Tuesday 31st May 2022
TfL are set to announce further major cuts to its central London bus network today with speculation mounting they’ll include the withdrawal of some iconic routes including low numbered jewels 11, 12, 14, 16 and 24. Of course these may just be scurrilous rumours as the Mayor and TfL negotiate future funding with the Department for Transport with the current ‘temporary’ deal running out in just over three weeks time on 24th June. My guess on that is there’ll be yet another eleventh hour roll over to buy more time, particularly to assess how the recently opened Elizabeth line is impacting finances. But that doesn’t mean central London’s bus routes are safe. Far from it.
As my London Bus Cuts Tracker page shows, London’s bus passengers have been suffering a steady drip drip reduction in frequencies over the last couple of years such that the number of buses required to run the capital’s network at the end of 2016 at 8,145 had reduced by around 300 buses by the end of 2018 (to 7,850 buses) and since then has reduced by roughly another 350 buses to around 7,500 representing a cut of 8% during this time.
This reduction is nowhere near enough to turn the finances around and further reductions in central London bus routes are needed to ensure the unsustainable financial losses are stemmed by reducing the miles operated.
If the speculation on the list of routes to be withdrawn is correct, with others being talked about including routes 4, 31 and 74, it will lead to howls of protest to see such beloved routes fall off the metaphorical bus map (not that there is a bus map, of course), as happened when route 13 was proposed for withdrawal in 2017 resulting in a huge public campaign to retain it. In the event, it was withdrawn but in a sleight of hand TfL renumbered parallel route 82 to become route 13 thus pretending it hadn’t been withdrawn after all, but the 82 had (it hadn’t).
The same trick could be pulled again as it’s almost certain some of the routes speculated for withdrawal will see other parallel running routes extended to cover isolated sections of the withdrawn routes – eg the section of route 24 between Victoria and Pimlico would otherwise be left without a bus. The idea of withdrawing complete routes enables frequency reductions to be achieved along formerly busy corridors where other routes parallel these long established icons. But the problem for TfL is they need to go through the rigmarole of a full public consultation process if a whole route and its route number disappears whereas the drip drip cuts over the last couple of years haven’t had to be scrutinised as they’ve been just frequency reductions rather than route withdrawals.
The full consultation works had to be used for the proposed withdrawal a few months ago of route 271 between Moorgate and Highgate Village even though the only small isolated section of route will be covered by a diversion of route 21 to Holloway as explained in a previous post. A similar situation arose with route 168 (and route 1). Neither of these proposals have yet been implemented and no dates have been announced.
As we know, once TfL’s public consultation process is invoked it can take years to bring anything to fruition. Take the changes proposed for bus routes in the Croydon and Sutton area for example. These were consulted on between October and December in 2020. A report on the responses received was published in September 2021 yet the majority of the changes have still not been introduced and I did hear may not be implemented before 2024 due to contractual implications with the bus operators running the routes for TfL. Such are the delights of franchising. Never mind whether some of the changes might be beneficial for passengers; it could be four years to wait.
This isn’t the first time route 11 has featured as a possible candidate for the chop. Back in 2018 TfL consulted on proposals to partly replace it between Fulham Broadway and Victoria with a new route 311 running from Fulham to Oxford Circus which would also have seen changes to routes 19 and 22. In the event this change didn’t proceed. Route 11 gained a reprieve, but has its time finally come?
It’s against this background I took a ride on London’s two highest profile routes yesterday to see whether the withdrawal speculation is well founded by taking a check on how many people are travelling and how feasible it would be to withdraw or partly replace them and make savings.
First up on my itinerary was route 11, perhaps the most famous London bus route of all. It’s often regarded as a tourist bus route linking the City from its Liverpool Street terminus then taking in Bank, St Paul’s Cathedral, Fleet Street, Aldwych, The Strand, Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, Westminster, Victoria and Chelsea to Fulham. A real feast of tourist vistas for just a £1.65 bus fare.
Route 11 takes 18 buses to provide a 12 minute frequency at a tortuously slow average speed of around 5 mph along the seven miles from Liverpool Street to Fulham.
