary.

A Liverpool bound Transport for Wales train in Runcorn station

The former sees Avanti West Coast’s hourly Liverpool to London trains as well as London NorthWestern’s hourly Liverpool to Birmingham and Transport for Wales’ two-hourly Liverpool to Chester service.

The station buildings are very basic although the public realm immediately outside (now known as “Runcorn Station Quarter”) is currently undergoing something of a beautification.

Runcorn East is even more basic with a small station building almost hidden away as you wander down from the busway to the station entrance which has no direct road access itself.

Transport for Wales trains from here run hourly to Manchester Airport in one direction and to Llandudno Junction in the other with trains continuing to Holyhead or Llandudno on different hours.

Northern’s Leeds to Warrington Bank Quay trains also occasionally stop here, particularly in the early morning and evenings.

The area surrounding the station is very well kept….

…. and not surprisingly is a multi ‘Best Kept Station’ award winner.

I arrived at the main Runcorn station for my visit thanks to Avanti West Coast and as a visitor set about seeing where to catch a bus to the nearby High Street bus station.

It wasn’t easy, not helped by roadworks taking place as part of the public realm transformation.

I ended up walking – it’s not far – only about seven minutes. The two bus routes running a half hourly (one) and hourly (the other) frequency isn’t a sensible option in such circumstances, unless a bus is about to arrive. In the event, the bus stops alongside the station aren’t exactly prominent. In fact you’d be forgiven for not seeing them at all if you missed the lay-by road markings.

Runcorn’s High Street bus station is a rather depressing affair.

At least it has departures listings on display.

But otherwise you’d be hard pressed to find something positive to say. Don’t expect to sit down.

Don’t expect to buy a Halton Hopper ticket before boarding.

Don’t expect to rely on long withdrawn bus route numbers on display.

Don’t expect to find your way easily around ‘Old Town’ by using the map on display complete with unhelpful stickers.

And although there is real time information displayed at some stops, it hardly shouts quality.

If you know where to wait for a bus to take you to the more vibrant Shopping City in “New Town” you’ll find a fairly decent combined frequency of the routes involved; but if you have no knowledge, then it’s probably best to give up. There’s nothing on display to help you.

I caught a bus on Arriva’s route 110. It runs half hourly from Warrington to ‘old’ Runcorn and then via the stretch of separate busway that heads due east (see the out of date Halton map above) before dropping south to the main busway circle on which it does an almost complete anti-clockwise circuit to terminate at the Murdishaw turning circle.

It had a good load on as did all the trunk routes I saw which connect Runcorn, including the busway, to neighbouring towns. These are also operated by Arriva and include routes 79C and 82A operating to Liverpool from the Murdishaw turning circle via the western side of the busway to High Street bus station and on to Liverpool with the former every 20 minutes via Widnes, Ditton and Upton and the latter every 30 minutes via Liverpool South Parkway and the airport.

Arriva also run an hourly route 61 the long way round from Halton Hospital to Liverpool via Rainhill taking two hours.

Stagecoach also put in an appearance in Runcorn with its hourly route 2 from Runcorn’s Shopping City via Ellesmere Port to Chester….

…. and Warrington’s Own Buses runs routes 62/62A from Warrington via Murdishaw, Runcorn Shopping City, High Street and over to Widnes and Halebank on a seven journey a day timetable.

Also on the scene is Ashcroft Travel operating tendered route 52 linking ‘old’ Runcorn with residential areas just off the busway in Halton and Shopping City to a roughly hourly frequency.

The busway itself sees both a clockwise (route 1) and anti-clockwise (route 2 – not to be confused with Stagecoach’s route 2) bus service operated by Arriva every 12 minutes.

I took a three journey hop around the clockwise circuit – it only takes 20 minutes for a complete journey around – and was struck by the small numbers travelling; but on two occasions I found myself waiting around 20 minutes for a bus indicating there must have been at least one, and maybe two buses, missing from the allocation that day – not a good way to encourage passengers. There’s no real time information available at bus stops on the busway.

Road junctions along the busway enable other vehicles to gain access to residential areas lying within the circuit.

