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.