Tuesday 4th January 2022
Christmas Eve marked the end of an era for price savvy Kent commuters travelling by coach from the Maidstone, Swale and Medway areas to Docklands and the City of London. Gillingham based National Express owned Kings Ferry coaches withdrew all its commuter journeys with not much more than a week’s notice.
The very last journey left Blackfriars at 17:40 on route 751 on 24th December bound for Sittingbourne and Kemsley bringing to an end almost forty years of Kent coach commuting.
The company blamed reduced passenger numbers during the pandemic especially as the main market for travel had been office based workers many of whom have been working from home so no longer needed to make the journey by coach into work.
The heyday of coach commuting into London has long passed. There was a time when it was big business with a number of companies running coaches from the Home Counties, particularly from Kent taking advantage of the relatively free flowing M2/A2 route into London and with easy access to Docklands and the City. At one time large numbers of Maidstone & District’s Invictaway branded double deckers were a common sight on the motorway as well as Kings Ferry coaches and other companies including Chalkwell who quit back in May 2017.
I set aside my self imposed pre Christmas and New Year travel circuit-breaker for a couple of hours and popped up to Blackfriars on a very lightly loaded Thameslink train just before Christmas to watch the penultimate evening’s departures from the deserted bus stop in Puddle Dock from where all ten coaches begin their return journeys back to Kent in the late afternoon and see the spectacle for one last time.
Ten coaches operate departures on eight different routes between 16:10 and 17:40. Six of the departures are between 16:55 and 17:30, timed either five or ten minutes apart.
It was a very impressive set up with coaches arriving and departing to military precision timing. There’s a bay which officially holds just two coaches and as one coach left, on say the 16:55 departure, the coach for the 17:00 departure which had been waiting behind it, pulled forward and right on cue the next coach for the 17:05 departure arrived and pulled in behind that.
Sadly there were very few passengers to be seen. The most people I saw on board at departure time was just four and some coaches left empty.
But this is the terminal point so I’m sure there would be more boarding as the coaches headed through the City with stops at Cannon Street, the Tower of London and Canada Square in Docklands.
London bound journeys in the morning offered more extensive setting down points after Canada Square including Commercial Road, Leadenhall Street, Bank, Temple and Westminster Pier. I’m not sure why the morning route wasn’t reversed in the evening and assume commuters made their way to Blackfriars or Cannon Street under their own steam to pick the coach up. Perhaps this was to avoid coaches getting caught up in traffic delays.
Once back on to the A2 after looping over to Docklands, the evening return journeys stopped off at Bexley and then the Cyclopark Park and Ride site offering the facility for commuters to leave their car there, which was quite handy especially if living off the line of one of the eight different routes the coaches took.
Coach fares offered great savings compared to rail fares but the downside was the much longer journey time, especially if you lived towards the end of a route including quite a circuitous routing to serve the residential areas covered in the network. A twelve hour day from boarding the morning departure to arriving back in the evening was typical.
It’s a great shame to see such an extensive provision of coach routes has now ceased. Losing these ten coaches comes just a few weeks after Arriva withdrew its four coaches on the Green Line branded route from Hemel Hempstead.
Kings Ferry is part of the business division National Express call “National Express Transport Solutions“. Sadly coaches are no longer the transport solution for Kent’s commuters. And presumably they won’t need to recruit any drivers to the team for a while.
Next blog, Thursday 6th January: TfL’s ‘Future Bus’ project takes shape.
If Kings Ferry, Arriva and Chalkwell have quit the commuter routes, are there any left? I think Centaur run routes 786, 788, 789 and 793 to Sevenoaks/Tonbridge, but are there any others? The Medway Towns offered richer pickings since the train service was poorer so am surprised that the Sevenoaks Tonbridge routes may be the only ones left.
Marshalls are still running 2 commuter coaches from Leighton Buzzard and Dunstable.
Berrys (of Taunton) still run some commuter coaches from the Somerset/Wiltshire area.
How long can the London to Luton Greenline last. Passenger numbers are well down and the train is generally faster and cheaper and the new rail link to the airport must give ther train even more of an advantage
Strange that National Express kept the name Kings Ferry and didn’t integrate then into the wider National Express system although sort of irrelevant now that they don’t run anymore!
National Express services are primarily long distance operations, offering primarily pre-booked seats for single or return journeys and absolutely no multi-journey options, which means they have no (or very few) regular passengers.
Commuter coaches are an entirely different beast, historically having a consistent clientele who bought season tickets and travelled every day on the same coach, usually sitting in the same seat every day which was recognised as “their” seat, with the same driver each day who was known to be “their” driver and to some extent a group or even club atmosphere. It wasn’t unknown for commuters on a given coach to have a Christmas party or social events. Whilst the coaches were publicly advertised I suspect that an unknown walk-up passenger probably wouldn’t have felt very welcome, much the same as you can feel uncomfortable if you walk in to a local’s pub. If they became regular users, on the other hand…
It’s also likely that at the time NX bought out King’s Ferry there probably wouldn’t even have been spare seats to sell through the NX network.
And that’s why NX wouldn’t have included them in their main network.
Pity the Kings Ferry coaches couldn’t have been switched over to assist Brighton line Commuters since Christmas!
I hope the drivers don’t have any problem finding alternative gainful employment.
Redwing is still offering a Covid-reduced service from Gravesend
Further to my comment above – Just read that Thames Clippers have just purchased Gravesend pier with the aim of extending their commuter river services!