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TfL’s downward spiral continues

Saturday 28th August 2021

Sooner or later the bubble had to burst. For years London’s buses have been hailed as an exemplar for how bus networks should be across the country. It’s a favourite bleat of MPs used to flotillas of red buses passing up and down Whitehall as they attend their Westminster offices that if only bus services in the provincial towns, cities and even rural areas they represent could be as frequent and cheap as in London then buses would be sorted.

The recently published Bus Back Better, so called National Bus Strategy, from the DfT (and largely written by Andrew Gilligan, Number 10’s transport bigwig) commented glowingly about needing “London style this” and “London style that” buses, tickets, frequencies and a whole lot more replicated all over the country and everything would be alright. Prime Minister Johnson opined in his preface to the document “last year, we announced £3bn of new funding to level up buses across England towards London standards. Just as we already have in the capital, we want main road services in cities and towns to run so often that you don’t need a timetable.”

Except we know it isn’t like that. Never let the facts get in the way of a good three word soundbite. London’s buses have been haemorrhaging passengers consistently for years as journeys have slowed to not much better than a crawl in a number of places while elsewhere you’ll find yourself delayed on board because the “bus is being held to regulate the service”. Routes have been shortened meaning more changes have become necessary to reach a destination and information about where routes go is now totally lacking.

On the one hand Number 10 extolls the virtues of London’s buses, but on the other talks about TfL’s “financial black hole” refusing to agree a long term financial settlement leaving TfL to lurch from one crunch deadline to the next not knowing how much the next funding pay cheque will be, or what demands will be placed on its receipt.

Today, Saturday, sees the start of more widespread reductions in London’s bus provision across Zone 1. It’s the second such swathe of cuts in as many years. And I fancy it won’t be the last as the decline and resultant cuts have all the makings of a downward spiral.

Once you start cutting frequencies on the busiest ‘turn-up-and-go’ routes to better match reduced demand, more passengers notice their waiting times have increased and start thinking about alternative travel options resulting in more people deserting the bus leading to justification for further cuts.

That’s exactly what happened in many towns and cities in the 1970s and early 1980s in the lead up to deregulation, and always conveniently overlooked by proponents of regulation. Buses were withdrawn from those frequent routes that had the most potential to grow and attract more passengers to prop up less remunerative services to minimise the call on public funding. The same thing is happening now in London. Tens of PVR are being taken out of the network today (my best guess without analysing the schedules is between 60 and 70), while out in the suburbs low frequency routes are being introduced or extended where there’s never been a bus – another change from today is a newly extended route 324 beyond Stanmore to the Centennial Business Park (famous for being the site of London Transport’s Aldenham Works).

Notwithstanding the cuts being made today, there’s more to come. London Travelwatch successfully lobbied for the Government imposed “review of bus travel demand” as part of the last short term funding settlement to be postponed from July until the Autumn to allow more time for a return to pre-Covid travel patterns. Once that’s taken place, there can only be one expected outcome. More frequency reductions.

While some of the reductions being introduced today mean buses will still run frequently, there’s no doubt the change from yesterday’s timetables, will make an impact.

For example, routes 9, 16, 27, 30 and 148 (with a combined peak vehicle requirement of 104) are all moving to a 10 minute frequency (typically from every 7.5 minutes).

Route 7, recently converted to Hydrogen powered buses amidst much fanfare reduces from every 8 minutes to every 12 minutes meaning it’ll no longer need 18 of those expensive buses, but probably more like 12 for the reduced service; a 33% reduction.

The two former Red Arrow routes, 507 and 521 have their frequencies halved; every 3-4 minutes on the 507 becomes every 7.5 minutes, and London’s most frequent bus route, the 521, reduces from every 2-3 minutes to every 5 minutes. The saving here must be getting on for 20 buses from the 58 deployed until yesterday.

Routes 2 and 113 reduce from every 7.5 minutes to every 8-9 minutes and route 43 slips from every 6-7 minutes to every 8 minutes.