I investigated one of these and found the traffic lights remain on red on both approach roads changing to green when activated by approaching vehicles on either road.

Residential areas close to the busway are very much low density, which may explain the low use of the busway buses. Despite the presence of the busway and a frequent service (reliability issues aside) there did seem to be quite a few cars parked up by houses and bungalows.

Compliance with the busway’s bus only regulations seemed very good.

I only saw one example of a car driving through the ‘No Vehicles except local buses’ signs and it got a resounding blast of the horn from the following bus I was on until it made off at one of the junctions. Otherwise busway roads were eerily quiet, and congestion free of course.

Except there were two sets of roadworks on the busway when I travelled last week one of which was across one of the junctions necessitating the dreaded four-way temporary traffic lights causing some disruption to time keeping with what seemed like an inordinate waiting time.

The already mentioned Murdishaw area on the eastern side of the busway has a good size turning circle where a few routes turn round with decent sheltered waiting facilities for passengers alongside a Co-op store.

I also took a ride on Arriva’s half hourly route 3/3A which links Runcorn Shopping City and its adjacent Halton Hospital via residential areas in Halton, ‘old’ High Street and railway station to Weston Point which lies to the west of the town on the east bank of the River Weaver. Like the inter-urban buses I saw, this also carried some impressive loads.

Within Runcorn itself, Arriva also operates hourly route 200 linking Runcorn station through the busway to the Industrial area to its east and Daresbury Park. Hardly anyone was spotted on the buses I saw as I travelled around the area.

Arriva also has hourly route X30 with three buses operating between Chester and Warrington via Frodsham which call by Runcorn Shopping City and Halton Hospital using a small section of busway.

The two bus stations on the north and south side of Shopping City on the busway have different facilities.

North bus station is the better with an enclosed waiting area serving three departure points, but seemed to be the quieter of the two.

South bus station is much smaller with an outside area to wait for buses ….

Departure listings are available at each departure point…..

…. together with seats, some of which have seen better days.

As have a lot of things to do with the busway.

Offensive graffiti even makes it on to the roadway

Infrastructure on the busway is in desperate need of care and maintenance. Bus shelters along it from a distance look bright with their yellow and black colouring but the blight of graffiti is ever present and timetable cases have engrained dirt making some of the displays unreadable.

It doesn’t convey a smart impression that will attract passengers. Quite the reverse. Signage and “public realm” generally is in need of replacement.

Poster cases (this one at Runcorn East) look uncared for….

… and some of the signs along the busway are in a run down state.

Which is a shame, as the busway’s presence is as vital and necessary now as it was when introduced, way ahead of its time, 51 years ago.

If only other mid size towns had a busway too.

Roger French

Previous AtoZ blogs: Andover; Bracknell; Carlisle; Durham, Evesham, Folkestone, Grantham, Harrogate, Inverness, Jarrow, King’s Lynn, Leamington Spa, Maidenhead, Neath, Oswestry, Potters Bar, Queensferry.

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS

29 thoughts on “R is for Runcorn

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    1. It is just standard though. Neglected bus stops and shelters. Lack of up to date timetable information, A real time display not showing real time (A common issue)
      here are two route 2’s with different routes and 2 route 62’s just to confuse things and the usual different route number and routes for some evening services which are presumably council contracts

      Whilst the main Railway station area has been tidied up it is still desolate and not really inviting. The railway station buildings seem to be of the prefabricated very basic portacabin style

      The bus shelters give littler to no protection from the weather for waiting passengers sand it the same with the railway stations now where putting a bus shelter on the platform is what goes as waiting facilities

      Has the busway kept up with the growth of Runcorn? I suspect not.

      They do appear to have some Hydrogen buses in Runcorn though

      Is there anything in Runcorn likely to attract people on to buses? Sadly, I don’t think so. It is just the normal case of neglected infrastructure and no real marketing of services which is just not good enough

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      1. All this neglect by an LA who think they are competent to run Merseyside buses! It is worthwhile someone making a fuss!

