Thursday 31st March 2022
Out-of-town shopping centres can be extremely difficult to serve by bus. Only the very large ones like Bluewater have anything like a decent service. But they’re a mecca for car users.
Bluewater opened its swanky shopping doors back in March 1999. Along with the likes of the Metro Centre, the Trafford Centre, Meadowhall and Merry Hill and not forgetting one of the originals of Britain’s shopping mall genre just over the other side of the River Thames, Lakeside, these ‘shopping and leisure destination experiences’ are just the kind of day out retail therapy needy motorists and their families are attracted to in their thousands.
In an age of online shopping and entertainment, shopping malls with their enormous fixed infrastructure costs have few alternative use options if retailers pull out whereas at least traditional High Streets do. Therefore landlords do their utmost to keep a full house of tenants on board so footfall doesn’t falter.
Bluewater was created in a former chalk quarry near Gravesend in Kent and offers 13,000 free car parking spaces but also has a convenient bus station adjacent to one of the three ‘anchor stores’ – Marks & Spencer (the other two on its triangular shaped layout being John Lewis and House of Fraser) – together with what they call a “Concierge Team” who are “on hand to greet you with a warm welcome and help you make the most of your visit”.
The thing that struck me most about my latest visit last week was how impressive it was to see a member of the Team on hand behind a posh hotel style curved reception counter with upcoming bus departures displayed on screens high up above, which could just about be made out for those with good eyesight.
One thing unsurprisingly that was also noticeable were two completely empty leaflet racks either side of the reception counter. I’ve been impressed on previous visits to see these full with a selection of timetable leaflets for Arriva’s services as well as Ensignbus’s X80 but there was an inevitability no printed information would be available this time so I wasn’t disappointed.
The bus station is well endowed with departure bays around a horse shoe style layout with parking bays around a central island.
Passengers circulate under cover with a few seats by each departure stand and a real time departure screen.
There are Kent County Council produced departure lists at each stand too.
One oddity that’s always puzzled me is the Fastrack only access road into Bluewater for buses to and from Dartford via Darent Valley Hospital. It makes no sense to me at all that all other bus routes have to take a longer route to access the bus station.
Although Bluewater is firmly in Kent lying four and a half miles east of the Greater London boundary in the western fringe of Dartford, TfL have a strong presence to the shopping centre.
It runs three bus routes providing frequent connections from Woolwich, Plumstead, Bexleyheath and Dartford (route 96 every eight minutes); Erith, Crayford and Dartford (route 428 every 15 minutes); and Sidcup, Bexley, Bexleyheath, Crayford and Dartford (route 492 every 30 minutes) from across the border.
In 2019 there was a proposal for the 428 to be cut back to only run as far east as Crayford as TfL argued the number of passengers travelling between Crayford and Bluewater could easily be accommodated on route 96. There was also talk of cutting back the 492 east of Dartford but that also got kicked into the long grass although TfL did state “having considered all of the issues raised by respondents to the consultation, we have decided not to proceed with the withdrawal of the 428 between Bluewater and Crayford and not to proceed with the withdrawal of the 492 between Bluewater and Dartford at this time. We will keep both operations under review“. Instead route 428 was converted to double deck operation.
You can see how Bluewater is much more of a draw than Potters Bar, as although that town is closer to the Greater London Boundary (and nearby Barnet) than Bluewater, TfL aren’t interested in providing any replacement bus route to replace the about to be withdrawn 84 in that location.
That’s what happens when you build a shopping mall in a former chalk quarry just outside London, I guess and lots of shoppers want to travel there.
Aside from TfL, Arriva are the main bus operator serving Bluewater including the high profile Fastrack branded route A linking Bluewater every 10 minutes with what’s known as ‘Greenhithe (for Bluewater)’ railway station continuing via The Bridge and, from Easter, Amazon’s huge ‘fulfilment centre’ before terminating in Dartford itself.
