Route 389: Barnet The Spires to Western Way London's shortest bus route Length of journey: 1.65 miles (<10 minutes)
Top of the heap, i.e. shortest of all, is this minor runabout in Barnet. Not only is the 389 London's shortest bus route but also the second least used (only 17000 passengers annually) and the third least frequent (only 30 buses per week). It's part of a unique bus sharing scheme which has operated hereabouts since 1996, whereby one vehicle from route 299 is used to service the entirety of routes 389 and 399 between the morning and evening rush. It operates alternately on one route and then the other, flipping its blind round the back of the Spires shopping centre every 30 minutes, with both routes all wrapped up by 3pm. Potential passengers must time their shopping trips with care.
The fortunate beneficiaries of route 389's brief service are residents of a tongue of housing squeezed in between Barnet Playing Fields, the Dollis Brook and the Northern line. No through-route is possible, so the 389 runs down to the bottom of the hill and back before returning past High Barnet tube station to the shops. I decide to start my journey at the start of the loop on Underhill, which'll maximise my time aboard and also allows me to spot this rare bus as it approaches down Barnet Hill. A faded sign by the roadside warns that "Match Day waiting restrictions" may apply, despite the fact that Barnet FC moved out six years ago.
When boarding the bus I fail to address the driver by name, which immediately marks me out as a stranger. Let's call her Rita, because we'll be hearing her name a lot later. Already on board are a lady with a recently touched-up perm, a Daily Mail reader with a tweed shopping trolley, a mother and daughter with a PDSA bag for life and two stowaways who it'll eventually turn out really want the 399 and have boarded early because it's cold outside. What used to be the Underhill football stadium, demolished last year, is now arising as a long-promised academy and is currently at the partitioning and early paintwork stage. The first year group are due to arrive in September, but won't be using the 389 as a school bus because it only operates during lesson time.
Here we go. "Thank you Rita," says our first alightee as she steps down from the front of the bus. She'll not be the last. It's bin day down Fairfield Way and the full range of coloured receptacles is arrayed along the pavement. Each of the semis on Sherrards Way is fractionally lower than its neighbour to ensure the street's housing is stepped gradually down the hill. A couple of trees have been surrounded by utility works barriers. "Hello Rita, you're back. Happy New Year to you, have you had a good holiday?" The elderly gentleman with the flat cap who's just boarded greets our driver like an old friend, indeed the bonhomie along this section of the route is exceptional.
So tailored is Rita's door-to-door service that she drives only ten metres down the road before letting off the next regular, minimising the distance she'll have to shuffle home. "Thank you Rita, see you tomorrow, bye," she says. I'm not entirely surprised, having seen this kind of behaviour when I rode the 389 last year, fortuitously on the very last day before a new operator took over the contract and the previous driver had brought a box of biscuits for all his regulars to share. It's still a heartwarming ride under the new operator, I can assure you, and provides the perfect antidote to my miserable jobsworth journey on the R9.
We've now reached Western Way, the lowest road in the estate where the return journey officially begins. So short is route 389 that we'll be parked up and finished in six minutes flat. One particular parked car on the corner of Grasvenor Avenue proves hard to negotiate, but Rita nips through and we're back on the climb again. A mother and her two kids are waiting on the pavement outside the infant school, no waving required, and our next passenger slips into immediate conversation with the driver and the gentleman in the flat cap. Perhaps most impressively, when a lady with a shopping basket waves from the pavement Rita knows she doesn't want to get on board, and earns a cheery smile in return.
Rejoining the main road at the traffic lights by the railway bridge, we're suddenly one of a dozen bus routes climbing Barnet Hill and so a total irrelevance. We overtake three buses which have stopped by the tube station, safe in the knowledge that they can carry everyone and nobody needs us. Indeed we don't stop once all the way up to Barnet Church because all anybody aboard wanted was the shops, either in the High Street or round the back of the market. The flat-capped gentleman stays aboard to have a long chat with Rita, and she has both the time and the inclination to engage before she has to drive the mutated 399 to Hadley Wood. True customer service is alive and well on the streets of Barnet, on the shortest bus route of them all.