Tuesday 9th April 2019
Transport for London’s bus service 969 is the last route standing of a once substantial ‘Mobility Bus’ network of routes operating one or two days a week to a local shopping centre from relatively low-density neighbourhoods where no alternative mainstream route in the main bus network served the area. In the old days the buses were wheelchair accessible so also provided a service for those with impaired mobility.
Improvements to London’s bus route network over the last twenty years or so has seen new smaller buses able to penetrate residential areas previously off limits to bigger buses, as well as the widespread introduction of low floor accessible vehicles, so the Mobility Bus network as was is no longer relevant to the Capital’s transport network, particularly as TfL also fund an extensive Dial-A-Ride network of minibuses operating all over London for those with severe mobility needs.
Route 969 runs one return journey on a Tuesday and Friday at 10am starting in a couple of micro-sized residential areas in Whitton (near Twickenham) to the south off the Chertsey Road before heading north and joining the more frequent H37 route past St Margarets and then joining five other routes into Richmond.
From Richmond it heads east towards Barnes along the Upper Richmond Road, also served by three other bus routes, except our 969 bifurcates to pass by Mortlake Station, the River Thames (pictured below) and Barnes Bridge Station as well as the delightful Barnes Pond before heading back south at the Wetland Centre passing Barnes Station and then deviating off into another small residential area unserved by other bus routes called Lennox Estate.
The 969’s final furlong is south again via Roehampton Lane turning right on to the A3, Roehampton Vale and Kingston Vale, where it terminates at the large Asda.
The journey time is scheduled for 62 minutes with an 11.02am arrival at Asda allowing for around two and a quarter hours shopping time before returning to Whitton at 1.15pm.
Aside from School and Night Buses it’s the one bus route in London I haven’t had the pleasure of riding, so intrigued as to why it continues running as TfL responds to its financial crisis by cutting frequencies and routes across the Capital, I decided to take a ride this morning.
The Abellio operated bus arrived in Rosebine Avenue, a short nondescript link road from the A316 Chertsey Road into a small cul-de-sac triangle of roads at spot on the scheduled time of 10am and despite there being a timetable posted on the opposite side of the road, the bus pulled up and an empty shopping trolley wheeling passenger who, like me, had been lurking for the previous ten minutes climbed gratefully aboard across the grass verge.
I’d done a little recce around the Gladstone Avenue triangle and already clocked a lorry delivering bricks to one of the bungalows which would cause a problem when the bus arrived; but luckily unloading had virtually finished by the time we got there and the delay was only a few minutes.
We’d picked up four more passengers outside their bungalows as we cruised around Gladstone Avenue and Rosecroft Gardens (meeting another obstacle as a van gingerly reversed into a parking spot) ….….. before rejoining the Chertsey Road for our next loop along Lincoln Avenue where Google Maps identifies four ‘recognised’ bus stops but I spotted only one timetable case at the beginning of Lincoln Avenue with no identification at the other three locations.
And that was it, as we got back on the Chertsey Road and headed south to the roundabout with the B358 (Hospital Bridge Road) and then retraced our route northwards.
The Chertsey Road (A316) is a fast dual carriageway which feeds directly to and from the M3 so there’s no scope for any more bus stops along the way, even though no other bus routes use it, until we turned right on to St Margarets Road and could safely stop by the station where we picked up two passengers who confidently boarded us even though the normal H37 pulled up behind. One of these travelled just a couple of stops and the other rode the six stops into Richmond where two of our original five Gladstone Avenue boarders alighted. Another had already left us just after St Margarets leaving just two on board.
In Richmond we picked up another befuddled passenger wondering what a 969 was and who was just doing a two stop hop, and on the outskirts of East Sheen our driver implored a passenger waiting at Berwyn Road to board us even though she also was just hopping along for two stops. We were back to just the two original Gladstonians on board again.
