Saturday 25th January 2020
Bus route 497 linking unserved parts of Harold Hill in the London Borough of Havering with Harold Wood Station was first identified as a good idea by TfL bus planners in their ‘Review of bus services in Harold Hill’ report back in September 2016. This report took a look at new developments planned for the area and its readiness for the eagerly anticipated opening of Crossrail.
Crossrail may still be many months away but today’s inaugaration sees route 497 finally added to London’s bus map; well it would if TfL could be bothered to produce a bus map. But at least 40 months on since the report all Harold Hill residents now enjoy life within the desired 400 metres of a bus stop including the 863 homes on the site of the former Harold Wood Hospital, now branded as Kings Park (outlined in green in the map below – underneath ‘Tesco’).
As well as Kings Park and its adjacent Polyclinic and London South Bank University Havering Campus and Tesco, route 497 carves out a new link along Chatteris Avenue, which lies midway between two other roads served on the TfL bus network (Gooshays Drive and the rather aptly named Straight Road), which until today had been a bus route desert with residents walking more than 400 metres to a bus stop. The east/west Farringdon Avenue sees buses on the 496 so those residents have been well served.
Buses on the 497 begin their journey near Harold Hill’s Central Leisure Centre at the roundabout at the north end of Gooshays Drive before heading west along Hilldene Avenue, past the shops, then turning south through the virgin bus territory of Chatteris Avenue and Farringdon Avenue then dog legging across the A12 Colchester Road and heading further south alongside the giant Gallows Corner Tesco on Whitelands Way and Lister Avenue and finally penetrating Kings Park along St Clements Avenue.
Then it’s across Gubbins Lane to turn round at Harold Wood station from where although trains are not yet whisking passengers direct to Tottenham Court Road, Bond Street or Reading does provide a frequent (six trains per hour) link to Stratford and Liverpool Street on the TfL Rail branded line (although not today as it’s a replacement bus to Newbury Park all weekend … again).
Buses run every half an hour (hourly on Sundays) on route 497 from 05:40 (06:40 on Sundays) to 00:18. End to end journey time is just 18 minutes so it takes two buses to operate the service with a rather generous 24 minutes stand time for every 36 minutes wheel turning round trip time each hour.
The 497 won’t be table topping the spreadsheet bus route schedule efficiency league any time soon.
Two minutes stand time is allowed at Harold Wood station (due to restrictions on space for anything longer as the stop is also used by buses passing on other routes) with the other 22 minutes taken at the Harold Hill terminus.
Except despite three years gestating it’s still not built and ready for use – nor could I see any sign of work starting – or where a bus stand could go …
… so buses continue a mile further eastwards out of service for six minutes more to Dagnam Park Square used by route 174.
At least it uses up 12 minutes of the slack stand time I suppose.
Dagnam Park Square is already a bit tight for space￼￼ due to an abundance of 174 buses but there seems to be just about room.
Stagecoach London run the 497 from its Romford bus garage and pushed the boat out last August (when the route was thought to be starting) by acquiring two brand new ADL Enviro 200 MMC single decks complete with usb sockets, as London’s buses are finally catching up with what’s now an old hat development everywhere else.
TfL’s September 2016 report included an analysis of other options bus planners had reviewed to serve KIngs Park before settling on the 497 plan, which adds a net cost of around £300,000 per annum to TfL’s bus bill. One idea was to extend route 346 from Upminster Station via route 347 to Harold Wood Station and then via what’s now become the 497. This would have also allowed the 347 to be diverted at Upminster to carve out a new link to nearby Hacton. But the higher £545,000 cost of this proposal meant it never got anywhere.
Another idea was to swap the terminal points of routes 496 and 499 over so the former moved from Harold Wood Station to Gallows Corner Tesco and the latter swapped the other way with both routes penetrating through the new Kings Park development. But the resulting seven buses per hour through Kings Park was much too generous and would cost an extra £450,000. It wouldn’t solve the ‘Chatteris Avenue 400 metres from a bus stop’ problem either.
So the September 2016 report concluded the new 497 was the best plan especially as “the new Kings Park development of 863 units is nearing completion”. It’s a pity residents have had to wait more than three years to take a ride on their brand new bus route, but at least from today they can.
From a wander around Kings Park this morning it looks inevitable that many residents have bought a car in the absence of any bus route until now.
