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On the Essex-Herts-London border: part 1

Thursday 24th September 2020

Fifty-one years ago it was all very straightforward. London’s red buses ventured north as far as Potters Bar, Cheshunt and Waltham Cross in Hertfordshire as well as Waltham Abbey, Epping and Debden in Essex (oh, and Ongar as well of course). London’s green buses ventured much further north to serve places like Harlow.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of London Country’s ‘polo mint’ formation. While towns like Crawley, Grays and Guildford have decent bus networks (thanks to Metrobus, Ensignbus and Safeguard/Stagecoach), fifty years on, the triangle where Essex meets Hertfordshire meets the Greater London boundary continues to struggle. Harlow itself is in a particularly grim state.

I’ve made a couple of forays to explore the area this week hoping things had improved since previous visits, but have come away very depressed at the continued poor presentation of buses and information. Passenger growth isn’t being encouraged in these parts.

Although it’s over the Greater London border in Hertfordshire, TfL’s influence is strong in Waltham Cross. Impressively I even found the ‘Information and assistance’ window open and staffed in the town’s small and functional bus station on Monday, so a big plaudit to TfL for that.

Not so impressive was the sloppy presentation of timetables in the waiting area.

What does it take to straighten these out? Can you imagine a top retailer displaying its products in their shop window like this?

Bus stop C is where the various routes heading into Essex depart and it was good to see Hertfordshire County Council taking responsibility and displaying up to date departure listings.

Arriva operate the long established 310 from Hertford to Waltham Cross (it used to continue south to Enfield many years ago) and alongside Arriva’s 251 between Upshire and Hammond Street, the two main Essex bound routes from Waltham Cross are the 66 to Loughton and Debden and the 13 to Epping.

These were operated by a company called EOS until it ceased trading in August 2018 when there was a bit of a hiatus with the handover due to gaps in registration dates. I wrote about it at the time explaining how Arriva took over the 66, which they’ve stuck with and are now running some decent buses on along with a few single decks from time to time.

The 13 passed to an associate company to EOS called Swallow Coaches in 2018 but that too went out of business during lockdown. From the beginning of this month Essex County Council awarded a replacement tender to Vectare – a new operator to Essex – and rather surprising as they’re based in Loughborough.

I had high hopes I’d find a transformation of quality on the route. Vectare is run by two young enthusiastic entrepreneurs in Peter Nathanail and Dominic Kalantary who’ve impressively already pickled up a UK Bus Award (the 2018 ‘New Horizons Award’ Gold winner for their ‘VecTive School Transport Management’ system) as they’re both still only in their early 20s having set Vectare up four years ago while the pair were still at University. Peter gave a memorable excellent impromptu presentation at a Young Bus Manager’s conference about the business a few years ago.

The duo grew the business from organising bespoke services for the independent school sector with the clever use of software to include consultancy as well as high end market private hires with minibuses. Now they’re expanding into tendered bus operations – they already have two routes in the East Midlands and now two routes in Essex. “We recognise how important public transport is, and we use technology to make it better. We want to provide excellent transport to every single passenger who our work will affect, whether that’s school pupils who can now track their school bus live in real time, local residents with a better bus service thanks to data analysis or event attendees who can enjoy hassle-free access to their event.”

That all sounds impressive from their Vectare website with its images of a luxury minibus (albeit on a trade plate), so I was expecting something rather luxurious to whisk me from Waltham Cross over to Epping on the rather down-at-heel-operated former Swallow route 13.

Instead this former Diamond Bus Volvo turned up, complete with ‘Bus Reversing’ on permanant display in the destination box.

And it wasn’t quite the high tech smart ticketing approach either. In fact there were no tickets, as there was no ticket machine. Instead the friendly driver had to write down every passenger showing a concessionary pass on a sheet of A4 paper and any farepaying passengers were given a free ride.

It all seemed a bit odd. I’m sure Peter and Dominic have things in hand and their aspirations for a quality service will soon be seen on the road. Hopefully that will then attract some passengers too.

I caught the 11:40 from Waltham Cross to Epping on Monday. It was good to see nine passengers board in Waltham Cross, but eight had alighted by the time we reached neighbouring Waltham Abbey and Upshire where three young college students boarded and along with just one other passenger continued through to Epping, although we did pick one local rider up into Epping too. The return journey at 12:25 from Epping took just four of us back to Upshire and Waltham Abbey and I was the only passenger travelling through to Waltham Cross.

Route 13 takes two buses to run the rather uneven hourly/90 minute frequency and it looked to me as though the two drivers have some rather long rest periods in between trips, so I’m not sure how the economics are working out. One of the drivers told me he’s based in Chelmsford, which is some distance away to drive to and from too.

Waltham Cross also sees Epping Forest Community Transport run a couple of local routes (211 and 212) which give the impression of a welfare type of service which I avoided on this occasion – it seemed to be carrying the odd one or two passengers ….

