Thursday 6th August 2020
London’s bus route 404 is interesting for a number of reasons.
It’s one of TfL’s short meandering routes that doesn’t really go anywhere. It wanders around well-heeled leafy residential roads lying either side of Coulsdon Road which links Coulsdon (in the London Borough of Croydon) with Caterham-on-the-Hill (just over the border in Surrey) three miles away.
Until earlier this year the 404 had been unchanged for twenty four years. Introduced in 1996, it was part of London Regional Transport’s programme to infill London’s bus network so that everyone lived within 400 metres of a bus stop; a policy which led to a proliferation of meandering back street bus routes like the 404 in the 1990s.
It’s been operated consistently by Epsom Coaches for almost its entire existence comprising one bus shuttling up and down the route providing an hourly frequency on Mondays to Saturdays, with, unusually for London, no service in the evenings or at all on Sundays.
In 2018/19 the number of passenger journeys fell to an eight year low of 88,000. A table topping busy bus route the 404 is definitely not. But it provides a useful social function for passengers returning from shopping in Waitrose or Aldi in Brighton Road, Coulsdon, or nipping up to Tesco on the journey to Caterham-on-the-Hill, or commuting from Coulsdon South station.
The southern terminus at Westway Common in Caterham-on-the-Hill is more of a convenient place to turn the bus than a traffic objective in its own right. Caterham’s commercial centre is split between shops located a short walk further on from the Common in the High Street or almost a mile away along Godstone Road in nearby Caterham Valley where Caterham station can also be found.
That’s a snapshot of route 404, now for a short history of Cane Hill Asylum. Located on a hill south west of Coulsdon town centre, just off the Brighton Road, it was built in two stages between 1882 and 1888 to cater for the overflow from two other asylums in Wandsworth and Woking. Known rather starkly as the ‘Third Surrey County Pauper Lunatic Asylum’ it became renowned for taking a large number of discharged mentally ill servicemen during the First World War. Renamed Cane Hill Mental Hospital in 1930, at its peak, it was home to over 3,500 patients.
Photographs on a number of online sites show how depressing it must have been to have stayed there. The hospital was closed and the site largely abandoned in 1991 but the buildings remained derelict for nearly 18 years. By 2010 only the hospital chapel, water tower and an administration building remained.
In 2012, it’s reported house builders Barratt Homes was gifted the 205 acre site by the then Mayor of London (one Boris Johnson), in an effort to end a previous stalemate over the development of the land. The publicly owned Green Belt land was valued as being worth at least £250 million.
Planning permission was granted in 2015 when the building of 675 houses began with the first coming on to the market in 2016. 25 per cent of the homes are defined as affordable (the other 75% are presumably unaffordable) and the development also includes 3,000 square metres of office space – planned in the days when offices were still a thing of course.
Google’s satellite below shows the no-through-access-road, Cane Hill Drive, threading its way through the development starting at the new roundabout close to Couldson South station (on the right) to the end of the estate at Crawford Crescent (in the bottom left hand corner)
Crucially, as part of the planning permission, Barrett Homes paid £1.25 million to Croydon Council and TfL “for the provision of new bus routes or extension of existing ones, as well as an increase in frequency of buses running between Cane Hill Park and Coulsdon Town Centre”. I suspect a large dollop of that sum went towards highway and junction improvements specified by Croydon Council with only a smaller amount towards funding a bus route for new residents. That was back in 2016. Despite the funding no new bus route arrived until earlier this year, four years after the first houses were sold.
As we saw with the introduction of new bus route 497 in January of this year, TfL’s bus route planners don’t rush these things. You may recall that route was introduced to serve the new Kings Park development near Harold Wood station (also on a former hospital site) and only hit the road three years after residents moved into their new homes.
This being TfL, an extensive public consultation had to be gone through before any new bus route can launch on to the Capital’s streets, so planners got to work on options and in January 2019 launched a proposal to divert buses on the half hourly route 434 (coloured green on the map below) from its terminus at nearby Rickman Hill to serve Cane Hill Park instead. Meanwhile the 404 (the colour purple) would be extended from Coulsdon to serve the Rickman Hill terminal in place of the diverted 434. This idea had the benefit of buses maintaining a sensible routing through Coulsdon’s shopping area in Brighton Road en route to their southern destinations in Whyteleafe South (434) and Caterham-on-the-Hill (404).
Unfortunately for TfL, residents in Rickman Hill kicked up an almighty fuss at losing their 434 which took them north towards Purley and its mega Tesco store. They weren’t impressed by having a meandering 404 taking them all around leafy roads in Coulsdon instead.
So TfL planners modified their plans and decided to leave the 434 alone and instead extend the 404 to Cane Hill and at the same time double its frequency to half-hourly and introduce a service on Sundays too. Well why not? Barratt Homes were paying.
