A walking trail based around public transport is great. But only if the public transport actually works.

Published 10 July 2022

Waiting for the train to Manchester at Greenfield railway station.

A walking trail round a major conurbation tends to be designed to have good public transport links. Take the London Outer Orbital Path (or LOOP) for example. Every stage starts and ends at either a National Rail or London Underground station. As such walking trails are usually targetted at locals doing day hikes, this is deliberate. You’ll want to get from home to the start of the walk. Then you’ll do your walk.

Then you’ll want to get home again. You can’t use a car unless you have two of them. Tying in to the local public transport network therefore makes sense.

When the creators of the GM Ringway designed their orbital path, they did the same. Each stage starts and ends with good public transport. Usually that’s a National Rail station, or a tram stop on Manchester’s Metrolink system. Although not every section is that neat and at least one section ends at a bus stop instead.

Given this, when I started walking the GM Ringway, I looked at this setup, nodded happily to myself, and got on with it.

It was only later that I realised that whilst you can have a walking trail that links up with public transport, there’s another factor to consider. The state of the public transport that serves it.

I had this to a minor extent when recently walking from the stage from Broadbottom. I could get to Broadbottom by rail from my house. The journey requires you to go into central Manchester and back out again. If you’re lucky, you can do it in an hour. But such are state of the connecting trains that it is more likely to take you an hour and a half. Far better for me was to get the bus from where I live to a small village near Broadbottom, and walk a mile down the road. It takes about half an hour. One problem. The bus only runs Mondays to Fridays. So I put off doing that section for ages until I finally found a spare weekday.

It was pretty minor. I could have done on a weekend. Had the bus run on a weekend, I would have done it months earlier.

The next section though proved to really bring home the poor state of Greater Manchester’s public transport system.

When I first started the GM Ringway in 2020 I planned to walk most sections on a Saturday. Two years later though, things have changed. It’s rare that I can now dedicate a Saturday to walking. Sundays, I can do a plenty. But Sundays have a major problem. The Metrolink tram system runs very frequently. But the rest of the public transport in Greater Manchester is appalling on a Sunday. That’s true of many places I know. Most of the UK if we’re honest. But until I tried to use it for a walk, I hadn’t how bad it was.

I needed to travel from my home to Greenfield. That’s two trains. One to Manchester and one out to Greenfield.

I live near two railway stations. Let’s call them Marple, and Rose Hill. For that be their names. Rose Hill gets no service at all on a Sunday. Zero. Zilch. The residential area it serves on the edge of one of the country’s largest urban conurbations, gets no trains on a Sunday. Nothing at all.

Thankfully, Marple does. It’s a mile and a half from Rose Hill, but my house sits roughly midway between them. So I scoured the timetables, tried to work out my route. And came back with one major problem.

Middlewood Railway Station is definitely blessed with all the facilities.

The first train to Manchester from Marple on a Sunday is at the 10:08. Marple’s on the line between Sheffield and Manchester via the Hope Valley. The first train to serve Marple on a Sunday morning is at 08:05 but it goes to Sheffield. It then ‘turns round’ and comes back to be the 10:08 to Manchester. Half the day is nearly gone before the first train leaves Marple for the city closest to it.

I stared in disbelief. And then my mouth really hung open when I saw the next bit of the challenge. My train would arrive in Manchester two minutes after the train to Greenfield had departed. I’d have to hang around Manchester Piccadilly for 58 minutes for the next one. Almost half of the two hour journey time would be spent on a platform waiting for a connection. Head in my hands, I wondered if I could get a bus to another station instead. I don’t know why I thought of this because I know full well the first buses on a Sunday don’t leave Marple until after 9am. It wouldn’t help much at all.

Could I drive to Guide Bridge station nearby? It would be a faff, but it has a a big car park and it’s on a different line. Would that work?

No. The first train from Guide Bridge to Manchester is at 10:14.

Of course there are trains. That is at least something. But when you’re planning a day hike that’s 12 miles long, it’s preferable to start it a couple of hours before noon. You want to be starting your walk some point before 10am in order finish at a sensible time. When it means up to two hours travelling time to get to the start of each section, you need to be leaving the house around 8am.

The creators of the GM Ringway have done the right thing by linking it to public transport. But the public transport infrastructure of this country lets the whole thing down.

In the end, after a good hour, I found a way that would work. I found a different railway station, four miles away. It has a big car park as well. It’s first train is at 08:50 on a Sunday. It’s not great, but it will do. But what if I’d not been able to drive?

You know what’s the real kicker? I used to live in London near Colliers Wood. The first tube train on a Sunday to central London is at 05:19. The buses run similarly early. In Manchester the Metrolink tram system runs from 7am on a Sunday. It can be done.

In the end I managed to find a Saturday I could get to Greenfield. But the problem is going to remain for other stretches of the walk. As the bits of the GM Ringway I walk get further and further from home, it’s going to be more and more of a challenge. It’s even made me question whether the whole endeavour is even achievable. I’ve decided it is. But when poor public transport is making you wonder whether you can even do a walking trail in the city you live in, that’s definitely not a good state of affairs.

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