London bus riding: routes 123 & 321 (part 2)

Thursday 13th October 2022

I’m back palindrome bus riding again to finish off comparing TfL’s routes 123 and 321 and regaling you about my recent journey from New Cross Gate Sainsbury’s down to Foots Cray Tesco having run out of energy to tell you about it after the marathon ride from Ilford to Wood Green.

As said in that post, whereas route 123 follows a north London orbital trajectory, its palindrome partner is much more of a traditional south east heading spoke affair as well as linking a Sainsbury’s and Tesco in a unique supermarket termini double.

Route 321’s antecedent back story lies in an even longer route – the 21 commencing in 1934 between Turnpike Lane all the way to Farningham, as bus routes did in those days. By the 1950s it forwent the pleasure of north London starting its Farningham foray in the City at Moorgate before getting cut back at its southern end at Sidcup in 1968. Radical surgery came in November 1997 when the 21 was severed south of Lewisham and the section of route from New Cross Gate to Foots Cray was hived off into the newly born 321. So a very happy 25th anniversary for next month.

The route has been in the capable hands of Go-Ahead London for all its 25 years existence and is currently run with 17 ten to twelve year old Wright Gemini double deck buses from London Central’s long established New Cross garage, although when first introduced and for the first five years the company’s outpost bus garage at Bexleyheath was the mainstay of the route.

The route is ten miles long and, like the 123, runs to a ten minute frequency but unlike that route, seems to be more even in its headway performance, although I did spot three buses heading in tandem towards New Cross at one point on my southbound journey.

The route is characterised by four sections with most passengers travelling to and from the main commercial and retail centres in Lewisham, Eltham and Sidcup.

I arrived at New Cross Gate station just after 11:00 and wandered over to the entrance to the adjacent Sainsbury’s to wait for the 11:11 departure.

I noticed the bus at the front of the line of three buses laying over on the other side of the car park – one on route P13 which also starts its journey here – and two on the 321, so at least that was a better start than at Ilford.

At 11:10 a bus on each route pulled round and I was the only passenger boarding the 321.

We drove around the car park and out on to the A2, New Cross Road, where we picked up our first two passengers who were travelling to Lewisham.

They’re well served to Lewisham from that stop with 25 buses an hour on routes 21, 136 and 436 as well as our 321. So it wasn’t surprising on the first section of route, taking the A20 between New Cross Gate and Lewisham, we stopped at seven of the nine bus stops but only picked up one or two with 10 boarding in total and I reckon almost all alighted in Lewisham.

My apologies that some of the following illustrative photographs of the journey suffer from sun glare and reflections – as you can see from the sky, it was a beautiful sunny day which was very welcome too for the middle of October.

We passed by Lewisham College, a good source of passengers and then it was over the railway line that heads over to Nunhead and Peckham and connects with the main line from London Bridge just past St John’s station.

As we headed on towards Lewisham along Lewisham Way taking advantage of the bus lane albeit with no traffic holding us up….

…. the most strangest of things came into view.

Approaching the bus stop by Undercliff Road I spotted something dark in the road the other side of the bus stop. As we got nearer, it became obvious it was a man lying down…

… but it wasn’t immediately obvious what he was about.

Was he a lone protest offshoot from Extinction Rebellion or some other protest cause?

Of more concern, was he attempting suicide? He was certainly attracting attention from passers by, perhaps nullifying that intent. In the event, our driver was having none of it, gave a blast on the bus horn and drove over to the offside of the road to drive round him, and that was that.

It was then on to the metropolis of Lewisham where the skyline has been transformed over the last few years with flats springing up all around the retail and station area.

Having emptied out we picked up ten fresh passengers from the main two stops in Lewisham town centre, the second of which at Belmont Hill despite being overlooked by hundreds of flats, is very much shutter down retail land as most small shops and eateries didn’t seem to be trading as we continued our way south along the A20. Maybe they come to life in the evenings.

More bus lane tarmac appeared, and this time helping us to keep up progress….

…. and it was just after this corner at Lee Green I noticed the trio of buses together heading towards New Cross Gate….

…. and inevitably the third bus in the pack was pretty much empty.

We’re now on the second section of route heading south along the A20 Lee High Road and there’s a distinct change of outlook with more trees and green spaces.