Arriva’s own flagship bus route is the 700 running every 20 minutes to Strood, Rochester and Chatham. This really was a prestigious service at one time – as Bluewater’s webpage extols: “Arriva have upgraded the Chatham to Bluewater 700 service, with the new Sapphire bus. Travel in style with leather-style seats, USB charging point, 4G wifi throughout the bus and audio-visual next-stop announcements”.
Sadly on the day of my visit one of the journeys wasn’t quite offering that upgrade with a somewhat forlorn single deck Dart style early Enviro 200 – which at least was relatively well loaded.
Arriva are making some changes to their network in Dartford and Northfleet from the forthcoming Easter weekend and have helpfully already uploaded an updated network map to their website which deserves praise and celebration.
This includes cutting the 40 minute frequency route 477 back from Bluewater to Dartford where it will now terminate from Orpington and Swanley. The ninety minute frequency Sunday service will be withdrawn.
Other routes serving Bluewater include the 490 providing links with nearby Gravesend every 20 minutes as does route 481 via a slightly different route at a rather awkward 35 minute frequency with route 483 having an easier to remember half hourly frequency also to Gravesend by a third route.
Less frequent Arriva bus routes are the 423/433. The 423 runs Mondays to Saturdays every two hours or every two hours and ten minutes and dog legs into Bluewater on its route from Dartford to Green Street Green, Longfield and New Ash Green while the 433 runs on Sundays starting from Bluewater (rather than Dartford) to New Ash Green every two hours and 20 minutes.
There’s also the Arriva Click DRT service centred on Ebbsfleet which includes Bluewater in its operating area which I sampled soon after it began in December 2020. As mentioned then, there are ambitious plans to provide a direct road through a tunnel to the expanding ‘Garden Town’ with more Fastrack style routes.
The already mentioned Ensignbus route X80 links Bluewater with Lakeside every hour and provides a wonderful top deck experience travelling over the Dartford Crossing if you hit lucky with a double deck allocated, but only in the southbound direction of course (with the not so exciting tunnel on northbound journeys).
While TfL route 96 runs every eight minutes at the other extreme is route 228 operated by Redroute Buses from Tonbridge which runs one return journey on Tuesdays only on schooldays. This bus company also runs route 306 providing hourly evening journeys via Gravesend and Meopham to Borough Green which is odd as the daytime equivalent route doesn’t reach Bluewater starting at Gravesend and running to Sevenoaks via Meopham and Borough Green (a former Arriva route which featured in last year’s LCBS Anniversary Tour).
And finally there’s GoCoach Hire’s route 474/475 which runs hourly to Longfield on a circular (clockwise and anti-clockwise) route which is currently on Kent County Council’s hit list for withdrawal as part of its package of saving £2 million subsidy. That was the reason for my visit last week – to have a ride and see how many passengers were on board. I’ll tell you about it in an upcoming blog.
Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS.
Next blog, Saturday 2nd April 2022: Suggestions for TfL.
The Merry Hill Shopping Centre within the West Midlands Combined Authority is very well served by Diamond Bus & National Express West Midlands although the bus station itself is not the greatest up to 9 buses per hour link the centre to nearby towns of Halesowen, Blackheath & Dudley 364 days a year while the nearby mainline railway station has up to 20 buses per hour to the centre and in the long term The Andy Street Memorial Metro System will also connect to the shopping centre. Day Tickets to Merry Hill Centre start from just £2.85.
Given Arriva’s continued cuts and route abandonments in Kent, how long has route 477 (Bluewater)/Dartford – Orpington got left in it – evening service from Swanley to Orpington was lost a few years ago, Dartford to Bluewater section being cut, the inconvenient 40 min frequency maintained, evening services being cut, Sunday service going??
Unfortunately once the concierge goes home, the waiting room is locked. Those with good eysight can peer at the departures board, but others like me are left to walk round the entire bus station to find their stop, as unbelievably there is no list of which stops each route uses anywhere, and timetables on the web don’t show them either.
