More highs and lows in Harlow

Saturday 15th April 2023

Aside from DRT another topic that often comes up in these blogs is the state of bus provision in Harlow.

In November 2021 I wrote about a positive outlook for the future highlighting the Borough Council’s plans to completely rebuild the bus station. That can’t come soon enough for the long suffering bus passengers of the Essex town.

Today marks another milestone in the highs and lows of Harlow’s bus services as Arriva introduce further cut backs to its diminishing town network as well as some links to surrounding areas.

New timetables from tomorrow and Monday see frequency cuts to a number of town routes (half hourly routes 6 and 8 reduced to hourly and a Saturday reduction on circular routes 2/3, each from every 20 to every 30 minutes) and, more radically, the complete withdrawal of route 9 to Potter Street. The company is also throwing in the towel on route 86 from Harlow via Bumble’s Green, Little Nazeing and Waltham Abbey to Waltham Cross which fortunately for passengers using it is being picked up by the enterprising and expansionist Vectare company.

I took a ride on both the 9 and 86 yesterday to see what Arriva are giving up and in the latter case, what Vectare are inheriting.

Branding for routes 508/509/510 but never mind.

The 9 runs every 20 minutes with a round trip time of 35 minutes. Arriva are therefore saving two buses by knocking the service off after today, except yesterday only one bus was operating resulting in every other journey being cancelled, so halfway to withdrawal already.

Not realising that missing bus when I first arrived explains why I was a bit surprised to find as many as 12 other passengers boarding the 12:56 departure from the bus station with me.

Interestingly all 12 alighted at four bus stops on those sections of route which will be left unserved from tomorrow as Essex County Council (ECC) has decided not to replace the withdrawn service as “passengers have access to other services”.

Screenshot from Essex County Council’s Bus Passenger News for Mach 2023

This depends how far it’s reasonable to expect people to walk to access those “other services”.

A bus map of Harlow’s bus network on ECC’s website (horray) shows the sections of route 9 that’ll be left bus-less which I’ve highlighted below.

Route 10 only serves London Road (top right) for a school journey but there aren’t many houses on this section of route.

Some passengers alighting in Tumbler Road (bottom left) have up to 720 yards to walk to the nearest bus stop served by routes 420/A in Southern Way.

On the return journey we picked up just four passengers all boarding in the Tumbler Road area who travelled to the bus station.

I can see Arriva isn’t making any money from route 9 in its current form but I’m a bit surprised it’s going from 20 minutely to nothing at all, bearing in mind half hourly routes 6 and 8 are stepped down to hourly and the numbers I saw travelling on those routes was pitifully low.

Passengers using the about to be withdrawn route 86 are much more fortunate. All they’ve got to contend with is remembering to look out for a smart blue and grey coloured modern bus displaying route number 505 and everything else stays the same including the Mondays to Fridays only six journeys a day, two hourly service which operates with just one bus.

The number 505 has been used for the Saturday service which Vectare has been running between Waltham Abbey and Harlow (paralleling the 86 minus the circuit of Ninefields Estate and Upshire) which was the remnants of what at one time was Arriva’s former route from Chingford to Harlow. There’s therefore some logic to Vectare taking on the Monday to Friday service as well and using the number 505 even though it doesn’t fit in with any other route numbers in the area. The ‘new’ service is a minimum cost contract let by ECC.

As reported in previous blogs Vectare has been increasing its presence in both Waltham Cross and Harlow after gaining other ECC tendered bus routes and you can’t fault its presentation and the information it provides online and in print.

A consistent quality offering might well tempt more people on to the 86 -now-505 which will be needed if it’s to survive long term. I caught the 11:48 from Waltham Cross to Harlow yesterday morning and only six fellow passengers travelled through to Harlow – one from Waltham Cross, four from Waltham Abbey including one from nearby Ninefields Estate and one from Upshire. We didn’t pick anyone up from the villages of Lower Nazeing and Bumble’s Green but did carry four travelling locally in the Waltham Abbey area (who have other routes as an option) and another four locally in Harlow.

After the bus station, the route extends to Harlow Town station and the large Tesco in Edinburgh Way but there was only one taker for that section of route from the bus station; everyone else had alighted.

As you’d expect from Vectare there’s a clear map explaining everything about the route on its website.

The route is not entirely enticing for Waltham Cross originating passengers (taking almost an hour from end to end) as on the first four northbound journeys and last two southbound ones, it includes a 15 minute circuit around Ninefields Estate between Waltham Abbey and Upshire and back again bringing you close to where you were a quarter of an hour earlier (see above map).