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  1. Yet another glorious example of good intentions and a whole lot of £cash once spent, now being neglected. It was always difficult obtaining timetable information, although the Library/Community hub (I think now gone?) by the old town bus station did hold stocks, and I once obtained a Halton Transport timetable AND Map(!) at the railway station. This was in the Blair/Prescott days when buses were being turned from “Workhorses to Thoroughbreds”, which came to a screaming halt after the Great Man himself had been caught out using the M4 bus lane. Hilarious, except for those of us who thought a new dawn had finally arrived.

    One of the problems of “eerily quiet” streets such as busways, as with pedestrianised town centres, is that they attract all kinds of anti-social behaviour unless policed properly, clearly a monumental task on a busway of this size. It also looks as if some serious money may need to be soon spent on the actual structure, a can likely to be kicked down the road at the present time.

    The collapse of the municipal Operator and the pandemic has not helped matters, and although perhaps one of the better areas served by Arriva, services such as the X1 (fast to Liverpool) have now died, and the remaining services merely cater for those who have no alternative, a story repeated throughout. If only the local Council, perhaps in conjunction with the operators (who similarly have no cash), would take more interest and at least clean up neglected infrastructure, produce timetables, maps and generally encourage bus use with good publicity. Alas, a vain hope.

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  2. “And although there is real time information displayed at some stops, it hardly shouts quality” – nor I’m afraid (despite its name) does it seem to be showing real time journeys. It looks as though it is only showing scheduled departures and given the gap in service you comment on this might be useful to know…

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    1. It is just showing scheduled times as most do. They never though make it clear that it is though

      Scheduled time is shown in hours and minutes. Real time is shown in minutes

      Most of these Real time displays are installed by the local LTA. Once installed though they generally do not accept responsibility for them so most end up broken and showing incorrect information or nothing at all

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  3. If anyone is travelling to London on Monday Victoria coach station is closed. Most service will start and finish at Wembly Stadium but not all so you will need to check with the operator. Other services that normally terminate in Central London such as Greenline will also be impacted
    You will be lucky if you find anything on their web sites so you will probably need to phone them

    Most operators are operating a Sunday service, but some have decided to operate no service. Again, informationBob is scant

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    1. As someone who works in public transport, I can assure you that 90% of public transport users who have smartphones have no idea that they can use them to get public transport information (journey plans or timetables), and that includes the majority of those who buy their tickets using the operators’ apps.

      As I was once told when I made an assumption about other people’s behaviour, “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean other people can or will”.

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  4. I suppose I’ve been lucky(?) enough to live in places which (however bad the public services) are mercifully largely free of graffiti and vandalism. So, please help me. What do you get out of it? Why? If it’s some message, what? No, I don’t understand.

    No, there isn’t nothing else to do.

    The same with buses. Maybe we think they’re poor but we can use them if we can be bothered to make an effort. Unless we’re a monarch (perhaps) nothing worthwhile in life is handed to us on a plate.

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    1. Well if buses do not run when you need to use them and are too infrequent or go where you need to travel to which is more often than not the case you cannot use them

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      1. I’m not being obtuse for the sake of it, but I’ve often been surprised at how much I can achieve by modifying my plans to fit the buses. It hasn’t killed me yet. And the joy has been meeting other people doing the same thing. A fantastic learning experience. What else is the brain for?

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      2. If you are working you cannot fit your working hours around when the buses decide to run and in many cases the place where people work are almost unserved by bus service

        And say at weekends if you want to go somewhere that involves a change of bus it takes so long to get there you almost have to return soon after you arrive and that assumes they don’t cut a bus out

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    2. I’m sure Anony Mouse’ comment (which seems to have been deleted, unfortunately) from his experience, is right. Us Brits are just lazy so and sos, who can’t be bothered to make any effort. There is no one else to blame.

      Interestingly, our new political leaders seem to have reached the same conclusion. What are they going to do about it?

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  5. When you consider how cheap and easy to build busways are compared to tramways, one wants to scream why do local authorities not build more! All the LAs that profess to aspire to green and sustainable transport, all those that have declared climate emergencies etc.