Meadowhall is well connected by public transport and shows what can be done. A decent sized bus station, two tram stops and a mainline railway station provide a good public transport offer. In the 90s about a quarter of people arrived at the centre by public transport.
Meadowhall is adjacent to the M1 for those coming from the north and south but the road network east and west is not great.
Merry Hill feels much more local in its ambitions, with a poor road network and only served by buses. Even the monorail closed.
The Trafford centre has excellent road links and a somewhat brutality small bus station dropped into the periphery.
These large shopping centres can be well served by public transport. A bigger threat are the retail parks that spring up nearby
The monorail at Merry Hill was only open for a very limited period and was hopelessly unreliable. Merry Hill is now the main regional shopping centre overtaking Birmingham & Wolverhampton. Light Rail is currently being constructed to it but is frankly not needed given the vast bus network serving it the Metro extension is simply a vanity project of Andy Street.
The Midland Metro via Dudley project long predates Andy Street, however much you may dislike the bloke and wish to blame him for everything.
In fact way back in the early 1990s Dudley MBC blocked WMPTE (Centro) and Regional Railways’ planned reopening of the Walsall – Stourbridge line to passengers because they wanted the Midland Metro tram network, the whole Midland Metro tram network and nothing but the Midland Metro tram network. So, for 30 years they’ve had no rail transport on the route instead, which I’m sure has been of great benefit to public transport users in the area…
I noticed on my last trip through the area that the old Midland Red Dudley bus garage has been knocked down and the land used for a traffic island leading ono the new arterial road making it easier for the ever-increasing number of cars to get to Merry Hell. Was that a mayoral vanity project too?
Whatever makes you think I dislike Andy Street that is the complete opposite he is one of the most accomplished, professional & diligent person you could ever meet & and I was part of his campaign team for election in 2017 & its been a privilege to work alongside him building a better bus service for Birmingham as for the former Midland Red garage it was demolished over 25 years ago & the highways are the responsibility of Dudley MBC. Whatever happened under Centro was the responsibility of the West Midlands ITA. I have known Andy Street CBE for over 30 years & comments such as yours about myself & Mr Street are both derogatory and untrue its clear you haven’t a clue about transport within the West Midlands County.
“Whatever makes you think I dislike Andy Street”
Perhaps, Mr Jones, it’s because you say “the Metro extension is simply a vanity project of Andy Street”, which is hardly suggestive of someone who respects him or considers him professional.
I’ll not comment on the rest of your post.
It is worth noting the Andy Streets love affair with trams has spectacularly back fired and made him look a total fool & person of ridicule in the eyes of many.
1. West Midlands Metro has not operated fully in over a year and is currently suspended
2. Five Ways Extention is over 6 months behind schedule and completion is no where in sight.
3. Street himself was ordered in Downing Street this & publically humiliated when he was unable to guarantee the Birmingham Commonwealth Games will have any form of Transport Network.
4. His own party is now questioning Streets capability as Mayor & he has been openly critised in Birmingham Mail for failing to adresss and reply to letters sent to him by WMCA Council Tax Payers.
5. In a recent poll Birmingham Residents were ashamed to have Street as the cities elected Mayor.
I remember catching a well-filled mid-morning train from Doncaster to Sheffield. It emptied at Meadowhall!
I wonder what Brent Cross is like for buses these days? It used to be excellent. The tube station is a bit of a hike but of course a new train station will soon be opening.
It seems to be served by 11 TfL routes there are probably some Non TfL routes serving it as well. I am pretty sure the Luton to London Greenline route stops there
THat Greenline route is a little strange as the same bus is both a Greenline and EAsyBus route and they even charge different fares. Very strange
I dont think Brent Cross is the big draw it used to be but that applies to most shopping centres
The new Brent Cross West Station is just as far away,and so far no plans have been announced for buses to serve it. Brent Cross itself is still very busy, although not quite as much as the early days. Shoppers (and diners) certainly use the buses (as indeed they do the car parks), however it has also become rather an important interchange, so can be busy even when the shops are shut. The bus station is really too small, but plans to expand the shopping centre over it, with a new bus station on a raft over the A406 have been abandoned.
