Route 384: Cockfosters to Barnet, Quinta Drive Location: north London, outer Length of journey: 7 miles, 50 minutes
Some London bus routes are linear, heading from A to B with a minimum of fuss. But other bus routes are twiddlers, meandering through backstreets to keep communities linked to the bus network.
The 384 is an absolute twiddler, bending back on itself several times on its journey from Cockfosters through the estates of Barnet. This makes it a lifeline for some, but bloody slow for others, which previously has been an acceptable balance. But TfL now have plans to dekink the route, removing almost all of the twiddles, whilst simultaneously extending it to Edgware. Overnight the 384 would become much more direct, a new orbital route for the outer suburbs, conveniently linking the ends of three tube lines. But at the same time it would cease to serve a dozen residential roads, most of which have no other bus service, stranding some residents beyond the 400m limit TfL normally deems acceptable. For a map of the proposed changes, click here.
A consultation is currently underway, indeed it's recently been extended by two weeks to allow additional input. The response form kicks off with the leading question "Do you support our proposals to extend route 384?", to which the answer is obviously yes, but naughtily never asks about the detwiddling. Not unexpectedly, local people are not happy at being bypassed, especially those who rely on the 384 to get them to the station, the surgery, the supermarket or simply back home. A campaign has been launched and, well, let me tell the story by taking a ride...
Weekday afternoons in Cockfosters aren't generally busy, although the traffic's bad, and the incoming 384 is running late. While the driver takes a brief rest I spot a laminated notice stuck to the station wall - Save the 384 bus! - giving details of the consultation and urging passengers to make their voices heard. Somebody's been busy. This end of the route will be hit the worst, the first decapitated twiddle being only a few minutes ahead, so it makes sense to alert potential losers to the fight. Four of us are aboard when we depart, plus another three picked up from the shopping parade down the road, which isn't too bad when the timetable is "every 20 minutes".
A lengthy Hail & Ride section kicks off almost immediately, up an avenue of latticed semis optimistically-named Mount Pleasant. A cheery elderly gentleman in a bow tie waves his stick for the bus to stop, and then we wait while he hobbles over to the point where our driver thought it safer to pause instead. Just past the roundabout are the mournful ruins of The Jester, a pub closed in 2013, then reduced to ruins by a mysterious arson attack earlier this year. Here the 384 breaks off for its first twiddle round the Bevan Estate - total duration two minutes - benefiting folk whose houses back onto woodland and the Pymmes Brook. We pick up three people on Northfield Road, two of whom are children who look like they'd benefit from more exercise once the bus is rerouted.
Our next twiddle is the only one TfL intend to keep, a proper loop up to the gasholder and back via Westbrook Crescent. The reason for its survival isn't to save the very farthest resident a half mile walk, but because the Jewish Community Secondary School is tucked away up here, and its students are 1400 potential passengers. It being half term we only pick up two old ladies. I time the detour at 2 minutes 30 seconds, which is all the faff that future orbital travellers will have to endure if and when the 384's route is streamlined.
Twiddle number three is just over a mile long, rather than the quarter mile it could be if the bus went direct. The fortunate beneficiaries are residents of Crescent Road, and the cul-de-sacs beyond, but also anyone who wants to go shopping on East Barnet Road. Here is the big Sainsbury's many local people shop at, soon to be joined by an Aldi, which the 384 will no longer go anywhere near. On my journey the stop outside Sainsbury's saw most of the passengers alight, and very few get on, because four other buses ply this road and they all head for High Barnet without twiddling.
Our next wilful deviation is the other side of the railway, as the only bus which goes past New Barnet station. Tracing the devious route we're about to follow it's easy to view the 384 as a kindness, a zigzag drawn on a map to provide a convenience most other London suburbs don't receive. It made sense in 1990 when the 384 was introduced as a nippy minibus covering previously unserved roads, but in 2018 with a single decker such benevolence might appear over-generous. The roads are narrow, and meeting a Tesco van coming the other way could be a challenge, but our driver is well practised and we get by.
Eventually we reach Barnet Hill, where the 384 is one of several routes climbing towards the tube station. By my calculations we could have got here 10-15 minutes faster by following TfL's proposed route, with a trio of twiddles taken away, but we also wouldn't have picked up half the passengers currently on board. There are quite a few now, and before the top of the hill some of them will be standing, which isn't bad for a route the consultation claims has "low" passenger numbers. I've checked the data and the 384 isn't in the lowest 10% of London's least used bus routes, which appears to give TfL's planners a lot of leeway for future fiddling elsewhere.