In a fortnight route 11, often thought of as London’s best and cheapest sightseeing tour (running from Fulham to Liverpool Street) reduces from every 10 minutes to every 12 minutes which is almost bordering on the not really a turn-up-and-go-service any more.

Another change in two weeks time is to busy route 29 (Trafalgar Square to Wood Green) which reduces from every 4 minutes to every 5-6 minutes. In this case its frequency increased when articulated buses were withdrawn so is probably more reverting back to old times.

Most of the revised frequencies quoted above are justified by the reduced number of passengers travelling. That’s for sure. We are certainly well past the heyday of peak bus travel demand in central London. But, the problem with ten or twelve minute frequencies on a busy congested road network as applies in central London is once you get delays to one bus, it doesn’t take long for things to go awry and buses soon bunch with significant gaps between buses building up, making for an even greater unsatisfactory experience of bus travel.

I know London is also hailed up as a great place for bus priority measures to help buses through the worst of the traffic delays, but my experience is recent schemes to create better arrangements for cyclists and pedestrians have in many cases undone the previous free flowing arrangements for buses.

We’ve all experienced the dreaded “the destination of this bus has changed” announcement just before you’re turfed off to fend for yourself as the driver’s told by control to turn short to get back on time, and never mind the inconvenience for passengers abandoned at the roadside.

Two other changes from today are the withdrawal of two more routes from Oxford Street as that road continues to see a reduction in the number of buses running along it. Route 113 is cut back from the north to terminate at Marble Arch rather than continue to Oxford Circus (as well as the aforementioned frequency reduction from every 7.5 to every 8-9 minutes), while route 159 is cut back from the south to terminate at Oxford Circus, instead of continuing to Marble Arch.

Again, these changes make sense when you observe such small numbers travelling towards the terminus, but it’s the thin end of a large wedge, when you use that argument to cut buses short of their terminus.

The justication for doing so can just continue.

And that’s the problem with “London style” bus cuts.

Roger French

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I used to run a bus company but in retirement enjoy Britain’s splendid scenic delights travelling by bus and train, and commenting along the way.

40 thoughts on “TfL’s downward spiral continues Leave a comment

  1. A reduction of 60 – 70 buses will obviously impact upon staffing numbers – are there many vacancies, or will it lead to job losses?

    Re your last paragraph – the thin end of the wedge. If fewer people travel to the extremities of each route, then TfL could shorten the route to save money. Then fewer people will travel to the new extremities, so these are cut back even further, until you realise that you have cut the whole route!

    Lastly, why are cycle routes taking over the capital to the detriment of all other traffic? Narrower roads mean slower traffic, and less reliable buses mean more people return to using their own vehicles, both of which means more pollution which the Mayor is trying to reduce. It doesn’t make any sense.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. How are London bus companies faring in terms of driver availability?
    Round here, we’ve got several bus companies implementing reduced timetables because of driver shortages – on that basis that it’s better to have a 15-minute frequency where you can be reasonably confident of running all buses, than to have a nominal 10-minute frequency but know that you’re going to have to cancel a quarter of journeys because you haven’t got enough drivers to cover them all.

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  3. Just musing. Haven’t we been here before? Locally, if we want (just for confirmation) to see the result of London-style services without “London” funding – see Wirst (as we call them, for good reason) in Essex. Where do they go next now the passengers have largely gone? I’m sure their “new” management might appreciate an answer; on a postcard, preferably. Must admit, I didn’t realise they’d become a role model though!

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  4. You ,know of areas and bus companies who are trying very hard to increase passenger numbers, to me London is one of those places where passengers are not wanted doing things to reduce the numbers travelling as some companies seem to b e doing . I belive it all to dowith the People in charge

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  5. Outside of London one can only dream of having buses that run from early morning to late at night 7 days a week and at 10 minute frequencies

    The bus back better seems to be an ill thought out strategy. It talks of buses running from early morning to late evening 7 days a week and consistent timetable. It is just no realistic outside of the cities

    Most service outside of the cities run at hourly frequencies Monday to Saturday daytime only. Most of those timetables are irregular as will at the am and pm timers are altered to fit around school hours. Even taxis are a problem at these times as most are doing school runs