    The Runcorn Busway was superb when it was built , but it has been neglected ever since. It should be branded “Runcorn Metro” and the entire infrastructure, signage, and buses should have the same livery and branding. An ideal system for opportunity charging electric buses such as the Irizar ie.Tram would have the game changing visual impact.

    Compare and contrast with Brisbane, which also has an extensive busway network that they actively maintain. Currently a new “metro” service is to be introduced on the core busway using Hess double articulated op charging buses. I know this is a city and Runcorn is tiny by comparison, but these things are scaleable so there’s no excuse.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. There are 5 met boroughs which make up Merseyside. Halton is a separate Unitary Authority which makes up part of the Liverpool City Region.
    Strangely, the unitary appears to retain responsibility for PT, rather than it being part of Merseytravel.
    The Busway is largely hidden from the residential areas and so suffers from a lack “casual surveillance”. This, plus its unloved appearance does make it feel like an unsafe place to be.
    It is a valuable asset to the town and the concept remains sound, but there is a need for investment and a rethink of the stopping arrangements.
    One other point to note is that the busway was built for single deck buses, meaning that some interurban routes which might use deckers are excluded from serving the Busway

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  7. Improving small to medium size town bus services

    It is probably not that expensive to provide a good bus service

    Say a typical modest size town of say a population of about 30,000 would need only 3 or 4 vehicles to provide say a Monday to Saturday service from about 6.30 to about 7pm Monday to Saturday
    This would provide for a frequency of either 15 minutes or 20 minutes depending on route

    These routes would need to be operated locally otherwise dead running becomes significant, Mini buses or small midi buses would be more than adequate. Cheaper to buy and cheaper to run and they need less garage space (space cost money) and they need to be run by a single operator. One of the larger local taxi operators would be ideal

    Let say 4 buses are needs at a cost of about £650,000 a year
    (Quotes for running a bus service vary dramatically. It seems to be down to what an operator can charge rather than what the real costs are)

    If say there were 30,000 council tax payers and the average council tax is £18000 , 1% levy on council tax for bus services would raise about £270,000. There could possibly be a small levy on business rates as well
    If you had a flat fare of £2 and a 1% levy on petrol then high quality bus services could be set up

    Council are quite happy to spend money on cycle lanes that are hardly used at all. Costs I got from Cambridgshire come out at £200,000 a Km to build them. In that areas though they do have a much high level of cycling. Most areas the numbers are tiny

    You get real change you need to invest in the services and at the moment that simply not happening

    The figures above are very rough estimates

    May be other can come up with better ideas. Funding needs to come from somewhere

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  8. Thanks for this blog – I’d often wondered about the Runcorn Bus-Way, but never actually visited. While the service seems good (for Arriva), and TfL now consider 5 buses/hr ‘frequent’, I’d have thought – seeing as the bus-way is handed to the bus-operator gratis (I assume) – one could have hoped that Arriva might have tried to use its routes as a show-case of what bus-travel can be! – and as an shining example of why bus-ways should be built in to new developments.

    The rail offer seems a bit meagre; in the south-east we’re used to something a bit better; Tonbridge (pop.41K, and also mainly served for buses by Arriva, who do on the whole a reasonable job of keeping bus stop info up to date) has 6 trains/hr to London, 4 to Tun.Wells, 2 to Ashford, and (more like Runcorn) 1 each to Maidstone and Redhill (regrettably, no direct service to Brighton, since Beeching). The trains are well used.

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  9. Another fascinating blog, Roger!

    Perhaps because residents don’t have to look out on to the busway a kind of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality prevails…?

    The great irony with real time displays is that at bus stations where most services start and finis (Stevenage is a fine example of this as only a handful of routes there cross the town) the default will always be to show scheduled information as the real time ‘conversion’ will only appear, say, two minutes before departure once the driver logs in on the ticket machine and is ready to commence the next journey.
    Real time is far more useful at stops on bus routes between route start and finsh points.

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  10. A thought to ponder. Does Runcorn Shopping City offer enough attractions for people to use the busway in order to access them? Not knowing the town it’s difficult to know. I notice that the hospital is close to the busway so that’s good, not sure about the location of further education colleges etc. If you look at any French tramway they always link with the central railway station, the hospital, the universities.