However, credit also to Arriva for having an updated town map on display at Harlow bus station minus the 9 and 86 …

… as well as online on its website.

Encouraging there seemed to be high awareness among passengers about the upcoming changes – there was much talk about them on board. However, small print notices inside buses aren’t much good …

… but notices at bus stops were spotted on the 86 route (but ironically not the more impacted route 9) …

.,.. with even TfL getting in on the act.

I also noticed Hertfordshire County Council had updated the departure listing at Waltham Cross ready for tomorrow which was impressive …

… and although the 86 plate had disappeared from the bus stop flag, a 505 had yet to appear. Perhaps it will on Monday along with a plate for route 14 which is also missing.

I wondered what TfL think of all those route 13 suffixes on display – reminiscent of the days when central London bus routes like the 77 had similar offshoots, to say nothing of Country Area routes.

The last time I took a ride on route 86 was in 2017 when it was operated by the ill fated EOS bus company which collapsed the following year. That’s when Arriva took the route over.

Flashback to November 2017 in Waltham Cross.

So, it’s more change in Harlow, and I doubt this is the end game either. I reckon Arriva only now deploy about 10 buses on the local network it runs in the town. I appreciate routes 508/509/510 to Stansted Airport and the 724 to Heathrow Airport add another 14 to 15 buses and a base in Ware may well come under Harlow’s jurisdiction, but this is a shadow of what used to run from the former London Transport Country Area bus garage that’s still in use. You wonder how long that overhead will continue to be justified.

And I also expect Vectare will be tempted to expand further as opportunities arise, as I’m sure they will.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS

39 thoughts on “More highs and lows in Harlow

Add yours

  1. Very interesting. At least Harlow will still have a bus station. Aldershot is to close on 6 May, leaving passengers to have to find their way around between the various stops, scattered around the town and they will have less cover to wait under.. Stagecoach thinks it is good that more buses will stop nearer the shops. But most users of the bus station make changes either to the railway or to other bus routes, eg to get from Fleet to Guildford, Farnham or Frimley Park Hospital. Bus stations are mostly for making connections – surely in most towns shoppers already get on or off before or after bus station termini, unless the bus station is bang next to the shops like Guildford and I assume Harlow?


  2. Same Arriva story in Cheshire next weekend. Winsford depot and its Macclesfield outstation closing; interurban routes being picked up by D & G (5) & Stagecoach (1) -even a small scale return to direct competition on Chester-Crewe – but not all town routes in the four affected locations (Crewe, Northwich, Winsford & Macc)
    are being replaced, leaving several areas unserved.
    BTW, you didn’t comment on the current state of Harlow bus station…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Just a minor note – Waltham Cross bus timetables are maintained by Hertfordshire County Council (HCC), who are excellent, rather than ECC (who are not excellent). ECC have subcontracted all timetable posting to First Essex but changes outside of their operating area aren’t always prioritised.


  4. On the arriva Customer Notice (the one on the left) does the mention of Service 59 really mean what it says about Old Harlow?


      1. Thanks Bob – so what is meant by “now” in the text??

        Why do highway authorities – not just in Essex – change road layouts so as to prevent registered bus services from continuing?


  5. Where does one even start talking about Harlow! Well perhaps full disclosure, I lived there for 10 years, worked there for most of that time and 2 of my children were born there. I was also a bus user, plus I have run amateur site since 2001 along with the partner flickr site (

    The most shocking thing about the Harlow scene today is not so much the withdrawal of these 2 routes, but of the huge reduction in bus usage and bus provision that has taken place generally. Far greater than the general downturn, I’d suggest. Harlow was rich pickings for all those come and go operators because there was an abundance of passengers, especially considering that Harlow is not a uni town, not a tourist town and not an especially large town either.

    Much has been written about the quality of some of those operators of the past. Did they always run the registered services? Did the traffic commissioners have a case against them frequently? How much sophistication and professionalism was on offer? All valid questions, but if we look at the operations themselves on the road, the town services in particular were high frequency, commercially run, low fare and actually liked by the public! Passengers turned out in droves and often very consciously chose “the little white bus” (or others) over the big player.

    Now look at what has happened since they went. Fares increased, frequencies have reduced, routes have been cut and reliability has been patchy at best (Roger, the halving of the operations you witnessed on the 9 is not anything new, if you’re wondering where the passengers went). Tumbler Road was very rich pickings when the 5, B6, H1 and T15 all served it back in my day! The classic spiral of managed decline is what replaced the ‘wild west’ operations of the past. I know there are many other factors, but this is one very sorry tale. As for the future, I too have questioned whether Harlow, one of only 2 remaining garages from the 40+ in the London Country days, has a future. If I were Arriva I’m sure I’d look at a cheap operating base for the 508/9/10 near Stanstead and move the 724 to Ware. The few remaining town routes could easily be swallowed by Central Connect. Vectare, for all the grandstanding, have a lot more to learn about designing routes that are likely to be attractive to the public.


