diamond geezer

 Thursday, October 22, 2009

As anyone who lives outside the capital will have noticed, London's bus service is bloody marvellous. Buses go everywhere, often and cheaply, even late in the evening and on Sundays. And that's because London's bus service is planned and coordinated by a non-profit-making body which aims to serve the resident population, not far-distant shareholders. We're bloody lucky, we are.
The TfL bus network has four key performance targets, as follows:
Comprehensive - routes should be designed to run within 5 minutes (or 400m) of most homes
Frequent - as many routes as possible should run at least every 12 minutes (i.e. a "turn-up-and-go" service)
Simple - the route should be as simple as possible, and operate at the same terminals at weekends
Reliable - journey times along routes are regularly tested
In total, London's buses run more than 500 million kilometres each year. That may sound like a heck of a lot, but it's actually less than 200 metres per Londoner per day. If you travel further than that, then you're enjoying more than your fair share. But Boris's latest transport plans are about to cause the London bus network to contract, because a £150m cut to bus service subsidy will result in running 26 million fewer kilometres per year. That's a 5% cut, equivalent to one in every 20 buses scrapped or cancelled. Coming soon, to a bus stop near you.

425 passing Merchant's QuarterBut what to cut? A few rush hour buses, so that we can all pack in more tightly together? That's likely, apparently. How about reducing bus frequencies, so that the gap between services is a bit longer than before. That's also likely, on certain routes, although (to give one very specific promise) nothing quite so drastic as doubling waiting times from 6 to 12 minutes. Or how about shortening routes, especially those bits near to the terminus where buses run almost empty. Curtailment might mean passengers have to change more often, and wait longer, and pay twice, but they'd still be able to reach their desired destination eventually. Not an option, obviously, is the cancellation of Boris's debendification plan, nor the derailing of his Routemaster replacement. Which leaves one final possibility - scrapping routes altogether.

There are a number of buses in London which carry very few passengers. Take the U10 through Ickenham, for example, or the 464 to Biggin Hill, or the 375 to Passingford Bridge. Why not scrap those? Their loss would inconvenience only a tiny minority of Londoners, wouldn't they, and the money saved could then go on preserving services in Inner London instead. Except that such actions wouldn't ensure the running of a socially inclusive bus network. Increase the number of places unreachable by bus, or reachable only irregularly or infrequently, and many more of us will need to buy cars. Surely London doesn't need to move in that direction, sacrificing the welfare of many to the great god Austerity.

So look, I'd like to propose a bus local to me that I think ought to be cut, erased, eradicated. A bus that I believe is burning up taxpayers money with every journey, rumbling around nigh empty, going nowhere special, five times an hour. A bus whose loss nobody would mourn, and whose sacrifice might help to preserve more socially-necessary routes eleswhere. It's the 425. It runs from Stratford to Clapton, past my house, in a big indirect dog-leg via Mile End. Let's scrap it.

route 425The 425 is a new-ish bus, introduced last year as part of a major reorganisation of routes in the Bow area. Its route is almost entirely duplicated by other services. If you want to get from Stratford to Hackney you can catch a 276. If you want to get from Stratford to Mile End you can catch a 25. If you want to get from Bow to Clapton you can catch a 488. If you want to get from Mile End to Hackney you can catch a 277. And if you want to get from my house to Homerton Hospital (because bus routes always go to hospitals) you can catch either the 276 or the 488, there's no need for a 425 option as well. Indeed the hospital loop is a real diversionary blight on the 425's route, crawling round the backstreets of Homerton in a jam-snarling figure of eight, and putting a real dampener on anybody intending to ride the 425 as a rapid through service. Because it isn't.

And all this explains why I rarely see a 425 bus even a quarter full. Believe me, I've looked, I've checked, and I know. Rumbling along Bow Road they go, these brightly lit double-decker boxes on wheels, with 60-odd vacant seats and only a handful occupied. And then again, 12 minutes later, another nigh-empty subsidy-gobbling vehicle rolls by. There's probably one whizzing past my front door even now, taking nobody in particular to nowhere much. At the very least the entire service should be downgraded from double decker to single decker, and soon, because in 15 months I've almost never seen a 425 so full that a single decker couldn't have coped. Utter waste, the top deck is.

I'm reassured that Boris isn't thinking of cutting back London's bus services more severely, slashing the network root and branch in line with market forces. But if 5% has to go, I offer up my local 425 for sacrifice. It'd not be missed, and the savings made might help rescue an outer London lifeline that really matters. So come on TfL, how about a 425% cut?

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