    LTA’s are supposed to come up even proposals by October but without knowing hat the budget is which is a good trick

    Most council have taken the enhanced partnership route,. Quite how that can work where you have several competing companies I dont know. Further problems are the bus companies are not interested in local services preferring to only run inter urbans services and many of these are very infrequent and slow as they have been

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  6. It is the inevitable result of transferring roadspace from buses to cyclists and pedestrians. The 7 is the epitome of TfL spin – you can have a lovely shiny new hydrogen bus at great cost to keep the politicians and opinion formers happy but there are fewer of them and the service is slower so for the actual passengers the expereince is worse. The politicans have ruined London’s buses before so the current and previous mayor are not doing anything new sadly

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  7. It’s cannot be right that in the whole of zones 1 to 6, the only piece of bus literature I can pick up as a genuine punter is the Southdown timetable book from Caterham station!

    TfL can print Tube maps ten a penny though. It’s like they don’t want folk to find out where buses go.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “London style” bus cuts. Thank goodness our county bus route outside of London have not been subject to such draconian cuts by their private operators over recent years… oh wait…

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  9. These kind of cuts are mirrored by rail timetable consultations at Northern, SWR and ScotRail which I suspect have the hand of the treasury behind them. So a government that likes to talk big on climate change and transport but actions speak louder than words…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. London’s passenger numbers are reducing from a high base, so it is not fair to criticise regulation for that. The other point about reallocating space to bikes is a bigger problem. Cycles and pedestrians do not mix but politicians tend to lump them together.
    Nationally I think rather than buses back better, buses back would suffice. Not reinstating services or journeys means the service is less attractive, regardless of usb points, leather seats or floor coverings.

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  11. In 46 years in the London bus industry I can safely say I’ve seen it all before with politicians meddling with public transport and using it as a political football, back in the days of good old L.T. we had proper planning done by Transport professionals that knew Thier job but now TfL has had its funding slashed and relies on Government bail outs the only way I see a remedy is to increase fares to a more sustainable level instead of a mayor who instigates a policy such as ” as many bus rides within an hour” for the flat fare of £1.55! plus children riding free , I could go on and on and start on the NRM ( ” Boris”) bus which has cost 10’s of Millions in fare evasion and was introduced even after the I’ll fated Bendy buses were withdrawn mainly because three door boarding was a major mistake and caused much revenue loss.

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    • London is one of the most unaffordable cities on the planet and yet your answer is to make the world’s most expensive ( so called) “public” transport systems even MORE expensive!

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  12. CAn TfL really justify the night tube. To me it is a very expensive extravagence with most ruing around almost empty. All that was really needed was to extend the last trains by an hour or two

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  13. We’re here because of LTNs and 20mph borough wide schemes which have slowed buses in the capital to a snail’s pace outside Zone 1.

    I believe the future for London’s buses is to provide hyperlocal services and as feeder services to train/tube stations where passengers can continue their journey. The days of commuting from somewhere like Penge in Zone 4 to Tottenham Court Road on the 176 are coming to an end.

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  14. I always love it when you talk to Londoners outside of London and you mention that a bus has a half hourly or hourly service which is pretty good and they reply with the typical is that it.

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  15. Up here my bus is very reliable.10.30 and 12.30 on a circular route every Friday except Bank Holidays. We only seem to have saloons operating on it.

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  16. Fewer passengers begats lower frequencies. Lower speed limits begats additional buses to maintain said frequencies. And so it will forever continue unless additional funds are found to slow down the spinning circle.

    Let’s be clear here . . . service frequencies on many Central London routes have been excessive for several years, and it’s not just the last mile effect (although that is relevent). With the reductions in commuting numbers that have been in place for 18 months, and do not look like returning any time soon, frequency reductions are inevitable and apposite. Any bus company outside London would’ve done this some time ago, but TfL have their processes to go through, and we all know those wheels turn exceeding slow.