It's at this point, somewhat unexpectedly, that the campaign to Save the 384 bus! storms aboard. By this I mean that a young gentleman with a bagful of printed collateral pays his fare, checks with the driver that what he's about to do is OK, and proceeds down the bus handling out leaflets to all. It doesn't take long for informative discourse to ensue. "They want to take the 384 away from this list of roads." "We're trying to encourage people to write in and complain." "We don't mind them extending it to Edgware but we don't want them taking it away from here." "No, they're not getting rid of the bus entirely." "Ask your mum to see if she'll sign the petition."
Most passengers are interested, others alarmed. Joshua has to reassure some that their specific journeys won't be affected. One elderly gentleman, who sounds like almost everything makes him very cross, growls about how terrible this is, how badly parked those cars are and alights cursing at the next stop. We're now passing through Barnet's main shopping area, rounding the Spires, and passengers who want to travel beyond the town centre are starting to receive leaflets too. At which point, without warning, the driver plays the "this bus is on diversion" message, followed by "this bus terminates here", and immediately turfs us all off. Traffic delays earlier on our journey have disrupted the service.
Much grumbling ensues. But Joshua takes full advantage of the delay, producing a roll of black sticky tape from his bag and attaching a couple of leaflets to the bus shelter, then holding court with a group of interested passengers. My scepticism regarding the effectiveness of these actions is quashed when a fresh arrival at the bus stop spots the new poster, gets out a notebook and starts jotting down the petition's URL. The proposed change won't affect her, given where she finally alights, so I suspect she'd been unduly worried by the poster's title. But this level of instant engagement could produce strong feedback which might just possibly persuade TfL to amend their plans.
Eventually the following bus arrives and we bundle politely aboard. What follows is the last potentially severed twiddle, where the intention is for Alston Road and Strafford Road to be bypassed eastbound only. That's a few more Barnet residents with a bit further to walk to catch a bus, but seemingly a relief for some of those on Alston Road, one of whom has commented that the 384 is "causing traffic congestion and slaloming between residents' cars" and "the vibration of the revving and accelerating is causing our houses to shake". It must be horrible to have a bus go past your house when you're a misery who'd never dream of catching one.
We're heading for Barnet Hospital, where the 307 terminates, its route from Cockfosters so close to the straightened-out 384 that you wonder why TfL are bothering to make the change. Joshua is one of a handful of passengers to alight here, leaving a pile of leaflets in the luggage rack and preparing to inform further travellers on a return trip. But most of those aboard are staying on to be dropped off at the final stops through the final housing estate, including the terminus at Quinta Drive. The name sounds mysteriously evocative, but in reality the bus pulls in outside an off licence with a stack of Andrex in the window.
If all goes to plan, the 384 will be extended from here to Edgware. This is a considerable extension, almost five more miles in total, which is why the current bus route needs to be untwisted to make it viable. At present to make the same journey takes two more buses, the 107 and then the 292, so that's what I attempted to do next. I had to walk up the road to catch the 107 and wait, which took some time. I had to change buses outside the Morrisons at Stirling Corner, waiting patiently for a 292 to arrive, which took some time. I got to sit in a traffic jam on the A1, which took even more time. And by the time I finally reached Edgware station it'd taken me an extra hour, suggesting that one bus would indeed be much better than two.
The sting for residents of Borehamwood is that TfL intend to cut the frequency of the 292 to pay for the extension of the 384. It currently runs every 15 minutes and will drop to every 20, because TfL don't mind if Hertfordshire residents get a worse service. I'd even say they could be setting up the 292 to be completely scrapped, because its northern section is outside London, its middle section will be perfectly paralleled by the extended 384, and the southern section to Colindale is duplicated by the 32. A simplified streamlined network with extra orbital connections comes at a price, as the proposed detwiddling of the 384 plainly proves.
Joshua would be delighted if a strong response to the consultation stalled the proposed straightening of route 384, although this would no doubt be at the expense of an extension because there's no money to do one without the other. The local MP is on the case, as are the BarnetSociety, and a couple of popularpetitions are also doing the rounds. Best not go diving in if this isn't your fight, because it's local voices which have credibility, rather than distant bus fetishists sending in crayoned maps detailing how they'd run things better. But the battle is a very real one, the prioritisation of orbital links over neighbourhood accessibility, and if the 384 falls, are any twiddles safe?