    1. I suspect Ware i more at risk it is the smallest garage

      Nearly all the Ware routes could easily be moved to Stevenage and Harlow


    2. Good to read your thoughts. I was brought up in Woodford and regulalry followed your site in the days of the H1 when you could get a Titan or Metro on a leisurly journey – never that busy – from Loughton to Harlow. When the clapped out blue and white Darts flooded the area I lost interest. As a kid we used to go to Harlow as a shopping ‘destination’ for the Harvey Centre on the 702 and see ANs on town services. There must be a case for some proper academic research on the demise of Harlow’s buses if the politicains are serious about ‘Bus Back Better’ ofeering vfm and learning form mistakes?


  6. The 505 actually operate Monday to Saturday. The ECC service though i only Mon to Fri I assume the Saturday service is commercial


  7. The next Arriva outpost to watch will be Northfleet garage. They are unable to tender for new Fastrack contracts with KCC so it seems highly likely that the scraps they have left will not be enough to keep Northfleet open.

    Their local commercial network is a shadow of its former self and has not been helped over the last couple of years by poor reliability and regular cuts due to staff shortage


  8. Stevenage, Ware and Hertford

    There have been big cuts to Arriva services in all these areas. It does throw doubt over them needing three garages. The obvious one to go would be Ware. I guess it depends on what it costs to operate the Ware garage. . It would increase the dead running a bit but not by a lot

    The Sunday service on the 401 goes from this Sunday
    The 403 is reduced to hourly
    The 508/9/10 have the Saturday service reduced


  9. I’m seeing a trend here . . . Saturday services being reduced in frequency to (a) reduce driver requirement, thereby allowing more drivers to rest at the weekend and (b) reducing any wage enhancements payable. In both cases these are acts of a business trying to cut costs at the margins, but still maintaining services. Routes 2/3 are still at 4 BPH on Saturdays, so not too bad.

    Route 6 (Little Parndon) was always a poor relation in frequency terms, even back in LCBS days. Route 8 (Mark Hall) was off-peak only as well then. Route 9 looks like a route that replaced bits of other routes in an attempt to make a good route . . . seemingly it didn’t work.
    If staffing is a problem, then reduce / withdraw those routes that barely cover costs, and concentrate on reliability on the good routes . . . that’s actually sensible business practice.

    20 years of (very poor quality) independent competition in Harlow (1990s – 2010s) has obviously knocked the stuffing out of the local bus market in the town . . . I suspect that only a minibus revolution might restore quality and passenger numbers.
    I would just note that the Town Centre shopping experience is not pleasant, and hardly encourages travel thereto. If there’s nothing to travel for, then why travel?


    1. I can’t agree with your comment about the years of competition having a negative impact today, see my earlier post. The decline has largely come since competition went. Tumbler Road, unserved from today, had 12bph in the late 90’s (4 on Arriva 4, on SM T15, 3 on Buzz B6, and 1 on Imperial H1) and there were passengers on all of them!

      I do agree that Harlow as a travel objective is far from what it once was.


    2. Arriva Colchester is barely surviving. Down to 3 town route & the P&R
      First bus are stepping up their services in Colchester from Sunday many of which compete with the Arriva services. I think he P&R service contract is due for renewal soon as well

      Reliability with Arriva services is poor with high levels of random cancellations


      1. Arriva renewed the Colchester Park and Ride contract last year, as mentioned by Roger last year when sampling the Vectare operated Chelmsford scheme. They cascaded in some vehicles from Maidstone to upgrade the fleet. Contract lasts until 2027, I believe.