After that wander I took a round trip ride on the 497 to get a feel for this latest addition to the London bus scene.
It was good to see the bus stop plate people had been out along the route to add a 497 in the right slot on the flags …
…. but there aren’t really many bus stops along the route as the new bits of road are all Hail and Ride, so at least that’s saved a bit of infrastructure cost and the embarrassment of not having bus stops ready in time.
However, as usual the people who change timetables at bus stops hadn’t yet found the time to display anything new but luckily the dedicated enthusiasts who have filled the gap that is TfL Information had been out and about and have even found a way to display their unofficial notices inside the cases now.
Well done them.
Real time information at bus stops was a bit hit and miss with a hit at the Harold Hill terminus (called Cippenham Road on the stops and inside bus displays but confusingly Gooshays Drive on blinds and online)…
… and a miss at Harold Wood Station with no mention of the 497 appearing.
Although St Clements Drive, through Kings Park, is billed as Hail and Ride the Developer has included a large marked ‘bus stop’ on the road indicating where an unofficial bus stop could become established here – originally the plan indicated there’d be two such ‘bus zones’ but it looks like that got reduced to just one.
The faded condition of the markings shows just how long residents have been waiting for their new bus route.
These stops are just east of a pinch point …
…. where a report to the Highways Advisory Committee of Havering Borough Council in February 2018 confirmed would be the location of a bus gate to prevent motorists rat running through the area.
It’s not clear why this hasn’t materialised two years on and in time for the 497 to get going – it’s not as if the service has been introduced in a rush!
Back on my trip from Harold Wood Station to Harold Hill, six of us travelled but only one seemed to be a genuine passenger with the rest of us ‘first day riding enthusiasts’. We picked up one confused passenger at the penultimate stop thinking we were a 499. Hopefully one came along behind us soon so she could use the hopper fare and not pay more for her mistake.
We passed the second bus heading to Harold Wood not far from the Harold Hill terminus with a similar contingent of enthusiasts – it was a slightly older Enviro 200 from 2018 usually used on route 193, but an hour later this had been swapped for the second of the two new buses.
Suffice to say we didn’t pick any other passengers up and the driver headed off out of service to Dagnam Park Square.
But 24 minutes later he was back and a new batch of ‘first time enthusiast’ riders boarded for the journey to Harold Wood Station. I was delighted to see two of these were teenage girls adding a very welcome gender diversity to the enthusiast movement.
They were well impressed to discover the usb sockets reckoning that was ‘real sick’.
The terminus at Harold Hill is only a mile and a quarter direct to Harold Wood Station to its south ….
… that direct route is the province of route 256 but the two buses on the 497 give a new link from here to Tesco and residents of Chatteris Avenue and Kings Park their brand new bus route.
A few heads turned as we went along this virgin bus territory and without bus stops or any form of marketing it’s a mystery how TfL think people will find out about their new bus.
There was no information inside Tesco about it on their customer information board which seemed a wasted opportunity.
I understand local residents on the TfL database have received an email about the new route but if the 497 is not to become a costly white elephant it’s going to need much more than that.
By lunch time I noticed there was quite a queue alongside Tesco in Whitelands Way to cross the busy A12 so perhaps, along with that Dagnam Park Square diversion, the 24 minute stand time may not be quite so over generous after all.
The September 2016 report reckoned more expansive developments in the Harold Hill area would require other improvements to the bus network and made two recommendations: increasing the frequency of route 174 (Harold Park via Harold Hill and Romford to Dagenham) from 7.5 to 10 buses an hour and double decking route 256 (Noak Hill via Harold Hill and Harold Wood to Hornchurch).
Neither of these plans have come to fruition … yet; perhaps they’re waiting for Crossrail. Or maybe the 174 enhancement is waiting on more cuts to central London’s bus routes so costs can be redeployed rather than increased, although TfL’s bus network ended 2019 with a saving of 53 buses compared to the end of 2018, so you’d think a few could be added to the 174’s run out each day. After all, the 174 doesn’t serve Harold Wood Station so has no bearing on whether trains are called TfL Rail, Crossrail or Elizabeth Line.
The 256 does pass by Harold Wood Station so perhaps it will get double decked when the purple trains finally start running through central London to Paddington, Heathrow Airport and Reading. Some time.