The only way isn’t (this part of) Essex

Yesterday saw the demise of another bus company name from the Harlow area. EOS Buses packed up and withdrew four routes, one of which had only been introduced eight weeks ago.

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To mark the occasion the Company borrowed an open-top Routemaster from Ensignbus running it over the four routes for one final fling: the 66 Waltham Cross to Loughton and Debden; 86 Harlow to Waltham Cross; 87 Harlow to Loughton and the new S1 Harlow to Stratford via the M11 and Redbridge.

It was all a jolly occasion as these things usually are. Camera wielding enthusiasts bagging the top deck while rushing around at every photo opportunity as passengers waiting for their normal hand-me-down ex-London single deck bus were taken aback to see a veteran open-top Routemaster turn up, complete with authentic looking destination blind, before an embarrassed smile as they climb aboard for a nostalgic shopping trip into town.

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Except all was not what it seemed. EOS had deregistered their routes with the required notice expiring on 31 August, not 31 July. They’d been reassuring passengers it would be a seamless transition with Arriva taking over the routes, even posting a helpful link to Arriva’s like-for-like timetables on their website.

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But a notice posted on Arriva’s website late yesterday implied the Traffic Commissioner had not accepted an earlier start date from the original 31 August handover. Perhaps not surprising in view of the competitive environment in this area where Trustybus run on parts of the routes affected.

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A tweet from EOS last night suggested a skeleton service will run on part of one route today, and a further tweet explained “EOS have put in a short notice to finish on 31 July, two weeks ago and Arriva had agreed to register short notices to replace these from the same date”. This morning in response to suggestions EOS should run until the original notice expires on 31 August a tweet advises “EOS does not have the manpower to do so. Our staff have been employed by Arriva as of today. Arriva have sourced extra buses and staff in readiness for this to happen”.

Further tweets this morning are providing updates about more limited journeys operating on the 66, 86 and 87. It’s like a snowline update without the snow.

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You’ve got to feel sorry for the good bus travelling folk living in this south western corner of Essex, especially the bits inside the M25 (Loughton and Debden) that feel as though they’re in London. Not only do they look enviously at their neighbours just over the boundary in the Boroughs of Waltham Forest and Redbridge with their Oyster and Contactless £1.50 flat/hopper fare, frequent TfL bus routes and generous concessionary travel arrangements, but it’s fair to say they’ve also had to put up with constantly changing unstable bus routes criss-crossing the Harlow, Epping, Loughton, Upshire, Waltham Abbey and Waltham Cross area for many years.

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This part of the Home Counties is challenging to serve with viable vibrant bus services as it is, yet for some reason it’s attracted one competitor after another, and often more than one at the same time fighting over a diminishing number of passengers.

Whereas Crawley and Grays in the former London Country empire have experienced  long term stable bus routes leading to passenger growth with Metrobus and Ensignbus providing quality services, Harlow and its environs seem to have attracted a plethora of bus operators intent on competing down to the lowest standards. Arriva have struggled against this tirade of competition, not helped by the area being managed remotely from its Maidstone base.

Ironically I reckon the new S1 service (Harlow to Stratford) introduced only on 4 June, and now withdrawn, had potential to attract commuters from the southern residential areas of Harlow (some distance from Harlow’s two train stations) to the Central Line at Redbridge in around 30 minutes journey time while shoppers for the popular Westfield shopping centre at Stratford could be whisked down the M11 in around 45 minutes. I reckon with sustained marketing this had the makings of a good service.

As well as the low fare regime which comes with the odd TfL red bus route crossing the boundary into Loughton and Debden (routes 20 and 397 run Debden and Loughton to Walthamstow via different routes and two other routes terminate at Loughton including the infrequent 549 to South Woodford) the problem bus operators also face is competition from the Central Line which runs frequently between Loughton and Epping.

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For example, the peak fare on the Tube is just £1.70; and off peak only £1.50 yet my fare on Trustybus’s route 418 which hitherto was in competition with EOS between Loughton and Epping was an eye watering £4.90. Ouch.

So it’s a tough bus operating market. Let’s hope this short term legal blip can soon be resolved and perhaps there really is a chance Arriva can stablise the network and give passengers the long desired quality bus service they deserve.

Roger French      1st August 2018

Update – 3rd August 2018 …….

