Route RV1: Covent Garden to Tower Gateway Location: Central London Length of journey: 4 miles, 35 minutes
When TfL launched their much-leaked central London bus consultation last week, one of the three routes proposed for withdrawal was the RV1. Introduced in 2002, it links various destinations on the South Bank with Covent Garden and the Tower, and is the only London route to be designated RV for 'Riverside'. But long-term road works around London Bridge station made it less attractive, passenger numbers slumped, and in February the RV1's frequency was unceremoniously halved. A six-month review was then undertaken, whose outcomes have been published in a 12 page report, resulting in the recommendation that the RV1 is withdrawn. I've been for a ride to see how things are, and will intercut my reportage with quotes from the route's official death sentence.
Following an initial review, the frequency of the service reduced on Saturday 10 February 2018 from every 10 minutes to every 20 minutes on all days of the week.
I turn up randomly at the Covent Garden bus stop, and discover I have 18 minutes to wait. Damn. I'm not put off, but I observe at least six people who are, include a mother who decides to walk her children to their next engagement rather than hanging around for the slowcoach bus. A back door into the Novello Theatre is open, so I wonder if any of the actors from Mamma Mia will emerge while I wait, but all that's on show is a man on a stepladder fixing some electrics and some horrible yellow wallpaper.
The first stop in Covent Garden is about 350 metres from alternative southbound stops on the Strand or Lancaster Place. This would include crossing the road at the Strand/Lancaster Place junction. About 90 customers a day board at the first stop going south.
It's hometime at the primary school one block up the road, and the RV1 is proving a popular means for parents, carers and grandparents to take their charges home. I am treated to a display of scooter riding, impromptu hopscotch and the ritual stuffing of after-school junk food. By the time the driver puts down his Metro and opens the doors, there are 13 of us waiting, including ten on the school run, two 'real' passengers and me. According to TfL's figures, our single busload contains over 10% of this stop's daily total. The RV1 departs Covent Garden more than 50 times a day.
RV1 usage has fallen from about 25,000 customer boardings per week in March 2016 to about 17,000 per week during the summer of 2017. Following the frequency reduction in February 2018 usage initially fell to about 11,000 per week and has stabilised to about 12,000 to 13,000 per week.
We round the great arc of Aldwych and double back to the really busy bus stops outside Somerset House where, alas, nobody is interested in getting on. The view downstream from Waterloo Bridge is arresting, with several glass splinters rising into the sky and the dome of St Paul's illuminated as if by a celestial spotlight. The southbound stop on the bridge is still closed because of makeshift barriers installed last summer to prevent cars mounting the pavement. The 'temporary' replacement stop further down is empty.
The main detrimental impact of the withdrawal of route RV1 will be on customers travelling between the Covent Garden/Aldwych and South Bank areas. These customers will be required to change between stops in the Waterloo area. For some customers this could involve up to a five minute walk, including crossing roads, to interchange with route 381.
Although over a dozen bus routes cross Waterloo Bridge, the RV1 is the only bus which turns left. It does this by turning right at the IMAX roundabout, pausing alongside Waterloo station, then diverting off round South Bank backroads behind the London Eye. No other London bus does this, and this time next year, no bus will.
The RV1 has a looped routeing in the Waterloo area to get between Waterloo Bridge south side and the Royal Festival Hall. Buses take up to seven minutes to travel between them, particularly eastbound, even though the stops are very close, albeit on different levels. Therefore there will be little impact to overall journey times by changing and making this interchange.
Our driver has to honk two stationary taxis, then awkwardly overtake, to squeeze through onto Belvedere Road. We have entered a world of tour buses and jaywalking daytrippers, very few of whom are interested in the RV1.
On weekdays the stops by the Royal Festival Hall (Q and S) are used by about 60 customers boarding per day, and those stops by the Oxo Tower (SH and SG) by about 30 customers boarding per day.