And as I found on my sample journey yesterday morning, the 10:18 from Liverpool Street, it’s the interminable traffic lights that kill any perception you’re making progress as well as the snail like speed when actually moving. I doubt we ever got out of second gear (if the bus still had ‘gears’). I timed every occasion we spent waiting at traffic lights and other obstructions throughout the 75 minute end to end journey (it’s actually scheduled for an even slower 92 minutes). Total traffic light stops came to 22 minutes and 54 seconds. That’s pretty much thirty per cent of the actual journey time spent stationary, and that’s not including time spent at bus stops.
There weren’t many out of the ordinary delays either – only an awkwardly parked white van in Threadneedle Street (which our driver gingerly crept by) ….
…. and some temporary traffic lights in Chelsea which didn’t cause too much of a delay.
We stopped at about 25 bus stops on the journey and picked up 54 passengers in total with around a dozen on board at any one time – which by observations of buses passing in the other direction was probably busier than the average occupancy.
The busiest section of route was between Liverpool Street and Trafalgar Square helped by a couple of family groups of five people each doing the sightseeing touristy bit. Numbers dropped off between Chelsea and the terminus at Fulham with only three left on board when we arrived at the Town Hall terminus bus stop.
The big downer came as we turned the corner at Victoria station into Buckingham Palace Road and on came the pre-recorded message on the PA and visual display “the final destination of this bus has changed. Please listen for more details”.
That was odd, I thought, as although we’d been making slow progress we were well in line with the schedule, in fact by my reckoning we were well ahead of it, at least 12 minutes early, such is the generous running time on the route. As we approached Victoria Coach Station the driver made another announcement with the promised “details” telling us “this bus will terminate at the next stop” but more positively added “please board the bus in front”.
Which was a relief as that bus was waiting for us and the eight of us on board made a quick transition and it only caused us a two minute delay.
No explanation was given of why our bus was being “terminated” and it was strange we’d caught up the bus in front having travelled so slowly. I knew it was the bus in front as I’d seen it leave Liverpool Street 12 minutes before us.
I’m now left wondering if this is a way of keeping buses to time if the excessive running time is not needed if the roads aren’t to their usual grid locked standard. Hold buses at a point mid route for the bus behind to catch up and transfer its passengers while it, in turn waits for the bus behind – is this a thing on route 11?
The other downer, which could well be one of the many reasons why numbers of passengers on route 11 are not what they once were, is the incorrect and misleading information on display at Liverpool Street Station bus station.
I highlighted in a recent blog the disgraceful out of date (over eight years) ‘where to catch your bus’ poster at Liverpool Street bus station.
This tells you route 11 to Fulham Broadway leaves from that point (stop C) ….
… and stop R in Old Broad Street.
It doesn’t, and hasn’t done since 2019 when it swapped places with route 344.
Route 11 now picks up in Bishopsgate at Primrose Street, the other side of the station. At least the bus stop flag there has been updated with a number 11 plate …
…. but unsurprisingly the timetable case below still shows route 344 departing (it doesn’t) and no reference to route 11 (it does). I suppose on the plus side the graffiti and general dirt on the plastic cover obscures the out of date reference to route 344.
The other case showed a smarter looking diagram for other routes using the stop, but still no reference to route 11, and out of date information about buses on diversion.
On a positive note I did find an updated spider map from 2019 correectly showing route 11 departing from Bishopsgate (Stops J, L and Y) ….
…. but this was displayed in an isolated disused bus shelter on the northbound side of Bishopsgate, not at the southbound bus stop in use.
What a shambolic way to run a bus network.
Two and a half years on and incorrect information still on display at a busy central London terminal point, while correct information is displayed in a shelter no longer in use.
And take a closer look at that smart bus in heritage livery at the Fulham terminus shown earlier. The advert on the side is for a car hire/sharing website called Turo. ‘Don’t travel by bus … use a car instead’. What an own goal.
No wonder passengers are deserting central London’s buses. And now more buses are set to be deserting the remaining passengers still travelling.