  10. New BSIP Service

    Konnect Bus are stating a new BSIP bus service route 35 from Norwich visa the rail station to the Airport

    It seems a little strange as there is already a 20 minute P&R service to the airport and this new service only operates every hour

    The main purpose seems to be to improve transport to the Nest and Carrow road but I cannot see that generating much traffic


  11. As mentioned by previous posts there is a pattern here to Arriva.
    Reduce volumes by service cuts and loss of tenders, with occasional bursts of activity such as takeover of the failed EOS routes. As time moves on the overhead not covered by income and the depot closes.
    And it’s not due to passenger numbers, it’s due to Arriva’s abysmal management. Look at Crawley, failing Arriva, now very prosperous Metrobus, and Grays with prosperous Ensign. I agree with others that more closures could be on the cards. Northfleet with loss of Fasttrack, Harlow with reduced pvr, abysmal reliability and I understand lease on the depot comes up for renewal in the autumn.
    Hemel Hempstead attempting to run Watford town services with little success might be on the cards as well. In Stevenage they handed back the electric bus funding, and have handed back tenders. The mess they have left behind in Winsford will be apparent soon. And the whole shooting match has been put up for sale for the third time, after two failed attempts. From comments on Rogers previous post on Grand Central even reliability there is poor due to lack of investment. DB in Germany is in real trouble and that malaise certainly apparent in how Arriva is run.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Very well summed up. Harlow today is merely an all too typical example of how Arriva have lost their way. The recent MBO at Abellio is possibly the future for Arriva in the UK, if there was someone willing to take on the huge rescue exercise that is now needed, before the market is lost completely.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I could be mistaken, but I have heard it said that when Harlow was designated as a new town, there may have been a covenant placed on the bus garage preventing the land from being used for any other purpose. If that is the case, it may explain how Harlow garage has survived when so many other garages have been closed and their sites sold for redevelopment.

    The 505 first came into being in 1988 as an Essex County Council tendered route running Harlow Walthamstow. It was introduced to maintain links when London Country North East cut back their 502/503. The routeing through countryside between Harlow and Waltham Abbey was new (502/503 ran via Epping), presumably to avoid the tendered service competing with commercial services on the Harlow Epping Waltham Abbey corridor.


  13. I wish Vectare all the best with the 505. Sadly, however, the company is not immune to driver shortages – a look at the Vectare Essex Twitter feed this morning suggests whole routes won’t be operating today. Is this the time to be taking on additional commitments or is it that Essex CC had no other interest?

    There does appear to be a big difference in the performance between Harlow’s town services and the Inter-urban routes, the usage on the latter appearing quite buoyant with well-loaded buses noted regularly on the 59, 410 and 420 well as Arriva’s Stansted Airport corridor.

    Regarding commentary on other Arriva garages, whilst it is true that some services could be run from Harlow (the 66 and 251 spring to mind), more resources are allocated to services rather too distant from Harlow to make operation from there very efficient (i.e. the 310, 331, 395, the Welwyn Garden City network and Ware local routes).

    I may be completely wrong on this, but I’m sure there is a legal covenant dating back to New Town times which precludes the use of the bus garage for any other purpose.


  14. If my memory is correct the London Country North East property portfolio ended up with Alan Stephenson after/during the NBC sale process. I would be amazed if a ‘bus use only’ covenant survived.
    It’s didn’t stop Hatfield or Stevenage going to other developers.

    The comment about the quality, or lack of quality of Harlow shopping offer reminds me of Hinckley. Bus services do not operate in a vacuum. When Centrebus Holdings was given Hinckley depot by Arriva it basically ran Hinckley town services. It quickly became obvious to me that the money was in taking passengers to Leicester, Nuneaton or Coventry, anywhere but Hinckley as the towns retail offering was so abysmal. Harlow is now similarly abysmal. But the interurban public transport demand is met by the train to Cambridge or London, possibly Bishops Stortford and Chelmsford are the only bus destinations. Perhaps someone should try Lakeside or Bluewater, but of course that would never be Arriva!


  15. If Harlow had a bus service to rely on, it would be used, extensively. Harlow needs to look at where buses are needed, I.e . Edinburgh Way.
    Hospitals (all 3)
    The problem is, you have a bad bus provider, then people will not attempt to use buses. Provide a service that is frequent (peak hours) and a Timetable that is without faults, people will go back to buses. Cab & Taxi firms are having a great time, ferrying people to even short rides, cos lack of buses in the Right Places!


  16. I think some of the comments regarding Harlow as a destination are a little unfair. Sure, the new town architecture looks unloved in places but Harlow as a town still has a reasonable retail offer with a huge Primark, town centre cinema, open banks and most other popular chainstores being represented. The Water Gardens shopping area is quite a pleasant place to be. Importantly, it acts as something of a magnet to Hertfordshire towns to the west. – a 724 bus on a Saturday morning is often full after leaving Ware.


  17. Bus companies in the UK primarily serve the travel to the high street market. Unfortunately the high street retail sector is dying due to more online shopping, edge of town retail parks with free parking. The cost of living crisis is literally robbing lower income households of the ability to afford even the basics.

