London bus riding: routes 123 & 321 (part 1)

Tuesday 11th October 2022

Welcome to an occasional series of London bus rides on palindrome route numbers. And first up for consecutive number lovers are routes 123 and 321.

I’m delighted to kick off with a ride on the 123 for two reasons. Firstly this year marks 50 years since I began my bus conducting spells on the route, albeit on a section long since withdrawn in favour of another route – ie between Turnpike Lane and Enfield, now the preserve of route 329. Back in 1972 route 123 ran its long Enfield to Ilford foray strictly in sections on Mondays to Fridays with Palmers Green bus garage crews (where I was based) never venturing east of Turnpike Lane.

The second reason is the route plying its way between Wood Green and Ilford is one of London’s few orbital bus routes providing strategic links between key communities in north east London – including Tottenham, Walthamstow, South Woodford and Gants Hill – along the way. But it has a reputation for unreliability and not always being blessed with the most modern buses in the fleet. Somehow route 123 feels unloved which it definitely doesn’t deserve.

By contrast its palindrome partner, the 321, is more of a ‘spoke’ route running almost in a straight line in south east London from New Cross via Lewisham, Eltham and Sidcup to terminate in Foots Cray.

Back to route 123. It’s 12 miles long and run with 20 buses by Arriva from its garage in Tottenham, currently using nine year old Wright Gemini double deck buses. Daytime frequency is every 10 minutes.

I decided to begin my journey at Ilford and head west so after admiring the recently opened new step free and enlarged entrance to the Elizabeth Line station in the town …

… I ignored the bus stop right outside and walked through the pedestrianised section of High Street to reach the very first stop in Hainault Road.

Before joining the disorderly queue at this busy stop I wandered through to Ilford’s nearby layover point but was somewhat surprised not to find a bus showing 123 in the line up.

On consulting the real times website it was quickly evident there weren’t many buses at the Ilford end of the route with two just south of Gants Hill – one heading towards Ilford and one towards Wood Green. Not a very encouraging start.

The real time sign at Stop W at 10:48 was ominously showing only one 123 departure due in 14 minutes, and that was the tenth and last entry.

That would make it departing at 11:02. The working timetable shows departures at 10:43, 10:53, 11:03 and 11:13. I’m pretty sure the 10:43 didn’t run and the 10:53 and 11:03 definitely didn’t.

At 10:48 a bus appeared from Wood Green and headed off to the layover point. It eventually came back at 11:12 (still displaying Ilford on the blind as it pulled up) …

…. and 14 of us boarded having waited for almost half an hour and the driver changed the blind for Wood Green.

That meant there was almost a 40 minute gap ahead of us between Ilford and Gants Hill. I’d been monitoring departures from Gants Hill on the real times website and noticed controllers were obviously turning buses there leaving poor Ilford devoid of 123s.

Not surprisingly it was a very busy journey not only to Gants Hill but also after that and we soon had a full seated load and I’m sure many were standing on the lower deck.

Here are some highlights of the journey to wet your appetite for a 123 bus ride, provided you’re happy to endure a long wait before a bus appears and have a penchant for dual carriageways, flyovers, cycle lanes and a reservoir and canal or two …..

