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Another way is Essex

Saturday 6th November 2021

I’m conscious there’ve been a few blogs recently about bus routes in Essex; well, sorry folks, here’s another one. The issue is, each time I visit I spot something that attracts my attention justifying a return visit to investigate further.

I did the same a year ago when I took a few rides around the Waltham Cross – Loughton – Debden – Epping area describing my experiences of travels with TrustyBus, Arriva and the then newcomer Vectare.

As I mentioned in those posts, this western triangle of Essex along with neighbouring Harlow have had their fair share of bus turmoil over the last decade or so as poor quality companies have fought over a market that can barely sustain one company let alone competition. But thankfully, this situation has now stabilised and there are encouraging signs of much improved quality operations emerging.

What attracted me for this latest visit a couple of weeks ago was spotting a very smart looking Mercedes Sprinter belonging to Stephensons in Debden on my recent early morning jaunt on First Essex’s shopping journey to Chelmsford. A return visit enabled me to check this out and also see how that relatively new incumbent to this part of Essex, Vectare, is doing.

The Stephensons minibus was operating route 418 running between Epping St Margaret’s Hospital and Loughton Station via Epping Church and station and the lovely named Ivy Chimneys then continuing via Theydon Bois and Abridge to Debden and then through the residential area that stretches between Debden and Loughton.

The journey takes about 45 minutes and one bus provides a two-hourly frequency.

Last September when I rode the same route it was operated by TrustyBus and was rather down at heel. Since Stephensons won the tender in July they’ve allocated a very smart looking Mellor Coachcraft Strata Ultra which I know for sure is the bus type because the interior electronic sign was telling me so on a continuous scrolling loop.

The seats are very comfortable and there’s usb charging points too.

It made for a very welcoming environment on a back street, low use, tendered bus route and well done Stephensons and Essex County Council for upping the quality on this route. A nice friendly driver too.

If only it could attract a few more passengers though. Three passengers boarded in Epping on the journey I took at 09:15 on a recent Saturday morning travelling through to Loughton with four more joining us in Abridge three of whom alighted in Debden and the fourth in Loughton.

From Loughton I took Arriva’s route 66 over to Waltham Cross. This is currently operating to a half hourly frequency on weekdays but a rather inconvenient 45 minute frequency on Saturdays. But it would be no good consulting the at stop information in the TfL timetable case as they seemed to have abrogated any responsibility for posting correct timetables and instead display an ancient timetable dating from 2017 for both the 66 (showing a 20 minute frequency) and 418 (showing incorrect times including the TrustyBus operated evening and Sunday 418B with incorrect times too).

While in Loughton I popped into the Underground station foyer to see how the heritage timetable case display was doing which I’d commented back in June was displaying out of date misleading timetables and found TfL have now solved that problem …

… by removing everything – whether up to date or not. So much for helpful information provision.

Arriva make a bit of an effort with route 66 allocating former Max branded double deckers to the route which takes an anti-clockwise circular trajectory around Loughton and Debden to and from Waltham Cross …

… so I was a bit surprised when the bus arrived at Loughton station the driver parked up and shut the doors for five to six minutes. Luckily there were no passengers travelling through.

We left on time at 10:42 having picked up five passengers four of whom alighted along the route being replaced with seven more who boarded two of whom making short rides meaning we reacted Waltham Cross with six.

My next three journeys were with Vectare who are continuing their expansion in Essex from their East Midlands base. They gained further tenders in the summer and now run a variety of routes in the area some of which interwork.

I caught the 11:45 departure route 22 from Waltham Cross which shuttles three times a day (four on weekdays) to an eastern part of nearby Waltham Abbey at Shernbroke Road. Only one passenger joined me and none travelled on the return.

The bus then does the 12:15 route 13A to Epping which did slightly better with three passengers, one from Waltham Cross and two from Waltham Abbey.

Vectare have invested in a smart fleet of Mercedes Sprinters but have also purchased former London buses and this one was a former Abellio Enviro200 still in its red London livery which displayed a rather large fixed ‘13’ at the rear, even when it was on route 22 although one of the young enthusiastic team at Vectare spotted my tweeted photo and confirmed to a tweeter this will be attended to – good to see such responsiveness.

