Saturday 23rd October 2021
It’s been a long time since you could catch a bus from the Debden and Loughton area of Essex, on the fringe of Greater London, and travel to the county town of Chelmsford.
A locally based correspondent Chris reckons it was pre war when an early Green Line lettered route provided such a link but that’s probably over 80 years ago.
Following the demise of route 575 from Harlow and Loughton to Romford which I wrote about a couple of months ago, Chris kindly got in touch to tip me off about an equally quirky route First Essex have started running between Debden and Chelmsford via Epping and North Weald.
Numbered 35, the route provides a weekly return shopping journey on Tuesdays only leaving Debden at 08:45 and arriving into Chelmsford just over an hour later at 09:50.
The journey back leaves Chelmsford at 13:20 giving a generous three and a half hours in the town.
Route 35 is operated in between an Essex school contract First Essex won in the Loughton area and apparently only runs on a Tuesday as the school follows different hours that day. Operating costs must be very marginal, if any at all, with the driver and vehicle presumably already paid for in the contract price and the bus needing to return to its Chelmsford base in between school journeys anyway.
For that reason the route only runs on Tuesdays in school terms so potential passengers wanting retail therapy in Chelmsford need to be sure they know school dates to avoid an abortive wait at the bus stop.
I made an early morning start on Tuesday to take a look at how this new addition to the Essex bus scene is doing.
It’s not entirely clear which bus stop is the starting point for route 35. The online timetable lists it as ‘Debden nr Rectory Lane’, and confusingly two times appear alongside – both 08:37 and 08:45.
Google Maps indicates the route starts midway along Rectory Lane itself at the third bus stop up from The Broadway (near Debden Underground Station) as the departure isn’t listed on the first two stops in Rectory Lane.
It could be that’s because that third stop is actually called ‘Rectory Lane’ whereas although the other two are in the road called Rectory Lane they’re known by different names
Chris reckons First Essex confused the registration of the service by calling the terminus Rectory Lane rather than ‘Debden Broadway’.
I decided to play on the safe side and walk to the stop named Rectory Lane and be there for 08:37, just in case.
In the event the helpful bustines.org website was confirming the bus was down at The Broadway terminus used by TfL routes 20 and 397 so I could have saved myself a walk but in the absence of information at bus stops along the route I didn’t want to chance it.
It was reassuring to see the tracking website showing the bus moving off shortly after 08:45 and soon after it was approaching my stop.
I was pleasantly surprised to see two passengers already on board when the bus arrived. It was an encouraging start.
I was also pleasantly surprised to see concessionary passes are valid even though the time was prior to the 09:00 start time Essex use for acceptance (itself half an hour earlier than the statutory minimum). Chris tells me this earlier start was successfully lobbied for by a local councillor, so good for them.
I think I must have also dropped lucky with First Essex’s vehicle allocation on Tuesday morning as I can’t believe one of their smart new Essex airlink branded Enviro400s for route X30 would normally be on a school contract/shopping trip.
The school kids must have been impressed.
I understand a similar bus was allocated last week too.
We picked another passenger up at the next stop in Rectory Lane and then turned on to the A121 through Epping Forest towards the Wake Arms roundabout.
And met the tail end of the queue for it.
It was just before 08:55.
Half an hour of frustratingly snail pace queuing later, and the roundabout finally came into view.
It was 09:25.
I couldn’t see anything unusual about the traffic flow on the roundabout to be causing such a delay…
… and although the nearby M25 was showing its usual busy self Chris later sent me an extract from Essex Live confirming there’d been two crashes close to the A121 junction earlier that morning and we’d obviously got caught up in the consequential queue of motorists taking an alternative route.
Chris told me there’d only been a delay of 3-4 minutes the previous week, which was good to know.
After that hiatus we picked up another passenger in Epping then five more at one stop in North Weald and four more at another all of whom had had to wait an extra half hour for us to arrive thanks to the Wake Arms queue.
At the Four Wantz roundabout to the north of Ongar we continued straight over on the A414 rather than double run into Ongar itself. First Essex already run a two hourly route 32 between Chelmsford and Ongar and by coincidence we passed a bus on that route as we arrived at the aforementioned roundabout.
We didn’t pick any more passengers up and had a good run into Chelmsford arriving at 10:13, only 23 minutes later than scheduled.
I was impressed how word must have spread about route 35 with many more passengers travelling than I’d expected.
Our driver handed out leaflets to everyone as we alighted at Chelmsford’s Retail Market terminus which helpfully lists school term dates, and he reminded everyone the journey wouldn’t operate next week due to half term.
It really was good to see First Essex actually taking the initiative to print and distribute a paper timetable. Not revolutionary I know; but highly effective in spreading word about the bus service among the community.
But I was puzzled how so many had found out about it. Thirteen is a good load so early in in a new weekly route’s life, and Chris told me there were nine on board last week. Hopefully word will spread further in the coming weeks leading up to Christmas. Chelmsford must offer a much more attractive retail offer than Harlow or Waltham Cross for residents and bus passengers of Debden and Epping.
Hopefully Essex County Council will update their bus stop displays to include route 35 which will increase awareness and particularly provide reassurance of the starting point in Debden.
It’s also good to see a bus company using resources between school journeys to give passengers opportunities to travel that otherwise wouldn’t be financially viable to offer. Well done to First Essex for this initiative.