We were exceptionally busy for the first 15 minutes as far as Gants Hill roundabout
After Gants Hill it’s a spirited run along Woodford Avenue to….
… the rather nicely named Charlie Brown’s Roundabout where the M11 ends….
… and meets ŵthe A406 North Circular Road, which we join…..
… by initially passing under it as it comes up from the A13 near Barking
Shortly after that the Central Line passes over the A406….
… as it morphs into a five lane dual carriageway in readiness for the Woodford New Road A104 roundabout….
… with a bus stop to enjoy the view of the traffic passing by.
After turning left and then right off the North Circular at that roundabout, the bus heads due west along Forest Road which has had a cycle lane installed right through to Tottenham Hale.
The Civic Centre for the London Borough of Waltham Forest is passed on the right.
(Google’s camera car captured a better image)
Reliability of service was still a problem leading to this short working to Charlie Brown’s Roundabout
Further along Forest Road and the cycle lane passes in front of waiting passengers at a bus shelter
Route 123 is joined by local route W11 along Forest Road for a short stretch before….
… it reaches Blackhorse Road station …..
…. where a covered secure enclosed cycle store is under construction…..
… before paralleling the Barking Riverside to Gospel Oak railway line ….
…. as a pair of skateboarder and electric scooter riders take advantage of the cycle lane….
… with Lockwood Reservoir on the right….
…as we pass over the River Lea….
… and turn right into Tottenham Hale bus station adjacent to the station….
…. where more construction looks as though it’s about to begin.
It seems incredible to think that Monument Way used to be part of a large one-way system, which takes us to …
… Tottenham High Road where….
… we had a driver change from the nearby bus garage. Luckily it only caused a two minute delay.
Tottenham Police Station looked still in business but its front entrance was all boarded up.
Difficult to tell what station we passed next as we turned left into a road called Bruce Grove …
… which is actually the A10.
We follow Lordship Lane until turning left into Westbury Avenue ….
…. passing over the course of the old Palace Gates railway line…
…. before joining the queue of traffic for Turnpike Lane.
It took three changes of traffic lights before we could turn right into Wood Green High Road.
For as long as I can remember (about 60 or so years) Wood Green High Road has been congested.
And still is today continuing past ‘The Mall’
Until the final bus stop is reached just south of Wood Green Underground Station.

We hit the traffic queue for Turnpike Lane at 12:23 and arrived at the final bus stop in Wood Green High Road at 12:35. The scheduled time is six minutes for that journey. Our scheduled arrival should have been at 12:26.

In the Ilford direction, seven minutes is allowed between Wood Green and Turnpike Lane but buses have to dog leg through Turnpike Lane bus station which on the day of my journey was very congested …

…. causing delays for buses trying to exit.

Most times only two buses could leave in the 15 seconds of green time in every 90 second cycle causing a backlog meaning around a five minute delay for some buses.

I hadn’t seen anything else that would have caused the unreliability experienced earlier and I would suggest TfL remove the 123 from having to use the bus station and instead arrange for buses to simply turn left from High Road into Westbury Avenue. It would save valuable running time and importantly keep the service on better headways.

Buses on route 123 have to continue south from High Road past this junction and encircle the bus station further down on the left and then back into High Road heading north to turn right … whereas it would be simpler ti just make a left turn.

And that’s route 123.

I hope you enjoyed the ride but it’s taken much longer than I envisaged to tell you about so if, like me, you’re exhausted after all that and don’t fancy a New Cross to Foots Cray journey on the 321 just yet …. I’ll leave recounting that experience for another day and another blog.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS

21 thoughts on “London bus riding: routes 123 & 321 (part 1)

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  1. Wood Green High Road is always congested. A logical question is why does it go to Wood Green. To me it would be more sensible to terminate it at Turnpike Lane. I can see no reason for it to need to go to Wood Green. Cutting that section out would improve the reliability of the route. It might slightly inconvenience a few people that wanted to get to Wood Green but I cannot imagine that will be many and in any case there are frequent buses from the bus station to Wood Green

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  2. Looks like London Transport are into this am/pm nonsense has anyone told them that Sir Jacob Rees Smogg doesn’t catch buses!

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    1. They are parked on a raised area inside the running lane with the footway protected by bollards. Are you allowed to park on the highway inside of double red lines? That would be a contravention of double yellows as these cover the whole highway i.e. carriageway and footway.

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  3. What’s the point of having a cycle lane when cyclists would rather use the car lane (or, as is often the case, the pavement)?

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    1. Depends on what type of cyclist you are. Cycle infrastructure is often just tacked onto existing roads/paths, is poorly designed (riding across drains or with bits of street furniture in the way), and poorly maintained.

      That’s ok if you’re trundling along on your Halfords special, chunky mountain bike with fat tyres, with the kids, then having that level of infrastructure is fine.

      If you’re a serious road cyclist (as the guy in the photo looks) and you have a £5k bike with £1k wheels (yeah, seriously) then you’re not going to risk getting it wrecked on substandard cycle lanes.

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  4. A lovely blog – thanks for all the great photos, too!