…. and Metroline run their route 242.

As a youngster I loved a ride on the original London Transport route 242 from Chingford Station to South Mimms via Waltham Abbey, Waltham Cross, Cuffley and Potters Bar. It skirted along the very top of LT’s red bus territory providing great views from the top deck of an RT. Sadly the route is now much reduced with just school requirements necessitating journeys between Potters Bar and Cuffley, even though the route is resourced from Mertroline’s Potters Bar garage. Most journeys provide a local hourly service from Waltham Cross as far as Brookfield Centre (think mega-sized Tesco and M&S) with a two hourly extension in the mornings as far as Cuffley. Whereas the old 242 ran direct between Waltham Cross and Goff’s Oak, the 2020 version meanders all around Flamstead End taking about half an hour.

I caught the 14:35 journey from Waltham Cross, one of just two which now continue to Potters Bar.

An impressive Covid-capacity busting 17 of us boarded as we left Waltham Cross but by the time we reached Goff’s Oak School just over half an hour later at 15:08 we’d got down to just five on board only to pick up 16 non-face-covering-wearing school kids who’d thankfully all alighted by the time we reached Cuffley station together with four of the other passengers, leaving just me and one other to travel onwards on the most scenic part of the route through Northaw to Potters Bar. Interestingly one passenger boarded in Northaw for Potters Bar.

At Potters Bar the bus continues to another local school (Dame Alice Owen’s School) before returning back to Waltham Cross for the third and final eastbound journey of the day.

Back in Waltham Cross, it was disappointing to see TfL have restricted the bus station toilets to use by staff only and it also seems the parking area beyond the departure stands is now strictly for TfL buses only. This results in buses on the non TfL routes hanging around outside the bus station at the alighting point in Eleanor Cross Road for their stand time causing a sense of chaos when there’s more than two or three buses together (which there often is) and TfL buses also arrive to drop passengers off before entering the bus station.

Buses take longer layovers in nearby Station Approach by the station. It brought back many nostalgic memories to see a Sullivan bus displaying route 629 laying over – a route I knew well from my childhood, but in trolleybus days!

The bus shelter here could do with some TLC, even though there are no departures from here, it’s all about the image of public transport – think how many people walk past here on their way to and from the station.

But that was nothing to what I found in Harlow as we’ll see in Part 2 ……

Roger French

BusAndTrainUser View All

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.

15 thoughts on “On the Essex-Herts-London border: part 1 Leave a comment

  1. Another interesting post Roger.

    Please be assured that the bus shelter at Waltham Cross Railway Station is to be removed and used elsewhere in the County (I deal with such things!) but needs disconnecting from its power supply first. Even when there were routes serving this location, it sadly seemed to suffer disproportionately from vandalism, possibly because it’s a little off the beaten track….

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    • Many thanks Dan for that info – I did think it might be a vandals delight by virtue of its location so really good to know you have it in hand and thanks for clarifying its a Herts display at stop C – I’ll update the post on that. Thanks again.

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  2. I believe that Vectare were awarded the Essex contracts at short notice and their operating centre is the former Gardner Travel garage in Chelmsford.

    When I used their Twitter account to ask them about real time and bus tracking , the reply stated that this is something they hope to look at in the future. I didn’t like to point out that this data is a legal requirement from January 2021.

    I can’t see it’s a viable business case for this new venture.

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    • I suspect that Vectare is another case of a couple of very enthusiastic people discovering that there’s more to running a business than coming up with a brand name, a logo and a pretty website, and who are also discovering that the bus industry in particular is a a very difficult business to make successful as a new startup with limited backing.

      Sadly I doubt they’ll be running any buses anywhere once their initial contracts expire; I simply can’t see them lasting that long.

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  3. Having grown up in Woodford in the 1980s it’s so sad to see the demise of ‘country’ buses particularly that 66/250 corridor. All that unsustainable competition with SM/Lea Valley and Arriva then EOS/Swallow. All falls apart and leaves others to pick up the pieces. Looking forward to part 2 as I remember catching the 502/702 from Woodford to Harlow being a treat! Now I’d advise anyone not to attempt to go beyond Loughton by bus!