Saturday lunch time traffic was slow going and we got late as we crawled towards Epping Church and High Road, not helped by having to double run to the station – which the weekday 13 doesn’t do – only to find no passengers to board or alight. The bus retraced its route back to High Road where I alighted as it continued on to St Margaret’s Hospital.

My next journey was on Vectare’s recently won tender in July for route 381 from previous operator Ugobus which links Harlow with Epping via Roydon and then does a wander around the south of the town before serving the Coopersale area.

Unfortunately the road into Coopersale was closed necessitating a longish diversion via St Margaret’s Hospital adding about nine minutes to the journey time.

Vectare have allocated one of their smart looking Mercedes Sprinters which along with Stephensons’ allocation on the 418 means tendered bus routes in this part of Essex have never looked better.

I caught the 13:20 out to Coopersale which carried three passengers from Epping High Road where we arrived at the terminus with a car containing a relief driver pulling in right behind us.

After the driver change we picked up one passenger at the terminus who alighted as we passed by the approach road to Epping Underground station then one more in Epping High Road who travelled just a couple of stops, and otherwise it was just me until we reached Roydon at 14:25 where we picked up a passenger travelling into Harlow as well as one more as we headed through Harlow to the bus station.

As the earlier map shows Vectare also operate a local route 14 between Waltham Cross and Waltham Abbey. This runs three/four return journeys on Saturday with an extra rounder in the week. When I visited it was running a smart looking Enviro200 which had been used by West Berkshire based Weavaway in a very similar livery to that used by Vectare.

A notice inside the bus on route 13 announced a proposed change to route 381 which would include renumbering to route 31 with a new commercially operated local route between Epping and Coopersale numbered 30 but details of this weren’t included so it’s difficult to comment but it looks as though it will be an improvement.

Vectare are making a good impression in this part of Essex and I commend their website with details of timetables and their own network map as well as individual route maps clearly available. I understand they’ve won the substantial contract for Chelmsford’s Park and Ride operation from First Essex commencing next Spring which will be one to watch, as the company is.

While I was making these trips I spotted TrustyBus route 505 in Waltham Abbey heading towards Harlow. This operates six return journeys on Saturdays only between Waltham Abbey and Harlow via Nazeing, Bumbles Green and Staple Tye with departures at uneven intervals – 07:55, 09:50, 11:50, 14:20, 17:00 and 19:00 from Waltham Abbey with returns from Harlow at 06:41, 08:35, 10:35, 13:05, 15:45 and 17:50.

This route used to continue to Chingford Station via the original London Transport 242 routing through Sewardstone but I understand was cut back to Waltham Abbey in April due to TrustyBus not having a suitable vehicle to comply with the LEZ in London. For a time Arriva ran the route on Mondays to Saturdays, having numbered it 505 before ceding it to TrustyBus. This Saturday only operation is the remnants of that route.

Another TrustyBus route I spotted on these travels was circular routes 542 and 542A linking Loughton with Debden. This provides an hourly service in both directions around the residential area between Loughton and Debden stations…

… which has quite a selection of routes and operators.

It’s interesting to compare the routes serving the Loughton and Debden area today as shown on Open Street Map ….

…. or Mike Harris’s Greater London bus map ….

Map extract courtesy of www.busmap.co.uk

…. with the situation as applied 55 years ago when the area was very much under London Transport’s jurisdiction …

Nowadays notwithstanding TfL’s Central Line providing a significant level of public transport provision, the area falls under Essex County Council’s control but it’s good to see both Stephensons and Vectare upping the quality of bus service provision.

Roger French

BusAndTrainUser View All

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.

28 thoughts on “Another way is Essex Leave a comment

  1. An impressive website . . . although it does seem a rather disjointed business, and it must be difficult to monitor operations over such a wide area. RF was lucky to see the Essex operation when he did . . . due to “unprecedented levels of driver sickness” their Brentwood and Waltham Cross operations are running an emergency timetable for two weeks from 1 November.
    That’s one of the perils of smaller operations . . . there’s no contingency when one driver goes sick, if you only have a handful of drivers to start with.
    I would suggest that they might like to review some of their on-line timetables . . . as an example, their 22A (St Ives area) Saturday timetable seems to show ALL the stops served; with some consecutive stops served at exactly the same minute!! Sometimes all the data is overwhelming . . . less is often better.
    I do wish them well . . . I just hope they don’t overstretch themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The 505 was initiated by the Harlow-based County Bus & Coach (successor to LCBS), then owned by West Midlands Travel, some time in the late 1990s. It was so numbered as a marketing ploy, as departures were at 05 past each hour from both Harlow and Chingford. From Chingford it ran via the minor road past the gates of Gilwell scout camp and Sewardstonebury.before reaching the main valley road.at Sewardstone.