    I was the schedule compiler that compiled the original schedules for the Route 324 extension (although the 12-month delay in implementation has meant that they’ve changed again), and the new specification tightened up recovery times and removed the “every 21 minutes” frequency feature introduced to try to counter traffic congestion at no cost (which probably most London bus routes have had over the last 5 years!!).
    The best I could do was add 1 PVR and (I think) 2 rota lines into the schedule, so plus (say) £200K pa. This is to serve seven bus stops with existing routes available; a service from 0500-0100 at a small residential area just inside London, and a round-the-corner facility from Stanmore Station to Brockley Hill Hospital (so that justifies the cost, then!!). In fact there is no new road or stops served at all!!

    As Roger has commented before . . . TfL have form in this . . . introducing new services that seem to serve no real need, and I look forward to seeing his report in due course!! It might be instructive for him to repeat his visits to some of the other contenders for the “most wasteful new / extended bus route in London” award to see if they have actually been used by any more passengers?

    Oh, and BTW . . . if TfL with its “roads” hat on would provide more stand space at terminals, so operators can have decent recovery times available, then buses wouldn’t need to be curtailed so often. I shudder to think how many buses stand at Marble Arch now, especially with the “Mound” in the way. Just taking one acre (half a football pitch) from Hyde Park would make all the difference . . .

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  17. Should cycling in general be restricted in Central London other then where it is possible to have cycle lanes that do not uses up road or pavement space

    Road space is very limited in London and cycle lanes use up a lot road space but transport very few people. In my view a more sensible approach is to provide cycle parking at bus and rail station in outer London., From their they can use bus or train as the services are good. This make much better use of the limited road space

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  18. If you cut frequencies of service in general you just drive passengers away from buses. This can be seen very clearly outside of London where service have been decimated by this approach from bus companies. Mostly out side of London and the large cities bus service are reduced to a Skelton service operating 7am to 6pm Monday to ~Saturdays and even on Saturdays the service are much reduced. Buses are seen as a service of last resort as they are so bad. If you work buses are not even an option as they dont run at those times

    Whether the government bus back better scheme will change things I am not convinced. IT would need a massive attitude and quality change and customer service change from bus companies and I just dont see that happening in fact already bus service cuts now seem to be resuming

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    • The reason that bus services outside London are so bad is because bus companies there don’t have a travel monopoly. Most people in London have to contend with not only car maintenance & insurance etc but also a punitive congestion charge, almost non-existent parking coupled with heavy handed enforcement, traffic jams etc. That forces a need for public transport which TFL is more than happy to charge people through the nose for. TFL aren’t stupid are they!

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  19. What do you expect when TFL has been allowed to create an abusive monopoly? They hammer car drivers to the point that only the rich can afford to drive then hammer those forced onto public transport. Seriously is TFL the most expensive public transport system in the world? A 1-6 monthly travel card is an absolutely eye-watering £260. Take a buss from Zone 6 to Zone 1 and your looking at around 2 hours in each direction every day. TFL has been ripping commuters off for years.

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    • An any bus only travel card for a 6 month period in Greater Manchester would cost £420 (£70/month). I’d take a £260 card any day!

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      • “A 1 to 6 monthly” actually means “Bus, tube and train London Fare Zones 1-6 for ONE MONTH”

        So let’s check who does pay higher fares across the board, the northerners or the Londoners……

        Manc monthly bus pass £70 London £84.
        So Manchester already cheaper than London, but add in the trains and the difference really starts to show…
        London travel card £260 monthly, Manchester bus & train…? Ah, just £129.

        A typical 30 mile train journey, Preston to Manchester anytime day return £21.40, off peak day return £13.70
        Now try a London one, still 30 miles, Tonbridge to London anytime day return £33.70, off peak day return £19

        Would you still prefer our tickets, Manchester boy?

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  20. No need for cuts! TfL should take back and run the buses to cut tte shareholders and fat bonuses. Bus drivers have been struggling to make ends meet. For all the crap that we have to endure no wonder they ate leaving faster than they could recruit them.