    Also given Runcorn’s location within the wider Merseyside area the busway should be integrated with onward travel to Liverpool. This should be by branded express buses as a sub brand of the overall busway brand, plus proper rail interchanges.

    Part of the problem is that the bus offer is almost invisible to the casual observer (and potential passenger). All they see are random Arriva buses rather than a cohesive branded network.

    If this was a metro or tram system, it would be managed in a cohesive way. Manchester Metrolink trams, tram stops, rights of way, signage etc all portrays one owner. Imagine what it would look like if each borough managed the shelters, procured separately from different suppliers, and some didn’t bother to keep timetables up to date or clean the shelters. The result would look like the Runcorn Busway.

    I think the Luton Busway is similar in that the operators use their own liveries which don’t match the infrastructure. The Cambridge busway is set up better in that all services are branded “The Busway”. Cambridge busway has a website. Luton Busway and Runcorn don’t.

    Good presentation says “we care about your travel needs and want you to travel with us”.

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  11. I remember visiting the Runcorn Busway in 1986 as part of a field trip during my CILT course at North London Polytechnic, but I don’t recall what sort of conclusions we came to then. It was in the early days of bus deregulation and we probably speculated on what the future was for it under the then-new operating conditions. Glad to see it is still serving its original purpose but sadly with the rundown and neglected appearance so common with publicly-funded infrastructure we see now.

    It’s not clear from the signage, but I wonder if it is available to cyclists?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Aw
    As a resident of Runcorn for nearly 50 years, I have to say that the busway system used to be great. The buses were operated by Crosville (long since gone) and the routes criss crossed the town, covering a huge area and linking one end of the town to the other (it used to be so easy to get around). These days there have been so many services withdrawn you either have to walk a fair old distance to the bus stop or the frequency is erratic and you may have to get more than one bus to get to your destination.
    The price of a fare for short journeys is extortionate as well.
    We then have some services in the east of the town, which are constantly suspended after dark because of the anti-social behaviour and attacks on the vehicles.
    The busway system should be a jewel in the crown of Runcorn but it has declined so much it is now a burden on the tax payer.
    One other point is that Runcorn is a poor relation to neighbouring Widnes. The majority of the council investment goes into Widnes, this means that there is no were to go in Runcorn, there are no decent entertainment or eating venues (unless you like kebabs) so most people eat, drink and shop out of town for this reason.

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  13. Aw
    In addition to an earlier post. It is not permitted for cyclists, pedestrians or private/commercial vehicles to use the busway. This is because it was designed as a rapid transit system were the buses can travel at speeds of 40+ mph without fear of interference from other road users.
    The only other traffic authorised to use the busway are blue light emergency vehicles.

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  14. Bus Disruption Today

    There has been a last minute change to the Queens Funeral cortege when leaving London for Windsor. It was going to travel along the M4 but will not be using the A roads so a lot of bus services in those parts will be disrupted or cancelled

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  15. The Bus Cuts keep on comming. The latests cuts are in the Stagecoach East Area

    “It is unacceptable that despite getting a six month bus grant Stagecoach are still planning to reduce these vulnerable rural routes,” he said.

    “It is of utmost importance to the Combined Authority that our rural bus networks are protected. We are appalled that Stagecoach are pressing ahead with such severe changes to the network whilst continuing to accept the funding from the government that is designed to protect it.”

    11/X11
    12
    18
    25
    39
    915
    V1
    V2
    V3
    V4
    V5
    22
    30
    35
    66
    23
    24
    29

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    1. A few years ago I simply couldn’t understand how with seemingly very similar turnover, and in adjacent similar operating areas, Stagecoach East could make ten times the profit whilst First Essex, in my local area, struggled to break even. I could only conclude that the position could equally well be reversed.

      Now apparently, it has, more or less. I don’t know how we cope with that.

      All that I’m not sure about is how the Mayor’s ambition to increase by six times a level of service that Stagecoach now describe as “unsustainable” helped. Living in La La Land.

      Like

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