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  3. I believe that Vectare will run the Chelmsford Park & Ride contract from March 2022, something that appears to have had little publicity, although I have recently seen adverts to recruit drivers. The route will presumably operate from the new garage in Witham and is certainly a prestigious contract to have won from Essex County Council, with current operator First no doubt disappointed to lose the income.

    I’ve noticed that when Vectare have a vehicle breakdown it often takes a while to resource a replacement, possibly a disadvantage to being a smaller operator, though with a high impact for passengers on infrequent services. The current driver shortage is an issue and whilst information about changes is good, would it not be better to cover with agency drivers on contracted services to avoid the financial penalty of lost mileage?

    I wish them well however, I also have concerns that they need to be careful not to expand too quickly. Still, at least they’re operating registered services unlike Stephenson’s owned NIBS who compete against First on Brentwood Town service 31, there’s a general note on their website regarding missing trips on many services due to a lack of drivers, however the 31 hasn’t had any buses running since late September and was very unreliable over the summer. There’s no notice that the service isn’t running with the timetable still published and registered and no response from NIBS on social media.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Can Vectare become the long awaited catalyst to shake up the somnolent Essex bus market? It’d be nice to think so, even though it feels like a pipedream.
      They may have a better idea though than Worst’s strategy of a once a week shopper service. Or with the ECCs record with the Chelmsford P&R, maybe not.

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  4. I don’t think the 418 is actually a tendered route – last I heard it was a commercial route with “de minimis” ECC assistance. But that would bear checking.
    Have also been impressed by Stephenson’s vehicles and drivers.
    Literally five minutes before this post, the following dropped into the inbox – this is from the monthly/(fortnightly) e-bulletin from the Loughton Residents Association – generally very reliable, but where they got it I know not:

    Electric Vehicle (EV) Trial
    A trial of a 14 seat fully accessible vehicle is being run this month and next, starting with a simple shopper shuttle for low mobility people between The Broadway and the Epping Forest Shopping Park.

    The District Council hopes that this will promote their DaRT87 bus service to this audience. They will make pilot runs of the full DaRT87 route to Epping Green and Harlow using the vehicle under ‘real world’ conditions. Future use could include Council staff ‘park and ride’ for meetings and a trial of daytime/leisure/tourism transport to the Forest.

    The District Council rather than the County are involved because they were stupid enough to develop and run the so called EF Shopping Park totally unserved by bus, in an industrial area on the east side of Debden Station, 10 min walk away. How sustainable was that? This seems to be a belated act of contrition.

    By the way, route 35 (TuO to Chelmsford) seems to be gaining strength since RF visited – the 1320 ex CFD had 20 passengers as it left that city this week.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Another route weaving its way through the Debden – Epping – Harlow corridor is the D87, run by Epping Forest Community Transport, 2-hourly on Mon-Fri, a demand-responsive service requiring pre-booking. This is a relic of Arriva’s 87 which also served Loughton station and the Epping Forest Shopping Park and Industrial estate at Debden.

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  6. It’s certainly welcome if some bus stability is coming to West Essex, after a decade of false dawns. As always, the problem is the variable passenger interest, but we can hardly blame them! I think that is a much tougher nut to crack, notwithstanding the odd, often temporary, bright spot) .

    I still think the big uncertainty is with First Essex, though I think the decade of chasing everything is (sensibly) over. So that does leave an opportunity for the smaller animals to make their mark, but how much? As for FEx, I suspect Arriva the Second is probably the best we can hope for, if there is room for two of them. But without the investment?
    At least, for the moment, the release of the excess Aircoach and Park and Rides (rather randomly, but that’s a hallmark) on to the wider network, can only help. But it’s a sticking plaster, not a transplant. What else? A bit of tidying up as with the X routes/42 series, but otherwise I don’t know. Sadly, I suspect nobody else does (or perhaps even cares much) either.