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  21. Oh dear!! Not the shareholders and fat bonuses again!! The large operators in London are lucky if they achieve a 2% margin of income over expenditure at present . . . it is only that investment rates are so low that capital is best employed at work rather than sitting in a bank earning interest.
    I see from other sources that the eventual reduction in London’s PVR this autumn might total 150 buses (this is NOT precise, as negotiations are ongoing) . . . a substantial number.

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    • Lucky to get 2% margins?
      This was Stagecoach just pre-pandemic…..
      “The £9.2 million of operating profit from London buses in the six months to the end of October represents an operating margin of 7.3 per cent on revenues 5 per cent higher at £126 million”
      Quoted from The Times.

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  22. The buses are busier than ever it’s just a case of most people not paying,there’s no revenue anymore & drivers are told not to confront these fare dodgers to avoid complaints.the more complaints a company gets the less chance they have of winning future contracts

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  23. There is the misunderstanding that shareholders add to cost. Shareholdrs provie funding. If you do not have shareholders TFL would have to borrow to fund the buses

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    • Of course shareholders give money to businesses out of the goodness of there hearts and definitely NOT for share dividends.
      Interest rates are currently at historic lows.

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  24. The Mayor seems to have turned against buses for some years now, by cutting through routes, eg along Oxford Street, and refusing to print maps,. I accept that some routes may have been too frequent. BUT some people are not prepared to use the tube – for reasons of eg claustrophobia or not feeling safe on escalators, etc, so they must use buses. Does the Mayor not understand that?

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  25. Living in the new ‘border town’ of Redhill it is possible to travel 10 miles to Croydon for £1.55 on a TfL service. Metrobus operate an excellent local service with a zonal fares structure that enables travel throughout Redhill and Reigate for £2.50 (including a 24 hour service heading south) on a commercial basis.

    £2.50 seems a very reasonable fare for a reliable and regular service. The cost of living in Surrey is as high, if not higher than all our neighbouring London boroughs. Is it really right that Surrey tax-payers, indeed national tax-payers subsidise cheap bus fares for TfL?

    TfL created their financial vacuum long before Covid.

    Please don’t even get me started on the disparity of rail fares from two stations up the line and those a few stop down!

    The 5p increase should have been at least £1!

    Rant over, thanks for another great article.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “The 5p increase should have been at least £1!”
      O.K, I’ll bite…..

      A single parent living in Waltham Cross who works in Victoria on a minimum wage job.
      Would you advise they ….

      A) Spend nearly 25% of there weekly take home pay on a travelCard?

      B) Pay 7% of there take home pay and get buses which TFL journey planner shows is a 5+ hour commute each day?

      C) Advise they dump the job and live on benefits?

      So, which is it A, B or C?

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  26. Steve Curtis, national tax payers do not subsidise cheap bus fares for London. In fact fare paying passengers and London tax payers pay for roads in London that road users living outside London may make no contribution. London tax payers while providing roads free to non-London residents contribute to the upkeep of trunk roads outside London.

    Also London taxpayers subsidise some buses for Hertfordshire residents.

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  27. Keith, the latest £1b bailout from HM Government is funded by all UK tax-payers, as are the previous ones. As for roads, these are paid for through national and local taxation, any Londoner driving out through Surrey is equally entitled to use ‘our roads’ too.

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    • ….. I’m guessing you use the same reply when you don’t want to answer a question about food banks and poor people.
      The question I posed is the daily reality of a huge number of Londoners.

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  28. Most, if not all, London Bus Companies have quite a large staff shortage, but there is a large appetite from drivers for working rest days and overtime, so generally services to get covered (unlike in some provincial areas, especially in the South West currently). Things like extra work for rail replacements etc, can be very challenging to cover, thus the recent sights of rare operators helping out on Underground replacements (such as Reading Buses and First Essex). So generally, I don’t think drivers would be made compulsorily redundant, but of course some drivers will be looking to go HGV driving now that pay for that has increased considerably due to shortages, so I reckon before long, things will be back companies being tight for drivers again.

    Like

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