Is it feasible to withdraw route 11? What might TfL be proposing to replace it with? Based on my travelling experience I would suggest it could be culled in its entirety without any replacement at all. Route 26 parallels it from Liverpool Street as far as Aldwych from where many routes continue along The Strand to Trafalgar Square from where route 24 parallels the 11 to Victoria and route 211 from there to Chelsea and then routes 22 and finally the 28 and two other routes to Fulham. From my observations yesterday morning, buses on all these routes have sufficient capacity to absorb the numbers of passengers using route 11. No road is exclusively served by route 11 so with the hopper fare, it can be argued there’ll be no problem for alternative travel options as has also been done in previous route withdrawals. I doubt many passenger journeys overlap some of the interchange points I’ve listed, except perhaps Trafalgar Square.
However, if the speculation about route 24 also facing the chop is true that’ll blow a hole in the alternative for route 11 down Whitehall beyond Trafalgar Square anyway.
So I also took a ride on route 24 yesterday lunch time between Pimlico and Hampstead Heath to see if that route could similarly be culled. And no, I don’t think it could without some replacements but I reckon a couple of judicious extensions of two other routes would sort that.
Route 27 parallels the 24 northwards from Warren Street to its terminus at Chalk Farm so could easily extend from there on to Hampstead Heath instead of the 24 and route 29 could be extended southwards from its Trafalgar Square terminus to Pimlico. If you wanted to be generous to any cross Trafalgar Square passengers you could extend route 15 (which also parallels route 11 from Mansion House) from its terminus at Trafalgar Square to say, Victoria.
The only complication with this plan is route 29 runs more frequently than the 24 and would provide too much capacity but this is easily resolved by TfL finally being realistic and ceasing its restrictive operating practice of insisting all routes run from end to end. If so, it could extend every other journey on route 29 beyond Trafalgar Square to Pimlico and the problem of over capacity is solved. Alternatively forget route 29 and extend route 15 all the way on to Pimlico, albeit that would then leave any passengers on the 24 crossing Trafalgar Square without a through bus but the old hopper fare is always the answer to such conundrums even if passengers don’t like having to change buses.
Route 24 like the 11 is also seven miles long but it runs more frequently and achieves a higher average speed. It takes 16 buses to run the timetable.
I caught the 12:50 from Pimlico’s Grosvenor Road. It left with two on board and during the 65 minute journey to Hampstead Heath we picked up 82 passengers at 26 bus stops. As well as being busier than route 11 it really was noticeably quicker with only 15 and a quarter minutes spent at traffic lights throughout the journey (that’s 23% of the journey time instead of 30%} with the biggest delays at Parliament Square (six minutes) and Trafalgar Square (four minutes). If you could eliminate those delays it really would be going places.
The most popular bus stop was at the bottom end of Whitehall with 12 boarding – probably influenced by a rain shower commencing just at that moment. Ten passengers boarded at Camden Town making it the next busiest stop. The section of route between Tottenham Court Road and Camden Town was the quietest; this is also covered by route 29 and the Northern line.
Seven passengers alighted at the terminus at Hampstead Heath.
Route 24 runs every 10 minutes during the day and every eight minutes in the morning peak. Unfortunately you won’t know that from the useless bus stop information at the Hampstead Heath terminus….
… because there isn’t any.
But at least there’s a spider map in the bus shelter.
You could squeeze out half or dozen or more buses by my suggested 24/27/29/(or 15) plan but it will be heresy for traditionalists as route 24 is the longest unaltered London bus route (except for one-way road systems) having continuously linked Hampstead Heath with Pimlico for over 90 years.
But nostalgia doesn’t fund TfL’s burgeoning deficit. In the absence of any coherent plans to encourage passenger growth (bus maps and displaying updated and correct information would be a start) the only alternative is to continue London’s downward spiral of frequency cuts and route withdrawals reflecting declining passenger numbers which in turn will lead to further frequency reductions, reduced passenger numbers and more frequency cuts. And so it will go on.
By the time you read this, TfL’s promised consultation is likely to have been published today and you’ll know the extent of the proposed cuts, rather than my speculation.
I hope Metro Mayors wanting “London style buses” in their fiefdoms are taking note.
And by the way, that £1.65 fare is unsustainable.
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