Spiralling decline in London

Friday 28th September 2018

TfL’s much leaked cuts to central London’s bus routes were officially published today as a six week public consultation is launched.

As expected the plans involve removing parts of or whole bus routes along busy roads also served by other routes on the grounds the overall capacity supplied by the combined route frequencies is well able to cope with the falling demand. The now often quoted sop for passengers facing a consequential change of bus for their journey is: ‘the Hopper fare will mean no increase in fares paid’.

But that’s not much consolation for passengers facing a more inconvenient journey involving changes in buses. There’s no question such a worsened journey proposition should mean paying higher fares. You can’t help thinking the Hopper fare has turned into a front for cutting service levels.

A through journey is far more convenient than having to change buses with all the uncertainties and disruption this brings, especially passengers encumbered with shopping or buggies or with accessibility issues. It makes travel seem more than twice the effort, when a change is involved.

Knowing these changes were coming I took the opportunity a week or so ago to carry out some impromptu surveys on those sections of route facing withdrawal. My observations reaffirm TfL’s stance there’s more than adequate capacity to cater for existing demand; and frankly the further downturn in passengers travelling which can be expected as a consequence of these planned cuts. Whenever you disrupt journeys you can expect to lose passengers.

Take route 171 from Catford for example, being cut back from it’s current northern terminus at Holborn. TfL are quite right, all the buses I saw north of the planned new northern terminus at Elephant and Castle had only half a dozen to a dozen passengers on board who could easily be accommodated on the abundance of empty seats on other bus routes between these points.

Similarly I had a ride on a morning peak hour route 4 from north London to its southern terminus at Waterloo. Whereas we were near enough full through Islington, after St Pauls (where it’s planned to divert the route to Blackfriars to replace a withdrawn section of another route, the 388), passenger numbers had thinned to around a dozen towards Aldwych and Waterloo picking up only a handful of new passengers who could easily be accommodated on alternative routes.

The same was true on a 242 south of Shoreditch (being diverted to Aldgate to replace the 67) with very few passengers travelling as far as the current terminus at St Pauls. Meanwhile the 67 will be cut back some distance to only travel south from Wood Green as far as Dalston Junction leaving the 149 and 242 to cope onward to Shoreditch; and cope they will from my observations.

BUT; (block capital letters deliberate) this phenomenon of decreasing passenger numbers towards a bus route’s final destination is not exactly surprising; more passengers inevitably get off than get on with the range of destination options diminishing as the route comes to an end. The exception being when a major attraction (shopping centre; station; school etc) is located at the terminus.

On TfL’s logic the 171 could soon be cut back from Elephant and Castle further south to Camberwell Green and save a few more buses and drivers and then why not cut it back further again to New Cross, and so on, with passengers hopping along from bus to bus on other routes instead of enjoying through journeys.

For years London was held as the pinnacle of best practice bus operation. Its growing passenger numbers were lauded by regulation protagonists who deliberately chose to ignore its booming public subsidy grant. Now that grant has been taken away the harsh realities of running buses are hitting the Capital as they have impacted other large conurbations for a couple of decades.

Route RV1, for example, which links parts of the South Bank not directly served by other bus routes on its meandering route from Covent Garden to the Tower is being withdrawn completely after recent frequency reductions. It’s just the sort of route that’s a luxury in a generously publicly funded regime but never a commercial proposition. So it’s no surprise it’s being withdrawn. I suspect there’ll be other London routes of a similar ilk facing the chop in the future.

Anyone want a spare fleet of hydrogen buses?

Interestingly TfL’s consultation papers include a clear localised bus map (TfL – bus map – yes, I know strange isn’t it?!) showing existing and planned changes so the impact can be readily seen in each affected area; but for the RV1 you have to consult two separate maps (one existing; the other proposed) making it harder to work out where the unserved roads will be.

RV1 – now you see it; now you don’t.

