On the Essex-Herts-London border: part 2

Friday 25th September 2020

Bus provision in the Harlow area has been challenging for many years. Not helped by a myriad of small bus companies of dubious quality coming and going into the market causing inevitable instability to the network, nor the town being seemingly left out on a limb in Arriva’s various management reorganisations over the years.

Harlow and Crawley were both designated New Towns in the New Towns Act of 1947. They’re both within a few miles of a major airport and have light industry in ‘business/industrial estates’ within the towns. Harlow’s population is around 85,000 with Crawley’s just over 105,000. Arriva pulled out of Crawley in 2001, selling out to Go-Ahead owned Metrobus, but they’ve doggedly hung on in Harlow, despite the area suffering higher deprivation and economic problems. I’ve never quite understood this rationale, particularly as whenever I visit Harlow, it gives the impression of lacking that tender loving care and attention to detail needed in a successful bus operation.

My most recent visit yesterday reaffirmed that impression. It really is grim. Much of this is down to Harlow Council who seem to manage (or not) the town’s bus station. I’ve never seen it in such an appalling state. Out of date timetables on display aplenty, notices all over glass panels, minuscule signs letting you know where each bus route departs from, real time signs that have never displayed real times and now switched off and bus shelters which are a disgrace to wait in. It must rank as one of the worst examples of presentation in the country. But we’ll come to that shortly.

I travelled to Harlow via Epping, as many commuters do – taking advantage of TfL’s cheap Underground fares compared to the Government’s ticketing policy for National Rail. A 7-day Travelcard from Harlow Town on Greater Anglia is £123.60 compared to £66 from Epping.

The main bus route between Epping and Harlow is operated by a relatively new name in Central Connect. It’s the same people who run the more established Trustybus. Both being part of Galleon Travel of Roydon. I’m not sure why the change of name/branding. Someone very close to the Essex bus scene mischievously suggested to me it might be to get away from their ‘rustybus’ nickname, pointing out Galleon must be one of Ensignbus’s best customers, always replacing their fleet with a never ending supply of ex London buses.

However, for my outward journey yesterday I caught route 87 which takes a more indirect and less populated route between Epping and Harlow via the village of Epping Green as well as quite a circuitous route through Harlow’s south western residential areas.

You can get an idea of the circuitous nature from this wildly out-of-date timetable and map display outside Epping Station which no-one has seen fit to remove.

Journey time on the 87 is 32 minutes with an hourly frequency. Despite what the above map shows, the service now continues south from Epping to Debden including another circuitous routing there before terminating at the aspirationally named Epping Forest Shopping Centre. The 87 was one of the routes Arriva took over following the demise of EOS in August 2018 as mentioned in part 1.

There were only half a dozen other passengers on board the notice infested Solo on the journey from Epping to Harlow characterised by the driver having to close the door at each stop by using the button above the door itself. Not a very reassuring image for passengers, nor easy for her. Taller male passengers, including myself were asked to close the door behind us as we boarded. Interestingly by pressing the green button rather than red, which seemed counter intuitive.

There’s an epidemic on at the moment – I’m talking an epidemic of notices on buses, and this was one of the worst cases I’ve come across.

I counted 28 at the front of this particular bus (admittedly including the Used Tickets, Fire Extinguisher and seating capacity announcements) but I’m pleased to report as a result of my posting this on social media yesterday, Arriva’s local management are springing into action to deal with the epidemic and remove most of them and start again with what is legally and operationally necessary. Here’s a closer look at some of them, see if you can spot all 28.

It’s the ultimate irony that Arriva have a standard interior notice telling passengers not to get up from their seat until the bus has stopped so I really don’t know when passengers are expected to read all this stuff as you could hardly hang around reading it while the bus is waiting at a bus stop for you to alight; and it’s impossible to read from a seat while on the bus – particularly when the closest seats (and the wheelchair area at that) are out of use marked with torn crime scene tape.

It’s not much better on the outside either. Here’s a similar adorned bus I saw later in the day displaying another eleven notices, symbols or legal lettering in this small area. It really is notice overload and an epidemic that’s out of control.

For my return journey from Harlow to Epping I caught the aforementioned Central Connect branded route – numbered 420 and 420A – the former identifying journeys which continue beyond Epping to Ongar, while the latter identifies journeys which turn short at North Weald.

The buses proclaim above the upper deck windows the frequency is “up to every 15 minutes” but currently during the daytime it’s half hourly between Harlow, Epping and North Weald with an hourly projection to Ongar with extra peak hour journeys. Pre-Covid three buses an hour ran off peak between Harlow and North Weald with hourly to Ongar.

Former London United Scania double decks are used with a bright electronic destination blind fitted which has the route number in a bright green colour which I find slightly off-putting. Numbers of passengers travelling are good, plenty making local journeys to and from Harlow from the town’s residential areas including Potter Street as well as journeys to Epping from Harlow, North Weald and Ongar.

After arriving back in Epping I caught the less frequent route 418 (two-hourly) to Loughton via Theydon Bois and Abridge which is run by Galleon’s Trustybus brand.

