Sunday 3rd October 2021
I wrote about TfL’s new route 497 on its first day of operation back on 25th January 2020.
Here’s a quick recap: the 497 links Harold Wood station with new housing in Kings Park (the former Harold Wood Hospital site) passing a Polyclinic and London South Bank University’s Havering Campus as well as a giant Tesco Extra (at Gallows Corner) and gives a few previously unserved roads, including Chatteris Avenue, a bus for the first time. Two buses provide a half hourly timetable (hourly on Sundays) with an end-to-end journey time of just 18 minutes with the last stop at Gooshays Drive Harold Hill close to the Central Leisure Centre but buses continue out of service for a further mile to an established terminus at Dagnam Park Square to wait out the 24 minutes stand time (albeit less the ten minutes allocated for the dead travel time there and back) before returning on the next trip.
You might also remember in true TfL style route 497 was over three years in the making. It was first talked about in TfL’s September 2016 ‘Review of bus services in Harold Hill’ report identifying gaps in the desired ‘housing within 400 metres of a bus stop’ criteria in the Borough of Havering particularly the 863 new homes being built at Kings Park.
A Section 106 agreement involving a payment of £513,873 facilitating access for buses through the development site dates back even further to 2011. The only trouble was it took the developer less time to build the 863 new houses than it did for TfL to introduce route 497 so unsurprisingly most residents had made alternative travel arrangements on moving in well before the buses arrived and have therefore largely eschewed the bus. The pandemic hasn’t helped either with lockdown coming two months after route 497 began operating.
In those pre Covid first few weeks after introduction in early 2020 weekday passenger numbers reached 1,134 journeys by the first week of March 2020, which is about 3 to 4 passengers per journey. It wasn’t exactly packing them in but obviously numbers collapsed in the following “you must stay at home” months.
TfL had originally assessed the route would generate 265,000 trips per annum, that’s about 5,100 a week but despite Covid recovery route 497 is showing no signs of reaching that target. “Ordinarily it would be expected to take up to 18 months for those demand levels to be reached” TfL explain, but it’s been no ordinary 18 months since the route’s introduction of course.
Stagecoach have a five year contact to run route 497 until January 2025 but a break clause is available on 20 January 2023 subject to the operator being given 10 months’ notice (ie from March 2022). For TfL to meet that deadline a consultation on future options has to take place about now as nothing happens quickly in TfL Land.
Sure enough with perfect timing, last month TfL announced a consultation into route 497’s future which has two options: either put the two buses plying their lack of trade along the route daily between 05:40 and 00:18 (06:40 on Sundays) out of their misery and withdraw the route, or, you get the feeling, as a bit of a desperate bid to come up with a second option, liven up the one mile dead mileage between the Gooshays Drive terminal point and the actual terminus used by the buses at Dagnam Park Square so passengers can be carried.
Except there’s already a frequent double deck bus route – the 174 – which runs nine times an hour along that bit of route and continues along Hilldene Avenue also served by the 497. Two extra journeys on the new section from forlorn single deckers on a 497 desperate for passengers won’t make an iota of difference. Any extra trade for the 497 will simply come at the expense of the 174.
As if TfL are half serious about that second option, they’ve even come up with a detailed map to explain it.
It’s a strange state of affairs when TfL resolutely refuse to produce maps to promote bus routes they do run, but come up with a detailed map to explain where one might be withdrawn.
Here’s how TfL summarise the options:
To be fair there is a small benefit from option 1 in that it provides a new direct bus link for shippers living close to Dagnam Park Square wanting the Gallows Corner Tesco …. if they’re Tesco fans.
I took another ride up and down the route on Thursday to get a feel for how it’s doing.
Of the six random middle of the day journeys I either travelled on or observed: two journeys had one on board; three with two on board and one with four on board, although one of those four could have used alternative buses for the short ride along Hilldene Avenue.
Most popular point for boarding and alighting was the Gallows Corner Tesco.
Hopefully those passengers will spot the notice promoting the current consultation in a bus stop panel at that stop and let TfL know their views.
It’s noteworthy much of the route is on a hail and ride basis so most of the new roads being served are devoid of bus stops thereby not helping the route to establish itself in residents’ minds.
Although buses passing every half hour should make an impact and there is a high profile bus gate in the middle of the Kings Park development to prevent rat running motorists.
It’s interesting TfL haven’t offered other slimdown options to reduce operational costs while giving time for revenue to build, for example withdrawing the route evenings and Sundays or even reducing the frequency to hourly. I know such measures don’t play well with TfL’s desired standardisation of service levels but there are examples elsewhere of non daily, low frequency routes in the network only operating daytimes.
If TfL do pull the plug on the 497 in January 2023 by giving notice next March it’ll be the first time a complete route has been withdrawn without partial replacement since the demise of route RV1 on the South Bank as part of the first big Zone 1 service reductions in summer 2019. It’ll certainly be the first suburban route to be chopped completely and the first new route to fail to become established.
But these are uncertain times, and if you want a good example of the shortcomings of franchising look no further than the timescales surrounding route 497. Three years to introduce; 20 months operation with minimal passengers; 16 months to withdraw, or possibly not.
Franchising doesn’t do quick.
What ever happens TfL expects the London Borough of Havering (which acted as bankers for the developers’ £513,873 Section 106 payment) to hand over the balance still available to them.
Here’s the final paragraph in TfL’s report…
This sounds like wishful thinking. January 2023 will be three years worth of two buses running pretty much empty along a few streets in Havering for 36 minutes in every hour for eighteen and a half hours every day. I suspect that £513,873 will easily have been spent which for cash strapped TfL might explain why we’re seeing this consultation now.
It’s not been a great lesson in how to spend half a million pounds on public transport.