Saturday 12th February 2022
There’s been much consternation among bus passengers living in Potters Bar and the surrounding area over the last week. Long standing route 84 between St Albans and New Barnet has been deregistered by Metroline.
The 84 is one of those iconic routes with a long history stretching back over a century and was always a welcome oddity in its London Transport era being a red central bus route extending well into green country bus territory with its northern terminus in the bus station adjacent to the delightful St Albans bus garage.
For many years at its southern end, the route turned round alongside the iconic Arnos Grove Charles Holden designed Piccadilly Line Underground station with Sunday journeys once extended further east to Walthamstow Crooked Billet
Unlike TfL’s route 465 which has continued to take red buses all the way south to Dorking even to this day (with financial support from Surrey County Council) route 84 hasn’t featured in TfL (and its predecessors’) route portfolio since 1982 when it transferred to London Country ending up being operated by Metroline as a commercial venture from its Potters Bar garage, which largely operates TfL contracted bus routes across a swathe of north London.
Having tried various initiatives to improve its financial performance Metroline has now decided it can no longer sustain the route’s losses particularly with Covid having decimated much of the 84’s passenger base and still no certainty of DfT Covid support funding from April. It was inevitable its potential withdrawal would cause a lot of angst.
Passengers have organised themselves and set up an online petition …
…. as well as organised a protest rally outside Metroline’s Potters Bar garage for next Saturday morning.
But petitions and rallies seldom have much impact in the cold light of a financial deficit on a commercial bus route day. More important is how much revenue there is to cover the costs.
I thought I’d better go and take a look at how the route was performing so journeyed up to St Albans on Thursday morning for a ride.
I caught the 11:14 from St Albans when five other passengers boarded with me at the St Peter’s Street terminus by the town’s main shops together with one more boarding seven minutes later when we reached St Albans City railway station.
Three of these six passengers alighted a few minutes later as we left St Albans through the residential area known as The Camp where we also picked one up.
Once on London Road we soon reached London Colney where the other three from the start alighted and we picked up two more passengers giving us a compliment of three who all got off alongside Sainsbury’s and M&S which are part of the large Colney Fields Retail Park including many other national retail chains (and lots of free car parking) at the southern end of London Colney.
Between St Albans and Colney Fields Retail Park passengers can travel on the hourly Arriva route 357 (albeit via a residential area called Napsbury Park) or half hourly Uno route 602 running direct while Red Eagle/Redline route S1 runs hourly in The Camp area.
From Colney Fields Retail Park route 84 is on its own for the two-and-a-half mile bash alongside the M25 down to South Mimms.
We picked up two returning shoppers by Sainsbury’s who were the only passengers on board for this section of route – the sole preserve of the 84.
We soon reached the White Hart pub at South Mimms where one of these two passengers got off and two joined us bringing us back up to three on board. The other shopper from Sainsbury’s alighted as we approached Potters Bar and we picked up one more and another two at Cranborne Road. On this section of route we parallel Sullivan Buses operated route 398 but its frequency is not what it once was – now with just three daytime journeys between 09:00 and 15:00 – update – I’m advised the 398 now runs hourly albeit an old timetable is showing on the Intalink website.
At Potters Bar railway station, one of the White Hart passengers alighted and two more boarded. One from Cranborne Road got off at the next stop in Darkes Lane by the shops and another got off when we arrived opposite Metroline’s Potters Bar bus garage, which looked busy with buses for an off peak hour.
Two more boarded at the bus stop after we’d crossed Southgate Road (A111) bringing us back up to six on board.
We headed down the A1000 (another road being exclusive to the 84) towards Chipping Barnet having crossed the Greater London boundary by Hadley Highstone and we dropped two passengers off in Barnet’s High Street and another two at the stop after the Church. One more alighted by High Barnet Underground station and the final passenger alighted at Warwick Road, the stop before New Barnet railway station where we arrived three minutes early at 12:22 instead of the scheduled 12:25.
The bus lays over for thirteen minutes before heading back to St Albans at 12:38. Interestingly at St Albans the bus has 20 minutes layover making for 33 minutes in the three hour cycle.
Overall, sixteen passengers travelled on that journey which took 71 minutes from end to end. Taking a look at the buses we passed heading in the other direction – two were double decks and three were single decks, the loadings looked similar to my experience. So let’s assume this is fairly typical. More passengers undoubtedly travel in the peaks and I also understand Wednesdays and Saturdays off-peaks are busier as they’re market days in St Albans, but on the other hand evening and Sunday journeys are likely to be less busy. So let’s take 16 passengers per journey as a very rough average.
Let’s say the average fare paid (and reimbursed by Hertfordshire for concessionary passes) is £2 per passenger (taking account of discounted return fares) making for £32 per journey. Aside from schooldays only journeys – which I’m assuming will definitely be put out to tender as a separate matter – there are approximately 400 single journeys a week (62 each day on a Monday to Friday, 59 on a Saturday and 32 on a Sunday) on route 84. So let’s say taking account of bank holidays that works out at 20,000 journeys per annum. On my rough calculation therefore, revenue will be £640,000.
A rough assessment of costs for a six PVR bus route running daily as well as some evening journeys would probably come to at least £900,000 if not pushing £1 million.
It therefore looks like there’s a deficit of around a third of the costs – ie about £300,000.
The good news announced yesterday is that South Mimms based Sullivan Buses has decided to take the route on and is registering a replacement timetable to keep the service on the road when Metroline withdraws on 1st April.
Not surprisingly there are some changes with the route curtailed at Potters Bar and the section south to Barnet and New Barnet withdrawn. In addition a loop arrangement will be introduced around Potters Bar meaning a trip from Potters Bar to St Albans can easily be accommodated in an hour. It’s not clear whether the new timetable will be reduced to hourly – I suspect it will – meaning Sullivan Buses will only need two buses instead of six and probably retain around 75% of the revenue. So not bad going. It’s possible school journeys will run as extra peak journeys with some financial help from Hertfordshire County Council.
This will just leave the section between Potters Bar and New Barnet uncovered and ironically Metroline run a significant number of buses up and down this road taking buses to and from their TfL routes for driver duty changes. You’d think it might be possible to get round the TfL bureaucracy and find a way of running some of these in service for the benefit of passengers making journeys between Hertfordshire across the border and Greater London, and vice versa. Going back in history route 134 used to run regularly on this section of route, rather like route 298 does today on the parallel A111 linking Southgate, Cockfosters and Potters Bar – ironically currently run by Sullivan Buses on behalf of TfL.
Well done Sullivan Buses. It’s good to see route 84 will live on and it looks like that protest rally can be called off.
Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu.
Next blog, Sunday 13th February 2022: (the delayed) C is for Carlisle.