    I spent a happy half-hour on Google Maps comparing the time taken to get across NE London on the 123 and by car; the bus is surprisingly close to the car on many sections of the route. Of course – that presumes it runs to schedule; your experience was really quite shocking – never (in my experience) have I had to wait half an hour for a tube-train; perhaps the people at TfL who run the tube lines should be seconded to run the buses for a week, and see what is so wrong with the system … or is it just money?

    By the way, I was surprised to learn that (per Google Maps) the Elizabeth Line calls at Newbury Park station!

    In my opinion, the 123 needs (a) to run more frequently – min 8 per hour; (b) better signage at interchanges (virtually all bus stops at stations; need this); (c) to be included, with other important orbital routes, on the tube map; and (d) – from reading this blog, more care and attention to the passenger experience

    It’s a shame that the 123 has no good link with Walthamstow Central station (though – from the west – you can change at Blackhorse Road; it also has no interchange with the Epping branch of the Central Line at South Woodford.

    Probably the best solution in Walthamstow would be a new station on the Overground to Chingford, where that crosses Forest Road. It doesn’t seem to be easy to get a bus from Central station to the 123’s route. South Woodford … perhaps some other blog-reader has a suggestion!

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    1. The 123 is already a high frequency route for outer London I cannot see a need to make it every 8 minutes

      The 123 cannot connect with every station on every line.

      If you wanted to get to Wood Green from Wathamstow it would probbly be quicker to take the Victoria line to Finsbury Park and then the Picadilly line to Wood Green

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      1. Yeah, it’s not as simple as looking at google maps then saying why not divert a route to serve every station on the route.

        Diverting the 123 to connect with every station on route would increase the journey time, it’s already timed to take 73 minutes up to [90 minutes in the peaks] end to end

        123 could be diverted to Turnpike Lane to avoid the congestion on High Road, or continue the full length down Lordship Lane to Wood Green & not serve High Road & Westbury Avenue

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  5. Similar issues on the 270 since Abellio took it over from GoAhead. The entire service is sometimes turned at Wandsworth, leaving the 220 the carry the whole load between there and Putney.

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    1. That just seem to be poor control of the route although I suspect the habit of operating a long route from a single garage also comes into it as they have to get the drivers in the right place for meal reliefs

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  6. And I was so looking forward to the 321. Very distant memories of ancient buses on the 21 passing the end of Bercta Road, New Eltham in 1944. LTs?
    I’m happy to wait.

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  7. The disused railway in Westbury Av is the Palace Gates branch, not Alexandra Palace. It’ll soon have been closed 60 yrs ago.
    And constructing a new station on the the Chingford Line to connect with the 123, only 35 sec journey from Wood Street station? Pull the other one!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The traffic snarls around Bruce Grove and from Turnpike up to Wood Green can be a lot worse than you experienced on your trip. I’ve spent so long sitting in traffic on the A10 stretch going east I could have written a couple of novels by the time you finally limp around the traffic lights into the High Road. It’s gotten so bad in recent months I walk from Broadwater to Seven Sisters and use the Vic Line to get to Walthamstow now and I don’t think I’ve ever lost any time compared to the 123 or W4 on any given day. Hence uneven service levels by the time you get past Walthamstow, and the patchy attempts to “regulate” from Ilford. A 30 Min+ wait at a terminus shouldn’t ever be acceptable but sadly I’m sure it’s not unusual.

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  9. A quick look on the excellent headway tracker site at https://plumby.io/headway/ reveals that there were no 123s between Valentines Park and Waltham Forest Town Hall heading towards Wood Green. 1625 is a terrible time of the day for bus operations but as the site suggests all buses are running the full route with no curtailments then could management of the service be a little more proactive? I wonder if tender penalties are a factor in sticking with this end to end no matter what operation?

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  10. The cycle lane passing the bus stop is so badly shown on the pavement, surely it would be better to paint them in a bright colour so they can be seen. Anyone getting off a bus could easily be knocked down by the idiot cyclists who would make no effort to slow down or stop even if they saw a bus. Re the cyclist not using the bike lane, maybe he should just slow down so he can use the lane provided for him without danaging his stupidly expensive bike.

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