[NEW] Route 497: Harold Wood to Harold Hill Location: London east, outer Length of journey: 3 miles, 18 minutes
Yes, it's another new London bus route, the seventh in three months. And the 497 is the least useful of all.
These are the outskirts of Havering amid the overspill estate of Harold Hill, where buses matter. Four years ago TfL reviewed bus services in the area in light of the arrival of Crossrail, and came to the conclusion that an additional route was needed to feed residents towards the new purple station at Harold Wood. The 497 would serve the new Kings Park estate and also close a hole in the network along Chatteris Avenue where a handful of residents were over 400m from a bus stop. It wouldn't do much else, but it was cheaper* than diverting or extending an existing route and so the 497 got the go-ahead. It ran for the first time yesterday.
The 497 begins outside Harold Woodstation, where it's most needed. It's not allowed to hang around because there's no space for a bus stand, so vehicles have to be timetabled to depart two minutes after they arrive. In it nips, flips its blind and off it goes. You don't get much notice that it's coming because it vanishes off the Countdown display several minutes before it arrives. And you won't have much idea about where it's heading unless you ask the driver. Nobody's put up any timetables. No maps have been updated. It's all very much par for the course.
On the bright side, ooh, shiny new buses. These have glowing USB charging ports on the backs of the seats which is cutting edge for London, if old hat in the provinces. On the less good side, there aren't many passengers to plug things into them. Also, these buses only run every 30 minutes, which means the entire route can be operated with just two vehicles, which keeps the costs down.
Almost immediately the route enters the Kings Park estate, which used to be Harold Wood Hospital but has been remodelled into 863 new homes and a polyclinic. It looks typically modern, but feels utterly out of place amid these postwar outskirts. A single spine road weaves through the middle, signposted as a No Through Road at either end to try to deter ratrunning car drivers, but ideal for a bus route. The developers painted two bus stop boxes onto the road a while ago, long enough for the yellow paint to have already faded, but nobody's yet added any bus stop poles so this entire section remains hail and ride.
It's possible to walk from here to the station in five minutes, so waiting for a half-hourly bus seems mostly pointless. But an elderly couple who live at the far end of the estate are on board trying to make the most of the convenience. "We were hoping to get the train to Brentwood," they sigh, "but there are no trains so we're going straight back home." Not only has the 497 launched well over a year before Crossrail opens, but its first weekend coincides with the entire eastern chunk of TfL Rail being closed.
The first actual bus stop is round the back of the Gallows Corner Tesco. Nobody gets on and nobody gets off, despite it being peak Saturday shopping hours, but a few waiting passengers stare at us in a baffled way. We then join the queue of cars waiting to exit, which is brutal because the A12 is a jammed barrier which blights north-south travel across Havering. By the time we've finally crept up to the lights and slipped through, our entire journey (according to the timetable) should already have finished.
I'm expecting more housing after we've crossed the dual carriageway, but no, the next bit is industrial estate. It's also hail and ride again, until we reach a road already served by a bus service at which point bus stops reappear, but only until we turn off after which it's back to hail and ride. This must be one of the cheapest bus routes TfL have ever introduced, resources-wise, because absolutely no new stops or shelters have been added anywhere along the route.
Chatteris Avenue is the key reason the 497 was created, because it used to be the only part of Harold Hill more than 400m from a bus stop. This is TfL's prime metric for network coverage, so closing off this hole ticks a big box. It was only a very small hole, covering (I've counted them) fewer than 100 houses, and nobody was more than 450m away from a bus stop so you could argue why bother? But the Briar Road Estate is more than deserving, a lowly mesh of pebbledash boxes intermittently emblazoned with tatty flags, its residents far more likely to catch a bus than the BMW-incomers back in Kings Park.
A teenager in a top-to-toe tracksuit raises an eyebrow as our 497 passes, because buses have never passed this way before. A woman carrying a 12-pack of Andrex up her garden path stops and visibly questions our presence, then smirks, a brand new journey option alight in her mind. Two angry dogs battle on the greensward. The only other passengers on board turn to each other and chuckle... "I never thought we'd be coming down here!"
And then we turn right onto Hilldene Avenue, our final road... already. Route 497 is barely two and half miles long, brief enough to make it one of London's ten shortest bus routes, which is another reason to question its existence. But we still have three more bus stops to go, the first outside a smashed-up pub, the second outside a boarded-up library. More usefully it's opposite Hilldene Shopping Centre, Harold Hill's retail hub, a monolithic parade of pound shops, takeaways and supermarkets. The smell of fried fish and vinegar is in the air.
We pause at the penultimate stop so a pensioner can interrogate the driver on the new bus service and where it goes. He initially assumed the unfamiliar number must be a mistake, given that the 496, 498 and 499 all run round these parts. He is eventually persuaded, but intends to stick with his normal 256 because that gets to the station faster and more direct. And then that's it, the end of the journey, just before the Gooshays Drive roundabout. The entire route has only served six bus stops, all the rest was notionally hail and ride. And it's taken all of 25 minutes... when it was only timetabled to take 18.
The 497's finest quirk happens after all the passengers have alighted. The timetable makes it look as if the driver has the luxury of 22 minutes to wait before heading off again, but there isn't anywhere local to park so instead they're forced to drive on for another mile and half to the bus stand at Dagnam Park Square. It's already got a toilet, so that's great, but it is yet further evidence that TfL have spent as little as they possibly can on introducing route 497. You need never come and ride it, and most Harold Hill residents never will either.
» Roger was also out and about yesterday, and his report is longer than mine with a lot more photos (which is what you really wanted)
*Options explored in the September 2016 review
Extend 347: £900,000 per year (too expensive)
Restructure 347: £800,000 per year (too impractical)
Extend 346: £545,000 per year (too many negatives)
Extend 496 and 499: £450,000 per year (too generous)
New route 497: £295,000 per year ✔
Extend 499: £200,000 per year (nowhere to park)