All bent up – bendy bus cuts put pressure on the 53

One thing I missed while I was away – the final bendy 453, which snaked its way through New Cross and Deptford while I was out in Hamburg watching bands at the Reeperbahn Festival. It’s since emerged that the new 453 service will provide less space for passengers than the old did – see BBC London’s Tom Edwards here and Brockley Central here. In short, the 453 is being cut back outside the rush hour, with extra buses only added to compensate for the lack of bendies in the peak hours (and, more happily, overnight).

All of this is going to mean more work for the 453’s poor, wizened, overburdened old relative, the 53. Some of us will remember the 53’s glory days as a Routemaster when it went to Camden Town and beyond. Sat on Plumstead Common and fancied a change of scene? The 53 would take you to the slopes of Hampstead Heath, at Parliament Hill Fields, in the 1980s. I’d pay good money to be able to do that now.

But the Routemasters, and the excursions into North London, went in 1988; and in 2003 the 53’s dignity was eroded further when it was cut back to Whitehall. No more buses home from Oxford Circus – that was now the job of Mayor Ken’s shiny new 453. Originally scheduled to run to and from a redeveloped Convoy’s Wharf the 453 ran from Deptford Bridge to Marylebone, shadowing the 53 for most of the way.

To free up the resources for the 453, the 53 was cut in frequency. While this meant, overall, there was an increased frequency through the areas served by both buses – including, handily, down Whitehall and past Parliament – this meant a cut in the service east of Deptford. Before 2003, nearly 50 buses were out and about on the 53 in the rush hour. Today, the job is done by 27 buses. What used to run every three or four minutes now runs every six to eight minutes – and that’s the way it has been for the past eight years.

But the 53 can barely cope with demand as it is. Have you ever caught a 53 – particularly in the evening – that isn’t packed to the gills? I sometimes get it from the top of Blackheath Hill at around 11pm and it’s rammed. Catch it at its first stop, opposite Horse Guards Parade, and it’s a pleasant ride from the top deck. Catch it from the Elephant and Castle – the London bus equivalent of London Bridge station’s hellish platform four – and you’re in for a rough ride.

So the Plumstead to Deptford stretch of the 53 suffered so Ken Livingstone could impress politicians with his bendy 453. With Boris Johnson vowing to axe the bendies, would the 53 be tweaked when the 453 changed?

Nope. While the 453 has a new timetable, the 53 has the same old one, with no changes to compensate for the alteration to its sister service. For the second time in a decade, the 53 suffers because political decisions are taking priority over sensible transport decisions.

At least with the introduction of the bendies, the bus network was changed to accomodate them – the 12 and 36 were also altered at this time. But there are no such changes to take into account the bendies’ removal – and the surge in use of London buses over recent years – when this would be a perfect time to reassess the routes and try to plug some gaps to ease demand on services like the 53.

It’s at this point I start imagining new lines on a map. Why not bring in a Lewisham-Elephant & Castle service? Those two places haven’t had a direct bus for 12 years. Or something new to ease the other pinch point on the 53, at New Cross? Camberwell to Blackheath Standard, then onto Queen Elizabeth Hospital. New links all around, more buses along a busy stretch of the 53 route. Job done.

It’s all very well getting rid of the bendies if that’s what the Evening Standard London wants. But it should at least be done properly – and that involves thinking about the routes around them as well. For now, though, it’s time to hold on tighter on the 53…

3pm update: Should have added this earlier – for those who think bendy buses are best off serving “some Scandinavian airport”, here’s a double-bendy bus negotiating a tight bend in Hamburg. Not so difficult, is it?

9 comments

  1. Great post!

    Lewisham-Elephant is one of the more baffling omissions in the current bus network, albeit that the 53 and 21 each serve one of the two places and pass within a ten- or fifteen-minute walk of the other. Ten-minute walks are not really the point of bus hubs, though!

    You may have been away, but I was there, riding one of the final bendy 453s from end to end, and tweeting: http://storify.com/bitoclass/453-bus-debendification

  2. What about a bus from Charlton Village to Greenwich town centre? Surprisingly there isn’t one, and car parking in Greenwich town centre is now £2.50 per hour.

  3. Paul – the silly thing is, Lewisham to the Elephant used to be done by the 199 until the Jubilee Line opened (and, for the really ancient among us, the 1). It’s one of those links that’s withered away over the years.

    Steve – extend it at one end to Brockley and at the other to Queen Elizabeth Hospital (and maybe even Eltham), and that’s a job done, I think. Sorts out the missing Brockley-Greenwich link and the missing Charlton Road-QE problem.

  4. I meant to photograph, but forgot, the bendy Citaro serving old Sydney town centre yesterday, with bends at least as bendy as London Town. Just like the bendies in London, it was doing a perfectly decent job – but luckily, politicians here chose a different topic for their insane irrational ideological campaigns.

    Actually, scrub that. Every second the Tories devote to “making buses very slightly worse” is a second they don’t devote to doing REALLY BAD THINGS that actually matter…

  5. I was quite relieved that the 53 still makes through as far as Whitehall. There were plans in the 90s to split the route as 453 Elephant – Plumstead and 53 Oxford Circus – New Cross. They would’ve had to get past me first!

    Although I would prefer it if the 53 still made it to Oxford Circus, turning it at Whitehall at least keeps it clear of the bus snarl-up that is Trafalgar Square these days. I suppose we have the Jubilee Line now which partially explains the reductions over time & the 422 does at least provide another alternative between Woolwich and Blackheath. But the old X53 is sadly missed. It’ll be interesting to see how the 12 losing its bendies will affect the 53/453.

    On a slightly different note, has anyone seen one of the hybrid buses that are coming in on the 380 yet? I’ve heard they’re quite a bit longer than the current buses which makes me wonder how they’ll fit round it.

    I can take this anorak off now.

  6. […] occasions when a bicycle or train wouldn’t do the job. This week, local blogger Darryl marks the end of the 453 bendy bus. The bendy buses have been one big political pantomime, introduced as a conspicuous symbol of […]

  7. I used to catch the 25 in the city which was a bendy. Being an important route from the West end to East London they simply replaced it with twice as many double deckers. There is one every 6 minutes according to the signs and it seems true as the wait time is minimal. What I’m annoyed about is how can one bendy bus cause more congenstion than two double deckers?

  8. Unfortunately, one of the reasons the bendy 453 took the strain off the 53 was that it was a ‘free bus’. There were times the 453 would be jammed with people who’d just ignored a quieter 53 because they didn’t want to pay the fare. Also, the lack of driver control over how many people got on could make it unbearable at busy times. Overall, I’m not sorry to see it go – but I do agree that more thought was needed, and wish they would implement the improvements you suggest.

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