The only snag to this change of plan was routing the bus through the shopping area in Coulsdon. But as luck would have it, a by-pass for Coulsdon known as Farthing Way (the yellow A23 on the map above) had been opened back in 2006 complete with a ready made northbound bus lane which had never been used – as no buses have ever travelled along this road (only in London!) (although to be fair, goods vehicles over 3.5 tonnes, taxis, bicycles, motorcycles and coaches can use it too) – so plans were laid to route buses on the 404 to run in both directions on an anti-clockwise loop via Farthing Way northbound and back south along Brighton Road, which also meant buses would serve Coulsdon Town station too.
In the 2019 consultation TfL’s planners took the opportunity to add a couple more proposed meanders to the meandering 404 route as it criss-crosses Coulsdon Road to (a) serve the Tollers Lane estate as well as (b) Shirley Avenue. Again, why not, as it could be included in the extra resources being paid for by Barratt Homes.
The Tollers Lane estate is a ‘mature’ residential development where around forty houses and some flats are being added together with a new community centre.
Roads are narrow and full of parked cars making running a bus service a tricky proposition and not surprisingly the proposal was for buses to run a clockwise circuit in both directions to avoid meeting each other. It takes around eight minutes to complete the circuit – great for new passengers now wanting a bus in Tollers Lane but not so encouraging for passengers already on the meandering 404.
Shirley Avenue was proposed as an extra diversion to provide a bus for residents in this hilly area off the already served Waddington Avenue, but in the event, despite the proposal being around for over twenty months, it hasn’t gone ahead yet due to improvements to junctions required to facilitate buses turning the corner safely.
All this meant the number of buses and drivers needed to run route 404 increased threefold from just one bus to three buses. And this being TfL the revised proposal for the 404 was consulted on again.
An original planned introduction date of 4th January 2020 was postponed to allow time for that consultation, but four years after people moved into their new homes in Cane Hill Park and fifteen months after the first consultation was launched to gauge residents’ views, route 404 finally got extended and enhanced from Saturday 21st March 2020, which in another piece of unfortunate timing turned out to be two days before ‘Lockdown’ was announced.
As it would hardly have been essential travel, I missed out on taking a journey on the expanded 404 for a few months, but finally caught up with a ride last Sunday to check out how it was doing. It was the twentieth Sunday the route had operated since introduction back in March.
I began by catching the bus from the side entrance to Coulsdon South station on route to Cane Hill Park – still called Coulsdon on the destination blind.
We immediately hit the new roundabout where a slip road has been constructed to and from the by-pass which passes overhead, parallel to the railway lines ….
… and turned on to the slip road heading north to do the circuit of the Farthing Way and loop …
…. and took advantage of that infamous unused bus lane … for the last fourteen years.
We passed Coulsdon Town station and headed back south along Brighton Road, dropping the only other passenger off there. We were soon back at the roundabout with the Farthing Way slip roads, and this time drove past the exit for Coulsdon South station and turned off on the right …..
…… to climb up the hill to Cane Hill Park and the terminus in Crawford Crescent by the old asylum chapel, which has yet to be developed.
Suffice to say, I was the only passenger on board. Seven minutes are allowed for the journey from Coulsdon South station but five of those are spent doing the loop around Coulsdon.
It wouldn’t take too long to walk from the station to Cane Hill, it’s well signposted, although it is uphill all the way, but, as I found when I walked back down, it takes even less time heading downhill – not much more than seven minutes.
As I walked, the bus passed me heading back to Caterham-on-the-Hill on its next journey with no-one on board.
I saw the next 404 half an hour later heading up the hill to the terminus with no-one on board either so I decided to wait at the bottom of the hill at the bottom of the four stops in Cane Hill Drive alongside a rather nice tree to keep the driver company on route to Caterham-on-the-Hill.
We did pick four others up once we’d done the loop around the by-pass and Brighton Road but it became obvious why the service is not much good for Cane Hill Park residents to get to the station as there’s no bus stop before the bus heads off up the slip road to the by-pass, so I can’t see anyone taking the bus from the new houses in Cane Hill to Coulsdon South station.
The only other potential destination is the shops (including that Waitrose and Aldi) in Brighton Road, as after that the bus does its meandering either side of Coulsdon Road towards Caterham-on-the-Hill which isn’t a particularly useful destination for someone in Cane Hill Park.
The four people who’d boarded in Brighton Road got off at various stops towards Caterham-on-the-Hill and one gentleman boarded in Old Coulsdon to travel a few stops, but not to Tollers Lane where we saw no passengers on the eight minute diversion.
I watched a number of other journeys during the late morning on Sunday and most were empty or had just one or two passengers on board. No passengers were seen in Cane Hill Park. I did spot one passenger lingering at a bus stop (and a bus was at the terminus ready to head off) but she gave up and walked down the hill – and reached the roundabout before the bus came along.
I know Barratt Homes are providing funding but you do wonder why, having let four years pass by before running a bus into Cane Hill Park, the plug wasn’t pulled as soon as it was obvious ‘Lockdown’ would dramatically impact travel. There’d been no Sunday service on the route since its introduction and suddenly one appears just when we’re given an instruction to “stay at home”.
The 404 is not going to be seeing a boost to its passenger journey statistics any time soon.
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.