It was a quiet journey with just one other passenger on board from Epping who got off in Theydon Bois but we picked a few up in Abridge who got off in Debden for the Underground station I assume. It was just me continuing to Loughton.

Trustybus go minimal on notices, but they tend to throw in a lot of words…

… as well as news that’s rather out of date…

And I’d be very surprised if any tickets are ever checked by a company official, I really would.

And so to Harlow’s bus station. I’ll just give you a flavour with the following photographs and captions…..

There are two shelters alongside the main bus station which could do with a thorough clean, particularly the plastic panels.
They’re just so grubby with notices stuck up willy nilly.
The notices aren’t even fixed nicely.
At least this one has two matching coronavirus notices.
The notice with brown masking tape (stuckup in both shelters) shows a photograph of a local lad who sadly took his own life but includes an accusation a named individual has “blood on his hands” due to being with the dead lad’s partner.
This graffiti inflicted frame contains a timetable for an Essex County Council tendered bus route operated by Regal Busways.
I’m led to believe this route was withdrawn in the last tender round in 2016. It must be some time ago bearing in mind the “Go places” exhortation to “pick up a copy of the Essex Bus and Train Map”. Some hope of that.
Harlow Council seem blissfully unaware the image portrayed doesn’t fit with their vision of ‘Working together for Harlow’.
But someone has adjusted the tag line here to reflect reality as they see it.
Into the main bus station area now and nothing captured here is up to date. The ‘welcome to Harlow town centre’ arrow on the floor is somehow poignant.
This notice is out of date as LCB Travel are not operating ‘Zip’.
‘Step back in time on the 396’ is appropriate since it hasn’t operated this year.
The timetable displays both on the metal panel and in the timetable case are way out of date. The yellow notice tells you the route numbers departing from stands 7/8. It’s out of date.
Here’s the out of date timetable on the metal cabinet. I suspect this timetable ceased in 2018. As highlighted earlier, route 87 now operates hourly and continues to Debden.
Out of date
The timetables on display here are out of date.
Here they are.
Here’s another out of date timetable I found elsewhere.
Spot the out of date ‘Stay home and save lives’ poster.
Back outside by the two shelters – why, oh why, put the times at the very bottom of the panel where you have to bend down to see them through the grubby cover, when the space above just has filler rubbish reminders. And while I’m here, why do the long distance bus routes to Chelmsford and Hertford, Watford, Heathrow etc depart from these grim shelters rather than inside the enclosed bus station?
The Visitor Information Point including Arriva’s travel information point is closed, but on the upside Central Connect have posted up to date timetables for their routes 410, 418 and 420/A on the glass panels, so we should be thankful for that.
Arriva abandoned the ‘sxconnect’ branding some years ago – it’s certainly not in evidence on any of its routes – and route 505 to Chingford ceased being operated by Arriva a long time ago. It now only runs on Saturdays by Trustybus. Still, at least there’s some positive news from Harlow Playhouse who’ll be laying on a swashbuckling socially distanced Treasure Island this Christmas. ‘All aboard for our Christmas Alternative’. It’s a right old pantomime in Harlow, that’s for sure.

Final thought: I’m told Essex County Council produce timetable displays for each bus stop with agreements in place with a bus operator designated to post them in specific geographic areas (on behalf of all operators) in return for a modest payment which sounds like a sensible arrangement. I understand Arriva declined the offer to look after the Harlow area. It looks to me that no-one is looking after it. Certainly no-one is looking after the bus station. The above examples are only from a cursory look during about half an hour’s visit yesterday; I didn’t have time to do a full audit. The amount of misinformation really is an appalling situation. Encouraging passengers to use buses? You’ve got to be joking. What a disgrace.

On the updside, the public toilets were open, and clean too. Someone is obviously looking after them, thankfully.

Roger French

14 thoughts on “On the Essex-Herts-London border: part 2

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  1. The timetable panels inside the ticket hall at Loughton station are no better.

    They too include routes operated by Regal and EOS, though the summer 2011 timetable for the 845 Epping Forest Shuttle Bus, possibly pre-dates anything on display at Harlow. Some appeared to be older still, while the newest I could find was dated 2017.

    In both locations, it is probably the case that no information would be better than wrong information.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I saw two adjacent notices on a Stagecoach bus recently. One instructed all passengers to remain seated until the bus had stopped. The other showed the carrying capacity of the vehicle – including the standees!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well all the posters on that bus window where a nuisance but imagine it they had droning automatic announcements saying the same thing!no don’t give the any ideas!one very annoying thing is vynal advertising on bus and trains often stuck over the windows and to rub salt in the wound advertising cars!which in my view should be banned from advertising like cigarettes and firearms.


  4. Regarding the placing of the timetable at the bottom of the frame – being a similar height to you I also find this annoying, my guess is that this is deliberate to enable those in wheelchairs to read it too – or am I giving them too much credit?


  5. Unlike many towns, Harlow does at least have a bus station with visitor information point convenient for the shops and town centre. When that opened some years ago, it did have a full array of timetables and a manned enquiry desk. Very useful on the odd occasion I visited.

    A pity that between the councils and principal operator, the will no longer exists to keep it reasonably presentable and supplied with up-to-date travel info.