TfL make much of the significant downturn in bus passengers within central and inner London and how these consequential bus cuts are positive because (a) they better match supply with demand and (b) it enables a redeployment of resources to outer London where there’ll be ‘improved and new routes’. Err, except there don’t seem to be any such improvement plans in this package. The one ‘new route’ (the 311) is simply a renumbering of the western end of the 11 and a replacement for two other withdrawn sections of routes (19 and 22). So not exactly a new route.

Extract from TfL’s consultation paper

There’s also no evidence of steps TfL intend to take to stem the worrying loss of passengers throughout London. TfL’s map highlights the dramatic loss of passengers particularly in excess of 10% over the last three years in central and inner London.

The consultation states TfL ‘are looking to prioritise buses on our roads’ in Central London but it’s a great shame this wasn’t done some years ago which might have meant these cuts now planned for Spring 2019 would not have been needed.

I was on a southbound 29 only on Wednesday and it took around fifteen minutes to crawl through the gridlock at the bottom of Gower Street. Most passengers simply abandoned the bus as it was easily possible to walk to the terminus at Trafalgar Square in that time.

Rather than introducing bus priority, TfL’s answer seems to be to cut routes back to avoid such bottlenecks by in the case of the 29 turning at, say, Warren Street (as is planned for the 134). And who knows maybe even Camden Town, or dare I say Mornington Crescent! Game over!

The upshot of this is the vicious spiral of decline will continue; especially as TfL part justify some of these cuts saying less buses will mean less congestion. Who’d have thought that would be a justification for bus cuts.

Extract from the consultation part justifying bus cuts

Finally a small oddity in the consultation published this morning. It contained an error stating route 11 was being withdrawn between Liverpool Street and Victoria.

Conspiracy theorists might wonder whether this was in fact the originally planned fate of this iconic route; but in the event by this afternoon the wording had been hastily corrected and the 11 lives on (well at least for now) and albeit in a much truncated form with the route west of Victoria becoming the new 311.

The consultation can be found here: https://consultations.tfl.gov.uk/buses/central-london/

It closes on Friday 9th November.

Roger French 28th September 2018

5 thoughts on “Spiralling decline in London

  1. There has long been a methodology in London that bus routes should run end to end, whether passenger loadings demand that or not. Similarly, because London Buses effectively pay (through the tendering system) for the buses on a route, they’ve wished to get the most out of “their” buses by maintaining the same frequency from 0700-1900, irrespective of actual loadings. Finally (as RF points out), traffic congestion is now so bad throughout both Central London and the suburbs that journey times have got slower and slower.

    All this together means that passenger loadings are diminishing and therefore income is falling. The Hopper fare is a great idea, BUT does means that many passengers now pay £1.50 for a two bus journey than £3.00.

    The way to try to resolve this is to reduce overlapping between routes (and make better use of the Hopper fare facility), and also to come away from the “one size fits all” approach to bus frequencies. A route with high usage by scholars needs a very carefully specified frequency at school times, but not throughout the full peak. Careful utilisation of double deck buses on appropriate journeys also may be required, instead of simply allocating deckers to the entire route, which may only require the top deck on 2-3 trips per day (out of maybe 150 trips per day).

    This requires a change to the LB mindset, and these service change programmes are starting the process. However, too slow and not enough are all that the bus operator planners can see at the moment. The only bright spot is that LB are (finally) actually looking seriously at alternative service patterns from the operators {they’ve simply ignored all such alternatives for 10-15 years IMHO}. Whether looking does get translated into accepting that there are better ideas is still to be seen.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So the 22 goes back to it’s original Piccadilly Circus routing! Such change does imply there’s a bit of a panic on!

    A lot of this is down to increasing traffic congestion. It was the congestion charge that spearheaded the growth in passenger numbers that typified the reign of Ken Livingstone as mayor. Boris’s cycle lanes have caused congestion to return, as has the lack of a realistic price rise for the congestion charge!

    Like

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