By the time we passed Mortlake station we were thirteen minutes behind schedule and then we hit trouble at the Wetland Centre in Barnes as a long queue of traffic heading south along Rocks Lane towards Barnes Station was confirmed on Google Maps to be caused by roadworks and tortuously slow temporary traffic lights.
We eventually made it to the junction of Roehampton Lane and Upper Richmond Road where we headed off to the Lennox Estate and I was astounded to see we were besieged by nine shopping trolley wielding passengers all relieved to see us at last, by then being around twenty-five minutes late.
As everyone clambered aboard with our driver sorting out the trolleys so they were neatly stacked he also warned there was another building supplies delivery ahead with the offending lorry completely blocking our path around the estate.
Our driver Sina, who until now had been ably deputising for regular driver Steve who was away on his holidays (you pick these news snippets up on bus routes of this kind, although no-one knew whether Steve had gone abroad) doned his high-viz and wandered down to see what the prognosis was.
Having been sitting awkwardly for around an hour in my favourite single deck London bus seat immediately behind the centre doors (where you can keep an eye on most things) due to bus manufacturers once again not catering for anyone with a shoe size larger than size 5, I’d already decided to give up my seat to those boarding with various walking aids and needing it far more than me, so now got off the bus to see what might be done to alleviate the lorry blockage.
Sina soon returned and announced there’d be a twenty minute delay while the unloading continued, but our nine regular Lennox Estate passengers were having none of that, and explained Steve often reverses back up and goes around the estate the “wrong way” before making a u-turn in a lay-by and retracing his steps.
Gallantly I offered to help Sina reverse back and we performed the ‘Steve contingency plan’, but in the event not picking any more passengers up. Turns out Mavis wasn’t up for shopping today and had given the bus a miss.
We made it back to the junction of Roehampton Lane and Upper Richmond Road we’d last seen about 10-15 minutes ago, and it was foot down all the way to Roehampton Vale arriving at Asda around half an hour late.
Sina helped unload all the shopping trolleys before taking the bus off to the official ‘Bus Stand’ on the slip road off the A3 where he parked up until the return journey at 1.15pm.
What an extraordinary journey. What an extraordinary bus route. Aside from those who just jumped on board the 969 rather than taking a bus on a standard route following behind for their short hop rides; we’d taken three Gladstonians shopping in Richmond and two all the way to Roehampton’s Asda (which was strange as, aside from Richmond’s supermarkets [OK, inevitably a Waitrose] there’s an Asda in Twickenham just off the Chertsey Road about five minutes into our journey; although I appreciate it would be a bit of a walk and no real return journey option other than waiting for the 969 to come back, so you might as well enjoy the hour’s ride to Roehampton Vale and back I suppose). Then there were the nine (including two school holidaying children) Lennox residents who with a short walk to Roehampton Lane could get the standard route 265 which also serves Roehampton Vale’s Asda.
There was one other passenger who boarded in Lincoln Avenue at the start of our journey and travelled all the way to the terminus, like me, it turned out the young man was enjoying his school holiday taking a bus route just for the intrigue of it.
I’m puzzled how the 969 can survive TfL’s funding challenges. But then TfL have always been an organisation with quirky aspects to its policy decisions. Not least the bus stop I spotted in Sheen Lane, Mortlake – a road only served by the two-journeys-a-week route 969 and where more frequent bus routes pass at either end of the road, as well as South Western Railway trains to everywhere you’d want to go …. yet, someone at TfL Towers authorised a fully fledged bus shelter just in case anyone wanted to wait for those two occasions a week to go somewhere you can get to more easily another way. I’m willing to wager no-one has ever waited at that shelter; ever.
It must be London’s least used bus shelter, by far!
And ironically the spider map it displays doesn’t show the 969; the one route passing by; it’s relegated to being classified as an “other route”. It may not have a coloured line on a map; but it’s got a bus shelter!
A quirky ending for a quirky bus route tale.
I used to run a bus company but in retirement am a full time passenger travelling all over Britain enjoying its splendid scenic delights by bus and train. Currently social distancing at home.