    IMO faced with a dying town centre, but with rail links to better retail centres, the town services should focus on bring a rail feeder instead. You could market it as your local bus stop is the gateway to (enter more attractive destination) via frequent trains from (enter station name). I bet the trains run into late evening offering a market of returning happy passengers after a day out in the more attractive bigger town.


  18. I’m pleased that TfL are prepared to display information about other company’s buses (route 86/505 at Waltham Cross). Somebody should ask them to do the same at Uxbridge where there is no indication about where the no. 7 to Slough starts from except on the bus stop.


  19. A thought-provoking blog – very many thanks! – and lots of well-informed comments, also thought-provoking. Obviously private sector competition is not working as it should, otherwise at least one other major bus company would be competing with Arriva – or is the (presumably Brexit-induced) driver shortage really constraining the industry to the point that there is no spare capacity to compete with even dreadfully run operations in potentially lucrative territory?


  20. The Londoners who moved here in the 50s/60s, and had a reduced, green rather than red, LT service, no longer quite ‘turn up and go’, service; were completely betrayed. For those still alive (and in other Home Counties) New Towns, they are effectively car-dependent.


    1. And the service continue to be cut and continue to be unreliable. They then wonder why people do not use buses.

      How long to the next fares increases and the next service cuts. Asking people to pay more for less is not a good business model

      If there is no usable bus services people cannot use them


  21. If passenger numbers don’t return to pre pandemic levels there are two possible paths forward. One, operators cut back to achieve profitable (but worse) services than now. Two, government faces up to the new normal, that fully commercial bus services are a thing of the past, get real and look to The Netherlands, or Switzerland, and adopt their operating models. Government will never achieve net zero, active travel, traffic reduction, better health outcomes etc if it leaves buses to the open market. It needs to be involved.


  22. Staff shortage is not only because of Brexit- see the huge driver shortage in Paris, over 1000, and Auckland , NZ [see Buses Worldwide magazine]
    But clearly this industry cannot continue to survive outside big cities without a change of policy.
    This mean Govt ministers must take an interest and start to do something.
    The contrast with bus services across the Channel is so obvious.


    1. Whates we have at present simply does not work. It is failing it is not helped by the generally very low standard of management in the industry. There i also constant instability in the services. One month he service might be every half hour the next month every hour and the next month no bus. Bus infrastructure such s bus stations and bus shelters are not maintained and just allowed to fall into disrepair
      Bus services in very many areas are totally unreliable
      Buses don’t run when most people need them and do not even go where they heed to get to

      I was hoping that Bus Back Better would be he catalyst for major reform and improvement to bus service but sadly this is not happening

      One thing I think could help is to make it easier to run buses. Maybe allow Locally Councils to be able to license vehicles up to say 25 seats at the moment they can only license taxi type vehicles with up to 8 seats


  23. Not a good service, my dad has no bus now we’ll bus route so no way of getting up to the town centre now as he doesn’t drive and the number 9 was used regularly!!.


  24. ‘No buses are running today’ – locals furious after service axed by under-fire operator

    Bus passengers in Blackridge are furious this morning after realising all services to Bathgate have been cancelled for the entire day and tonight.

    On its website, mcGill’s said of the 21’s cancellation: “Due to the current national driver shortage, which is affecting all sectors, the journeys listed below are expected to be affected.


  25. Buses on the brink as 1,100 routes axed in 2022 in spite of Bus Back Better

    An analysis of official figures by the Liberal Democrats showed bus routes had been slashed by 7.5% nationwide in 2022 compared to the previous year

    The West Midlands was the hardest-hit region, losing almost 400 routes in a single year. The North East lost almost 300.

    Government data shows a staggering 3,903 routes have been lost since 2015 – with the North East alone losing almost 900 services.


  26. Flixbus to introduce new coach service between Miton Keynes and Victoria via Stevenage

    Greenline used to operate a service between Stevenage and Victoria but gave it up due to falling passengers numbers and congestion

    I cannot see this service attracting commuters as it competes against good fast rail service to London

    I guess it hopes to compete for non commuter traffic on price


  27. We here in Oswestry are counting the days to when Arriva shut up shop. If Arriva really thought anything of its loyal employees. They would have allowed the drivers to continue signing on at Oswestry, changing vehicles at either Wrexham or Shrewsbury as and when required for maintenance. That could easily be achieved for services 2 to Wrexham, 53 to Ellesmere and X5 to Shrewsbury. The only staff that would have been displaced would have been the very small maintenance team. Arriva and Shropshire County County Council, have done nothing to promote bus services here in North Shropshire, Then they both wonder why people have given up on buses and found alternatives!


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