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2 thoughts on “The only way isn’t (this part of) Essex

  1. Harlow has always been known as ‘cowboy county’ in terms of bus operation with some real ragbags over the years. What is required is a well thought out, strong & stable network dominated by one or two good quality operators. Arriva for some unknown reason have never had their heart in things over there but now they just may have a chance. The issue is always going to be how many fare paying bus passengers are now left in that area? After decades of poor bus services, can anyone really persuade more people to use & trust the bus services again? From experience elsewhere, I can tell you it’s a major uphill battle

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  2. I think this is a really interesting and welcome article which I enjoyed reading, having gone to school in Loughton I got to know Epping Forest and Harlow district’s well through visiting school friends, (and still have friends in the area). I was sorry to read that there has been yet another change of operator in the area which seems to have witnessed a high turnover of operators in recent years; I really feel for the disruption and uncertainty that this must cause for passengers. As has been pointed out, given the relatively affluent demographics of large parts of this area does make it challenging to operate bus services, that said I would argue that I think there is still potential, but what is required is an operator to provide stability and be committed for the long term to be build up a good reputation with both existing and hopefully future passengers. I would presume with an operator such as Arriva, both the resource and finances are available to provide this should they want to.

    Again I agree with the author, Harlow is comparable with both Crawley and Grays, as such I see no reason why Harlow can’t experience a replication of what Metrobus and Ensignbus have both achieved in the latter two towns accordingly. In addition there are a number of inter-urban corridors radiating from Harlow that enjoy good patronage levels which have potential to see growth including to Bishops Stortford/Stansted Airport, Epping and Chelmsford, further there is the popular 724 Green Line service to Heathrow Airport as well. When Arriva commence operating the EOS replacement services this will provide new inter-urban corridors from Harlow to Waltham Abbey/Cross and Loughton as well as seeing them returning to operate the service between Waltham Cross and Loughton/Debden. These combined, provide the basis on which to develop the network in South West Essex which could transform the local bus network in this area.

    As previously mentioned, many parts of this area are considered to be affluent, but there are still many that are not where a regular bus service should be successful, in addition even people in affluent areas use buses and even more reason why the product needs to be good quality if it’s going to attract new passengers, especially where those passengers have a choice of using the car. Whilst there is the challenge for commercial bus services from the combination of TfL red bus services in Loughton and Debden and the Central Line to/from Epping, perhaps the approach for the commercial network is to focus on a combination of the inter-urban journeys and providing reasonably frequent services between towns that TfL doesn’t operate to or between. For example, the Waltham Cross – Loughton/Debden service could be a key corridor; providing a direct fast service between Harlow and Loughton could be popular, for those that don’t live close to Loughton or Debden tube station’s and/or don’t want to have to change modes at Epping Station. After all, in Harlow is located one of the main hospital’s for the area, a popular shopping destination and Harlow College, no doubt there are other examples. Other key corridors should be between Loughton-Epping-North Weald-Ongar and Harlow-Epping-North Weald-Ongar-Brentwood, which previously enjoyed direct bus services. The link between Waltham Cross and Epping via Upshire has potential if promoted as part of a wider network as do services to places such as Abridge which are sizeable.

    I was sorry to hear when Arriva withdrew their 505 service between Chingford and Harlow in recent years as I used this often, again this strikes me as another corridor that could be revisited that could be successful. Whilst having an eye to the ‘big picture’ and long term vision is required, sometimes it is also about some of the local issues that may have the potential for making a difference and the 505 could be an example of this. Whether that is serving the grounds of the Lee Valley Campsite along Sewardstone Road as TfL’s 215 bus service for connections with the London Overground train service at Chingford Station, taping into the attractions that can be visited in the Lee Valley Park by the 505 or just ensuring up to date roadside publicity at bus stops, (from memory this was often hit and miss with the 505). There is even the potential to tap into visitors to Gilwell Park, headquarters of the Scout Association on the edge of Epping Forest with some creativity.

    Staying with the tourism/leisure travel theme for a moment, does Epping Forest itself offer potential?

    I do agree with the author I think the new S1 service had the potential for the reasons identified, perhaps Arriva will consider to revisit this service.

    No doubt there are further examples that others can think of or suggest; I wish Arriva well with the new services they will be operating and I hope they are successful.

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