Two fresh passengers are waiting round the back of the Royal Festival Hall - that's 3% of the total TfL say board here every day. One of them is wearing a blue "Please offer me a seat" badge, her difficulties evident as she manoeuvres down the cabin. She's only going two stops, but for her the existence of this bus must be a godsend. She'll have an extra 200m to 'walk' when the RV1 is scrapped.
The main concentrations of ridership on the RV1 are between Waterloo and City Hall with 58 per cent of passengers travelling between various stops on that stretch.
We lose our first four passengers at the OXO Tower, and six more at the Kings Reach Building on Stamford Street. Most of these are the school runners who boarded back at Covent Garden, proving how useful this bus can be when you study in Westminster but live in Southwark. There are now only four of us on board, including one new passenger, as we get caught up at the traffic lights on Blackfriars Road for almost five minutes. The driver flaps his doors at some late-arriving pushchairs, but none of their parents are interested, and on we roll.
Eastbound in the evening peak the busiest point is on Southwark Street by Southwark Bridge Road where there is an average load of about 20 customers per bus. This is in comparison to the capacity of the bus which is about 50 customers.
The RV1 no longer deviates to serve Tate Modern directly, and hasn't for many a year. An obvious tourist boards the bus, along with two rucksacked offspring, and stays aboard for the full length of Southwark Street. It turns out she was looking for Borough Market, but this never appears on the display. By the time she spots artisan foodie bustle out of the window it is too late to alight, and the driver refuses her request to make an exception. At London Bridge we are four.
Withdrawing route RV1 would result in approximately 600 customers per day having to change buses, about 40 per cent of the current usage of the route. The main direct journeys that would be broken would be between the London Bridge Station / Tooley Street area and the Tower of London area. The proposal to extend route 343 northwards over Tower Bridge to Aldgate Bus Station would retain these links. The 343 runs every 8 to 10 minutes compared to the RV1’s 20 minute frequency.
Half an hour after setting out, we've reached the back of More London, whose watery trench was recently filled in because public realm is a lot more risk-averse these days. Wahey, passengers numbers have doubled to eight, the additional patronage being mostly tourists. Our driver finally manages to overtake the 343 he's been trying to overtake for the last three stops, just before we turn into the jam on Tower Bridge Road.
The total cost of operating the RV1 is about £3.3 million per year. Fares revenue is about £650,000 per year, meaning there is a subsidy of £2.6 million a year for the route, about £3.23 for each customer journey. The route has a cost recovery ratio of 20 per cent; for reference the CRR of the network as a whole is about 74 per cent, and for route 381 is 63 per cent.
Our bus suddenly becomes popular for the last hop over Tower Bridge. Two other bus routes go the same way, but they can't have been along recently. A schoolboy pleads with the driver that he's "forgotten his pass", lingers by the door during an impasse, then makes a break for it when two lucky latecomers slide through. There are now a dozen of us on board. The view from midriver is again splendid, looking down over cruise boats and a gunship in the Pool of London.
Customer usage on route RV1 has stabilised since the frequency reduction in February 2018, however it has not improved and is still running at historically low levels. The route has poor cost recovery and is largely paralleled by other services. It does provide some unique links within central London to and from the South Bank but numbers making these journeys are just a few hundreds per day.
According to the on-board display, the next stop is Tower of London. One passenger dings to be let out, but in vain. The Tower of London bus stop was closed fifteen months ago, again for barrier-related security reasons, and still nobody at TfL Bus HQ has tweaked the electronics on board to reflect the new reality. Looks like we're all staying on board until the final stop.
It is recommended that the RV1 is withdrawn.
Most of us alight outside Tower Gateway station, but one pair of tourists haven't understood the phrase "this bus terminates here" and sit tight until the driver ushers them off at the bus stand two minutes later. By my calculations this RV1 journey has carried 32 passengers, plus me, which is 2% of the average daily ridership. Most could have travelled another way and saved TfL some money, but this would have involved waiting longer and/or a change of buses. The loss of the RV1 hints at the future considerably more passengers should expect to face as TfL slim, shave and streamline their network.