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 ……