diamond geezer

 Tuesday, June 21, 2016

TfL's name includes a strong clue that their job is supposed to be providing transport in London. But their influence stretches across the border of the capital, mainly for historical reasons, with several services running beyond. The Metropolitan line heads out into Herts and Bucks, for example, and the Central line serves a chunk of southwest Essex. Meanwhile as many as sixty London bus routes ply their trade outside the boundaries of Greater London, providing an often invaluable service to residents who don't pay London council tax. To make things fair, local authorities outside London pay a grant to TfL to ensure these peripheral buses continue to run. So what happens when that grant is cut? We're starting to find out.

Last November, Essex County Council voted to end a £586,000 subsidy to TfL which helped pay running costs for bus routes 20 and 167. Both these routes begin well inside London, head for the boundary and then run about five miles into Essex. Route 20 starts in Walthamstow and leaves the capital near Woodford, before continuing through Buckhurst Hill and Loughton to Debden. Route 167 starts in Ilford and leaves the capital near Grange Hill, before continuing through Chigwell, Buckhurst Hill and Loughton to Debden. TfL has no remit to serve these Essex locations, so might the end of council funding see these two buses cease?

A myriad of deregulated bus services run beyond the Greater London boundary, without the need for subsidy to prop them up. This usually means fares cost more, often quite a bit more, as those who live outside the capital know well. And it usually means buses run less frequently, or stop in the early evening, and maybe don't run at all on Sunday. But without that half million pound grant to top them up, why should Loughton and Debden continue to be an anomaly?
"In most other towns of comparable size in Essex, at least the main peak and daytime elements of services like the 20 and 167 would be provided commercially, with no charge falling on the County Council, although we might well fund evening or Sunday services, depending on commercial viability at these times." (Cllr Roger Hirst, 18 Nov 2015)
Essex's cut in revenue took place in April, but TfL have taken until this month to respond. A consultation has been launched proposing that route 167 be cut back, terminating in Loughton rather than Debden. That'll cut about 20 minutes off the route, and reduce the number of vehicles needed to run the service, so should therefore save a bit of cash. But they're not cutting the service all the way back to the boundary, which means residents of Chigwell and Buckhurst Hill will still be able to catch buses their taxes no longer pay for.

Perhaps more surprising is TfL's proposal to leave route 20 alone. This bus spends about half its time in London and half its time in Essex, but the Essex half is to see no reduction in service whatsoever. And I think that's rather impressive. Indeed if you step back and look at what TfL have actually done, they've noted that the 20 and the 167 run along virtually the same route between Loughton and Debden and withdrawn the less frequent of the two. Nobody along this part of the route loses out, except in frequency, and TfL still rakes in money from fares to help offset the loss of grant.

Residents of the council estates of Debden and the Towie streets of Loughton aren't happy, particularly those who'll now need to catch two buses to make their journey rather than one. But here's where the Mayor's Hopper ticket suddenly makes a difference, because by the time this cut is made it'll continue to be possible to travel from Debden to, say, Chigwell, for the price of one fare rather than two.

And there are still two other TfL buses out here that aren't being affected. The 397 will still run from Chingford to Debden, providing a more direct link to Loughton, although that packs up before eight in the evening. And the 549 will still pootle up the backstreets, ensuring Roding Valley gets some sort of bus service, but this now only runs every 70 minutes and for only six days a week.

It's not yet the case that residents of Loughton and Debden must rely on the whims of private suburban operators. But they do have several of these already, including very brief circular buses, buses with A and B suffixes, buses that only run on Sundays, and a bus that runs only once a day. It all makes TfL's "frequent, reliable, simple and comprehensive" network look positively modern.

Meanwhile eyes are turning to the borders with Hertfordshire, whose councillors have made a very similar move. The county used to subsidise five TfL-operated cross-boundary routes at a cost of £390,000 a year, but that money also stopped in April, and local residents are concerned. The affected buses are the 142 and 258 from Watford, the 107 and 292 in Borehamwood, and the 298 from Potters Bar. Each of these has a long section outside Greater London, indeed for the 107 it's most of the middle of the route.

TfL could decide to lop back the buses to the borderline, for example terminating the 142 and 258 at Bushey Heath, although they'd then lose out on a lot of fares to Watford. They could choose to remove some of the faffing around the outer estates that the 292 does on either side of Borehamwood, or perhaps even all of it. They could rejig the local service pattern to provide more efficient coverage inside London and fewer bits outside, whilst still ensuring that key boundary locations like the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital remain served. Or they could just back out of Hertfordshire altogether, as they have with most of Bucks and Berks, and leave the commercial operators to it.

All that TfL have said at present is "There are no current plans to make alterations to any of our bus services that run to and from Hertfordshire" but also that "If in the future we propose to make any changes, we will undertake full stakeholder and public consultations as we do for any bus service." The Essex experience suggests that a consultation might well be on its way, but it's unlikely to propose the complete withdrawal of routes that many residents fear. Instead I wonder if they'll look at the four miles of double bus route between Bushey Heath and Watford and try the Debden trick again, removing either the 142 or 258 from this stretch. We'll have to wait and see.

In future other neighbouring counties might decide to drop or remove their subsidies, with the number of red bus services crossing into Surrey already looking quite anomalous. Meanwhile TfL still need to respond to a significant cut in central government funding, and to balance the budget now they have a Mayor who refuses to increase fares. The lesson from Loughton appears to be that they're keen to make minimal changes to the bus network, focusing on route efficiency and the protection of community links. But we live in times of financial cutbacks, and outer London in particular can perhaps expect to see more of this kind of thing.

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