After Lewisham Belmont Hill there are 16 stops until we reach Eltham High Street. We stopped at nine of them to pick up either one, two or three passengers – 20 in total – as well as stopping at four stops where passengers alighted but no-one boarded with just three stops passed by without stopping.

We leave the A20 as it heads south eastwards to head off towards Sidcup at the busy road junction by the Sutcluffe Park Sports Centre …

…. which looks like a nice facility for all ages….

…. and we continue heading in an easterly direction along Eltham Hill towards Eltham.

It’s getting even more pleasant as we arrive in true suburbia …

… and the bus routes joining us, far from heading to places in the City, are now localised lettered prefixed suburban run arounds, making us feel very important as a route renowned for its New Cross based buses.

Eltham Church comes into view …

…. and we’re soon into the High Street where the majority of our passengers alight for their late morning retail therapy.

I know TfL run on headway, rather than timetabled times, but I note the timetable for my journey shows us due at Eltham High Street at 1151, but it’s now 11:47 indicating how smoothly the journey has gone so far.

We pick another shoal of ten passengers up at the two bus stops in Eltham’s commercial centre and head on towards Sidcup on our third section of route.

As we leave Eltham we change direction from pointing eastwards to south-eastwards by heading along Footscray Road. The traffic lights at this junction seemed to have strange priorities though, as no sooner had the lights turned green, they turned back red again catching us at the head of the queue for the next green phase.

I’d noticed one or two non Gemini bodied buses on the route as we had continued towards Foots Cray and here was another one – a six year old MCV EvoSeti bodied Volvo. Just for the bus type fans among blog readers.

It was then over more railway tracks as we passed by New Eltham station….

… and then where Footscray Road renames itself Main Road we ironically kiss the real main road, the dual carriageway A20, which is much upgraded as it heads towards and becomes what used to be called “the Sidcup by-pass”.

On this third section of route we picked up just six passengers between Eltham and Sidcup at just three of the 14 bus stops; we stopped at three to let passengers off but passed by the other eight confirming this is the much quieter end of the route.

The retail and eatery establishments have come a long way from the shuttered Bental Oriental and Japanese Cuisine we expereinced in Lewisham.

Never mind shutters, there’s sun blinds and al-fresco dining at Limoncello as we edge closer to Sidcup.

A short delay while we squeezed through the gap thoughtfully left by a refuse lorry and car transporter…

…. and we find ourselves in a fairly quiet looking Sidcup High Street.

It’s now 11:53 and the timetable would have us here at 12:00 with most passengers on the bus once again alighting as we embark upon our fourth and final foray to Foots Cray.

No-one boarded at Sidcup which made me wonder how close we were to the bus in front which was due to leave just three minutes before us, if it was abiding by timetable time.

After a short run down Sidcup Hill we turn right ….

… into Cray Road which brings us to the roundabout where the A20 flies over the A224 to Orpington…

… but we head east along the A223 Edgington Way towards Tesco.

There are just six bus stops between Sidcup and the terminus at Tesco. We stopped at four of them, pickling up just one passenger at two and dropping others off at the other two.

Three passengers were on board as we turned right into the grounds of the large supermarket as the 12:00 departure was just leaving for the run back to New Cross Gate.

It was 12:01 – we’d enjoyed a no hold-up 50 minute ride from New Cross Gate not needing the allowance of 58 minutes as we were due in at 12:09. 60 passengers had been on board at some point during those 50 minutes and our driver was now off to enjoy a 19 minute break in the supermarket until 12:20 when he’d head back north westwards.

Tesco don’t go in for luxuries at its bus shelters. The only thing that differentiates them from trolley shelters is the American style school bus imagery on the sign.

No information for bus passengers about bus times and departures, and nowhere obvious for shoppers using buses to leave their trolleys. Still, there was a TfL style toilet kiosk for bus drivers to save them having to walk over to the supermarket to use the one there, as well as when the store is closed.

Every little helps.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS

18 thoughts on “London bus riding: routes 123 & 321 (part 2)

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  1. The 321 is not unique in having both terminal points Ar supermarkets. The H28 links the Tesco stores at Osterley and Bulls Bridge

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  2. Another interesting ride and use the Tfl Bus route to follow your progress to enable me to visulise where you are physically going. Thank you again.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. An interesting point is should out of town stores have to pay towards providing a bus service to them?