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  4. An area of terrifying contrasts! TfL services, with iron-proof schedules, “young” vehicles operating almost 24-hour services (but not a shred of publicity!), capped fares, all costing a small fortune conveniently forgotten by many (which can no longer be afforded), and the differing attitude by neighbouring Councils. Hertfordshire, still doing their bit, with an excellent website, keeping bus stop information up-to-date and even twice-yearly maps until the pandemic, and Essex, who appear to have totally washed their hands of buses entirely. Just to add to this heady mix, the main network operator First, have also decided to abandon all printed material. For some odd reason, and in total contrast to the rest of the UK, this part of North-West Essex has never been able to establish a settled network since de-regulation, giving those who wish to return to the pre-1986 position (certainly not Me), much ammunition. For Arriva, Harlow has clearly become the rest-home for all unwanted/half liveried/tatty buses (the smart ones for the 66 and 310 are all based at Ware), and I think they only hang onto Harlow at all because of Stansted Airport, which also is no longer a gold-mine. And whilst it is sad to see such once splendid routes such as the 242 in Hertfordshire (and the 505 through Sewardstone while we are at it) almost abandoned, the root cause lies in the love affair with the car, or for much of Essex, the white van! Bemoaning the loss of services, through links, constantly comparing the position when London Transport “ruled” the area, blaming de-regulation etc. simply overlooks the hard fact that sadly, buses no longer feature in the lives of the vast majority other than in dense urban areas. Those of us who read and contribute to this column know only too well what SHOULD happen, and the perils that will overtake us if people carry on in their own selfish silos, but any hope of the general public changing their bad travelling habits is remote indeed.

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    • I’ve long been intrigued by the way that part of LCBS-land basically imploded after deregulation and has never seemed to recover whilst the rest of the London Country territory seems to have settled down, not perhaps with the level of service and links that were there pre-deregulation, but certainly not in the mess that seems to have become the norm around Harlow.

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  5. Sadly Terence is correct about Essex County Council. As far as I can tell, no timetable displays at bus stops have been updated since before lockdown in March. My local bus stop shows still shows the hourly service that ran prior to Covid rather than the four times a day “emergency service” that has actually operated since March.
    “Bus Passenger News”, published alternate months (originally monthly), hasn’t been issued since December 2019. Their essexbus.info/map web page shows “realtime” “live departures” for stops in Braintree, High Street despite the road having been banned to all traffic including buses. .

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  6. Most of the old LOndon Country Bus areas North of the thames have degenerated into a mess. St Albans garage went long ago, once it was I think LCB largest garage. Watford garge went recently
    LCNE was probably the largest disaster area It went through various reincarnations each as bad as the previous. THe operators and routes were very unstable and frequently routes and journeys failed to operate. THe only relatively stable route although it has been much cut back is the 310. The original 310 route operated from Enfield to Hertford North Sele Farm Estate. There was also the 310a which ran from Enfield to Hoddesdon. The Waltham Cross to Loughton, Epping. Harlow area was of course another mess and continues to be a mess. The 242 originally operated from Chingford to South Mimms at about a 20 minute frequency

    North & EAst of WAltham cross there is no incentive to use buses with very poor services and very high fares

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  7. One of the biggest fiasco was when London Tranport first had to put routes out to tender. It started with the routes that ran beyond London. The 279 at that time basically ran in 3 sections. Hammond St to Manor House, Waltham Cross to Manor House and Manor House to Smithfield. The Hammond St to Manour house section ran of course outside of London so that went out to tender and was one by Eastern National. THey though did not have the resourses to operate it so London transport carried on with it for a while but they then did not have the resourse to operate it so a temporary contract was given to LCNE . Whilst they were operating it they decided to operate the Waltham cross to Hammond stret section on a commercial basis so Eastern Nation eventually ended up operating the 279 between Waltham Cross and Manor house. Presumably to diiferentiate between the LT operated 279 Waltham Cross to Manour House section and the EAstern National Waltham Cross to mannor house section they renumbered it 259

    Another sage was when all the Walthamstow Garage routes went out to tender and I think the garage went on strike. They lost every route except one and that lead to the closure of the garage. This lead to the start of Ariva bus. . What was then Grey Green stepped in and were give a temporary contract to operate most of the Walthamtow routes. Grey Green Operated them fro their Stamford Hill garage. The routes were operated by coaches and had no ticket machines so used old style paper tickets

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  8. Route 242 has had several initiatives over the last 6 years to try to increase patronage, from a regular hourly service throughout plus shorts from Cuffley to Waltham Cross to having a proper evening service up to c2200 and various alternatives around these ideas.
    The Monday-Saturday service has been “commercial” throughout; the Sunday service has been tendered for very many years.
    Regrettably none of them have worked sufficiently well to last very long . . . . a new timetable was devised to limit the service to run between c0700 and c1900 and to run buses where and when most passengers actually travel.
    With this iteration it has been necessary to seek financial support from Hertfordshire CC, otherwise the route would have been closed.
    Unfortunately, this area, being on the boundary between London and not-London, suffers from London aspirations; 242 could never sustain a frequent service; there simply aren’t the chimneys available, and they’re the wrong type of chimneys as well!!
    With the new timetable due to start 4 days after lockdown (!!) the lifespan of the new timetable is indeterminate!!

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  9. It might make more sense to split the 242 into two sections. One section running Waltham Cross to Turnford & the other section Waltham Cross to Cuffly or Potters Bar

    The bulk of the 242 Passengers will be travelling to or from Waltham gross and splitting the route would give a quicker and more direct link to Waltham Cross . S it i at present with the very low frequency and meandering route most will probably choose to use the 310

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