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    • As we suspected with the wind down of Covid support the big cuts at FEx are here. Temporary, whilst they recruit. That one is straight out of the old LCBS, or Arriva, rulebook. Nobody’s fooled.

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  7. That area of Essex as well s next door in Herts has had a long and sorry history of constant service changes and unreliable operators such low frequency services as well are never going to attract many passengers. Some of those routes used to be operated by London TRansport and were quiter frequent and had many passengers back then. There was an Enfield to Loughton Service and an Enfield to Waltham Abbey service and even an odd nightbus to Waltham Abbey and a regular night bus to Hammomd Street Cheshunt
    and of courde the 279 provided a high frequency service to Hammomd Street in the day time
    Thee £10 used to run from Enfioeld to Sele Farm Estate Hetford and the 310A from Enfield to Rye House Hoddesdon as well as the Green Lione 716 which ran half hourly. (Hourly between Hertford and Oxford Circus & Hourly between Hertford and Guilford) THe first bus lkeft Hertford at sabout 5,30amm and the last bus got back to Herrtford ast about 1am

    As a part of the Bus Back Better scheme should they look at making off Peak fasres a simple low flat fare which might attract more passengers. At present the number of fare paying passengerrs is tiny so potential revenue loss is low. It would only need to attract a few more passengers to drive the revenus positive. I would probably exclude Lodom from this though

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    • Will it work? In the days when Ken Livingstone kickstarted LT with Fares Fair, and I worked for HCC, even our Tory Members were so impressed they insisted on trying something similiar. The County Treasurer wasn’t so impressed. As a compromise an experiment was tried in Watford and Stevenage, I believe where bus usage was felt to be most malleable, and the period of the experiment eventually doubled to help (as Members saw it).
      It failed. I don’t know of any general fare reduction in the Shires since which has come near to paying for itself, either. That might just be my ignorance. But ideas never die.

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  8. The Waltham Cross area seems to attract operators from the Midlands! In the late 1980s, the 250 and 251 (as well as some local services in the Ongar area) were operated by East Midland, using buses in a very smart green and cream livery. The local base was an outstation of Mansfield. Driver changeovers were accomplished by what was probably the longest stage carriage route in England, running northbound from Ongar on a Friday evening and returning from Mansfield on Sunday evening. On the few occasions I saw it the route was operated by an RE.

    For a short period East Midland (trading as Frontrunner) also operated some LT tendered services in the Romford area.

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  9. Essex BSIP (Note does not cover Southend and Thurock Unitarty Authorties)

    A 111 pages odd of bumpf. You will be please to hear that there will be a Basildon Volt, Clactom Connect, Harlow Falcon, Thive and Reach. Seem to be the Markting people have been busy dreaming up names

    Essex Dart service are becoming Digital Dart and the P&R services becolme P&C services (Park & Choose)

    THe document lacks any real detail on how bus service will b e improved. THere is a table at the end which mainly goes on abouut bus stops and interchange

    If you feel bored you can find thge document here https://www.essexhighways.org/uploads/downloads/ecc%20bsip%202021%20to%202026.pdf

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    • I suspect Thurrock (unitary) have a rather different vision, with whom Basildon (at least) are trying to ally themselves. If the alternative is ECC, then who could blame them?
      As for ECCs plan, what else would we expect from a contracted highways service?

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  10. The Essex conundrum, to me, is what happens to FEx. It’s the curate’s egg. Whoever can crack that one, and it’s an open question, will be the winner. Meanwhile, everyone will have a nibble, but has anyone the appetite for the meal?
    As for First, I think the choice probably lays between a Greyhound or a First Northampton, but as always with First, it takes a long time. I could well be wrong, and there is a Third Way; but like Blair’s, nobody knows what it is, and it turns out something completely different.
    I know plenty of operators manage it, but I don’t think the (fragile) 70 and 100, and X30 (south of Chelmsford) can sustain the network. Thamesway was tried, and didn’t work out.