    One could imagine a few days work by an enthusiastic “community bus station group” (if such a body existed) could make a marked improvement. But has Public Transport UK really descended to the level where it has to rely on volunteers to do basic “service delivery” functions?

    Harlow did for some years have a volunteer-run bus travel website with up-to-date timetables and route changes – “HarlowRide” (http://www.harlowride.co.uk/) but this is now just an enthusiasts site. Perhaps the sheer volume of unpaid work and difficulty in obtaining accurate info defeated the organiser. But with BODS, maybe a new beginning? )


  6. How Depressing! I was last in Harlow Bus Station in 2017. it looked uncared for then and it looks as if nothing has changed apart from a few Coronavirus notices stuck up!
    Are neither the councils or operators bothered about the image this gives to both those living in Harlow and visitors – ‘we just don’t care about you’ ?
    I suppose Essex and Harlow councils will plead lack of funds but Arriva as the main operator could surely somebody ( a spare driver ?) along from the nearby garage from time to time to keep the information up to date and presentable – even if it means taking down other operators out of date timetables! Harlow council should be ashamed of themselves – it cannot cost that much to add regular cleaning of the bus shelters etc to their street cleaning budget.
    Sadly it is not just Harlow, too many other town centre bus stations/stops give an uncared for image, perhaps a nationwide volunteer organisation is the way to go?


  7. Another thought-provoking post, Roger. I hope it hits home in the appropriate places!

    I’m always amazed why many profit-seeking bus operators don’t see the value of having correct posted information at bus stops. Headways in Harlow are hardly ‘turn-up-and-go’ and it makes me wonder how many of the ‘bus didn’t show up’ type complaints to head office are down to the bus user being mislead by inaccurate information?

    In terms of bus service provision in the town, I do feel that Arriva, as long-time incumbent operator, hasn’t been the most entrepreneurial of operators in the past. Their 500/502 services towards Epping were once prime routes (I think low-floor buses were pioneered on them) but were given up in 2011, seemingly without putting up much of a fight with SM Coaches and Townlink who competed on the route. If Central Connect can make a reasonable stab at things in 2020, then this seems like an opportunity missed back then. Also noteworthy is Trustline (now Trustybus/Central Connect) making the decision to extend a Hertfordshire CC tendered route between The Brookfield Centre and Hoddesdon to Harlow, thus opening up new travel opportunities for the north Hoddesdon residential areas to Harlow. This route remains as their 410 and links two not-insignificant towns right in the heart of Arriva territory.

    However, I am pleased to report that there does seem to be renewed enthusiasm on the part of Arriva to make a go of things in this part of the world. Taking on the former Eos routes at short notice was a masterstroke and the extension of town service 10 towards Hertford to provide two buses an hour between Hertford and Harlow should also be applauded – let’s hope it returns in the post-Covid bus operating landscape!


  8. Maybe somebody in the industry could confirm but I believe that Essex County Council acquired all bus stops and timetable boards in the county at deregulation, the theory being that this would prevent companies from placing their timetables on top of ones belonging to rival operators. While there is logic in that, it relies on the Council keeping everything up to date.


  9. The Arriva website has not improved a all. How anyone can design a site so badly who knows. Even what should be a simple task such as finding a timetable is made almost impossible. They dont seem to keen on people contacting them as the options to do so are very limited. Click on Facebook or Twitter and it jut takes you to the Contact me page. You can eventually find a twitter page that claims to give service updates but it is a total mess and hard to find anything as it is so cluttered with things such as wear a face mask and vague posts about school services and it covers a whole operating area

    They need to scrap that web site and start again


  10. Your comparison between Crawley and Harlow is interesting . . . . but there is one substantial difference between the two: Crawley Council has invested in the Town with a decent shopping centre, including cinema . . . . Harlow Council has not. When I was last in Harlow, the town centre looked like a throwback to the 1960’s; outdoors with limited shelter from the elements. The Bus Station matches the town centre perfectly!!
    Other New Towns in London’s Country bear comparison: in Stevenage, the town centre is again very 1960’s in appearance; although the Bus Station is reasonable in appearance with good information displays. In Hemel Hempstead, the Bus Station has been closed for some years; with the market moving elsewhere its importance had declined. Buses terminate in the main street, but with decent shelters and information it is still recognisable as a Bus Station!! In Hatfield and Welwyn Garden City (as with Letchworth), there is no real “centre” as such, so on-street bus terminals suffice (WGC does have a Bus Station, but it’s rather out of the way).
    Guildford, whilst not a New Town, is gently drifting towards Harlow status, but can probably still be rescued . . . a coat of paint in the Bus Station and some better lighting wouldn’t hurt!!
    Ultimately, if the shops are decent, then passengers will travel. If passengers travel, then there is an incentive to have a decent terminal and to improve service frequencies. If the town centre is poor, then why go there?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. A very interesting article, as always, about the depressing state of bus travel in Essex. I am led to believe that the Epping Ongar Railway requested the poster for the 396 – which ceased operating regularly many years ago and are now left with just the 339 to Epping/Shenfield – to be taken down by ECC, but clearly they haven’t done anything about it!

    Liked by 1 person

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