Andrew mentions Brent Cross which was a real destination in the 1970s but is now largely forgotten. My theory based on excursion coach destinations is that Romford Market was the place to go in the 1960s, Brent Cross in the 1970s, Lakeside in the 1990s, Bluewater in the 2000s and now Westfield Stratford.
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Unless the fast track road is blocked with transponder operated barriers like the one at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital cars will drive down the fast track road anyhow.Of course you couldn’t have barriers on a turn from a roundabout as it’d cause delays waiting for the barriers to lower.Even with the Oxford JR one they try and slip in behind the bus like fare dodgers did behind you on the Paris Metro.
Blue Water is not such a car-drivers’ heaven – my friend (who drives) told me he once lost his car there – in fact when he went to the office to report it stolen, they kindly showed him the actual place where the car was – a car-park building identical in design to the place he looked for it in. They told him it was quite a common occurrence!
The bus station is actually at least as conveniently situated.
The lack of access to anything other than the 96 and B, of the quick fastrack link from Darenth Park Hospital to or from Bluewater is even more daft at the moment. The A296 is closed eastbound from Darenth Park Hosp (was closed both ways), so the 428 being unable to use the busway is simply curtailed to the Hospital omitting Bluewater The 433 abd 477 have to back track to the A282 Dartford Tunnel Approach and then go via the A2, a very long diversion indeed
The 474/5 has been run by a minibus on my more recent visits, so guess you were lucky getting something as large as a Solo. When at Longfield two Sundays ago, the timetable posted on the stop claimed the 433, as well as 423, ran on a weekday. It did not sound right, but never got round to checking
Cross Thames Tramline
A proposal is currently having its funding bid and outline business case evaluated by the Department for Transport (DfT) – a cross-river tram, it would link Thurrock on the north side of the Thames and Kent to the south
Its working name is ‘ the Kenex tram ‘ and it would run in a new tunnel under the Thames which runs parallel to the existing Dartford Crossing. It would provide a robust public transport, greener alternative to the congested, polluted Dartford Crossing.
Currently there is just one hourly bus across the Dartford Crossing, which can easily be disrupted by the traffic, complemented by the Tilbury-Gravesend Ferry, which can easily be disrupted by the weather.
Eurostar and Thalys Merger
Two high-speed train companies are joining forces to create a rail giant that will serve five countries across the continent.
Thalys currently runs high-speed routes between France, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium while Eurostar runs services through the Channel Tunnel from London to Paris Brussels and Amsterdam. Both companies are majority-owned by French train company SNCF.
The Fastrack AZ Dartford – Gravesend service is being transferred from Go-Coach to Arriva this weekend, with the timetable massively reduced but Amazon workers allowed free travel on the other Fastrack routes instead.
The only thing is that Arriva start running on Sunday 3rd April but Go-Coach appear to have stopped running on Friday 1st April, so is the route being covered by someone else today (Saturday 3rd April) or is it just not running? Bustimes seems to think it’s not running. I hope the Amazon workers are aware of that…
(And if you want another example of utterly useless websites, try the official Fastrack site. It’s pretty much not been updated since before the pandemic, apart from a bit of puff about applying for government funding).
The current Metro plans are in my opinion a personal vanity project for The Mayor the fact I disagree with Mr Street on the value of West Midlands Metro & aspects of his polices on the bus network to the West Midlands County doesn’t alter my admiration and support to him. In Birmingham we welcome different opinions and sometimes individuals don’t agree on policy. Perhaps you are mistaking Birmingham for Moscow where individuals it would appear are not allowed to criticise thier leaders?