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  11. Regarding the Saturday 505, I cannot believe the absurd situation that the bus has been withdrawn through Sewardstone (their only remaining bus service), and sits, waiting time in Waltham Abbey as it’s five journeys a week are clearly responsible for all the pollution in Chingford, and not the end-to-end wall of cars. It could at least have been extended down to the Lea Valley camping site to connect with whatever TfL run for onward travel. And my, my, how times have changed in Epping!. On a Saturday morning just after the service had been converted from “T” to “RF” c1953, I witnessed a 399 bus in from Coopersale c0930, en route to Hertford, disgorge almost sixty, yes ‘6’ “0”, passengers at Epping Church, the Conductor standing precariously on the steps with the doors already open. And yes, an RF could take 60 as I managed it once in an emergency.

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  12. There’s was another Stephenson’s but probably unrelated given it’s geographical distance from Essex? It’s buses where yellow and ran around Litchfield and north of Birmingham.I think that after deregulation it took over a number of routes that Midland Red (North)ran and maybe some of MR(East AKA 🦊 Fox) and Trent too.I don’t think that it’s still going as I’ve never seen them during my various trips through the Midlands for years.Although I never actually went on them when I lived in Birmingham just saw them.

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    • The Staffordshire operator was Stevensons of Uttoxeter, with a v rather than the ph of the Essex operator.
      It sold out to British Bus and got Arriva’d. The remnants of its network (the former ESDC and Midland Fox Burton and Swad locals plus Stevo’s original country routes to Uttoxeter) are now operated by Midland Classic.

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  13. I’m greatful to Bob for his link to the Essex BSIP. I learn from it that Essex intend to place a bus stop outside my doctor’s surgery. What’s wrong with that, you may ask. Nothing, except they could have done that thirty years ago when the surgery opened.

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  14. Not Essex but Sheffield this time. Make sebse of it if you can. It hardly goes along with encouraging the use of publi tranport

    They are introducing a CAZ (Clean Air Zone) the latest wheeze for councils to raise money but this one gets realy weird

    Sheffield Council are not going to charge cars entering the CAZ BUT are going to charge Buses, Coaches and HGV’s £50 a day Mini Buses , Van. Private Hire and taxis £10 a day

    The above are excempt if ULZ

    Link Here https://www.sheffield.gov.uk/home/pollution-nuisance/clean-air-zone

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    • Very strange that they admit that cars make up 50 percent of the pollution and still are not going to change them.Also they don’t factor a small but significant fact that 89 percent of cars only carry one person, the driver,but one of those buses might have 30 people on it.So that 50 percent of the pollution is being generated by a very small number of people in very large metal shells.

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  15. I was hoping that Stephenson’s take over of NIBS would improve their previoys poor reliability. I recall they held the contract for some obscure rural services based on Ongar, tied in with the 46 Ongar to Chelmsford. Having tried to catch them a few times, I subsequently learnt that they just never bothered running the Saturday services, yet nothing ever appeared on their web site to mention that.

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    • Essex cc have form, don’t they? They never seemed to monitor the performance of contracted services. I recall passenger complaints when one small operator won the evening contracts across Essex, albeit an impossible task. Even after FEx took them on, they weren’t immune either. But, Essex solved the problem by defunding them. Non running services don’t meet the financial criteria for subsidy, nor attract passengers.

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  16. Re the 505, we all assumed emissions was the reason for the cut back. But careful consultation of the map, shows the route never actually entered the LEZ zone, and they mostly use a compliant vehicle anyway.

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  17. I think that bus services that orinate outside of London that enter London should be exemt at present.. The routes are low freuency and generally only go a short distance into London. Unlike TfL bus compnies outside of LOndon do not have money to burn

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  18. Sorry . . . these statistics are irrelevent !!! Something happened in March 2020 which affected any comparisons !!!
    It’ll be the same for 2021-2022 . . . the 2022-2023 statistics might be worth comparing with 2019-2020, but nothing before.

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  19. Arriva must read this blog. Since it appeared, blinds on Route 66 eastbound have been changed to read “Loughton Station”, thus answering (not very helpfully} your point “…. so I was a bit surprised when the bus arrived at Loughton station the driver parked up and shut the doors for five to six minutes”.

    Liked by 1 person

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