    These stores are quite happy to cover the cost of providing Free car parking so currently it is not a level playing field

    Maybe a modest levy on each parking place that is provided. Say £1 a day. That would raise about £250,000 a year

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    1. Out of town stores are kind of subsidising buses in a way when they provide free bus stands and decent driver facilities. This should never be underestimated

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  4. I do (sometimes) get why TfL run their bus routes without short workings . . . so that when it goes belly-up, curtailments for traffic delays mean that the extremities still get some sort of service. However, when some journeys (such as Roger’s) run a third of the route nearly empty . . . can the finances stand the additional cost?
    If the running time was so excessive, how did three buses bunch? Was one already curtailed? If not, then it should’ve been!! Or was the stand time at New Cross so high that a bus running c20 minutes late could still depart on time??

    Both route blogs do demonstrate the challenges of running bus services in London . . . glad I’m not doing it any more . . .

    And I still think Route 321 starts at Luton . . . !!

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    1. Maybe that route would be better having some short journeys. One end of the route seems to have far fewer passengers

      A 19 minute break at one end sound excessive that’s about 40% of the scheduled time of the journey

      Quite why 3 buses were bunched together at midday seems to be another mystery

      It does seem at least according to the timetable that traffic conditions are highly variably as the journey time ranges from 34 minutes to 74 minutes

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  5. In your photo, Roger, of the 321 going over the railway between Lewisham and Nunhead, I believe you have captured part of the former Lewisham Road station which was first closed in 1917, then reopened and finally closed in 1935.

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  6. On a historical note, the 21 actually commenced at Wood Green, rather than Turnpike Lane, in far off days, and was projected beyond Farningham to the Brands Hatch racing circuit on appropriate days after the war to the 1960s. The inflexibility of TfL would never allow that these days!

    For a considerable time in the 1980s, and as “Commuter” KCC funded replacement for the 719 Green Line, a 21 ran light each morning from New Cross garage to commence an almost two hour long 21 journey from West Kingsdown in deepest Kent to Moorgate each Monday-Friday morning. Quite an ordeal for the then conventional fare paying arrangements on One-Man buses. Probably the longest journey a red London bus had ever regularly performed. Interestingly, “West Kingsdown” was never needed on the blinds, as there was no return working.

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    1. Sorry to disapppoint you but at 26.5 miles that 21 doesn’t come close to the longest regular route if we’re allowed to count Night Buses.
      London Central ran an NX1 from Victoria to Gillingham from Oct 1990 (36 miles). In various permutations (later as the N80/N82) it seems to have run for over a decade.
      There was also a shorter lived N60 which I believe ran from Victoria to St Albans via Watford which I make 29.3 miles.
      If a blog post I found by Brian Creasey is correct, amazingly there was actually some through running between these routes.

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      1. Probably the longest route was the 84. Walthamstow to St Albans

        If you count Greenlines the 715 Hertford to Guilford must be a contender

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  7. Very interesting. I lived on the route in Lewisham in the 1980s when it was still the 21 although in later years that ran in sections, Moorgate to Eltham and Lewisham to Sidcup. It wasn’t particularly busy outside the peaks and mid morning is a relatively quiet time. Like many suburban routes in London I expect the current 321 frequency is largely dictated by school flows. I don’t think short workings would be helpful in this case as the quieter Sidcup end would suffer long gaps when buses are delayed, cancelled or turned short because the garage is at New Cross and that end is busier. With the current service one bus missing only leads to a 20 minute gap.

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  8. Hmm. I do wonder if sensible economies could be made. How about cutting out the New Cross – Lewisham leg given the number of alternatives on offer and reducing off-peak frequency to x12 minutes.

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  9. No, I am not disappointed, as I was fully aware of some longer night services, particularly the Gillingham service which actually ran into my road (at the time) in Gillingham. I was referring to “ordinary” daytime services in recent times although not making that clear.

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  10. Thank you for another interesting blog, touching on the area of London where I lived until 1998.

    I would never have guessed that shelter at the Foots Cray terminus was the place to wait unless I’d actually seen a bus standing there!

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  11. Perhaps TfL could make much better use of IT to regulate the bus services rather than relying on manual regulation of them

    Nowadays they no. where every bus is on a route and when the drivers are due to take a break and the speed at which a bus is progressing

    Where manual intervention is needed is when unexpected incident take place such as accidents. police incidents etc. More flexibility on where drivers take a break would also help particularly on long routes like the 123

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