Stealth bus cuts start to bite in SE London: Route 89 is latest target

Route 89
There will be fewer 89s crossing Blackheath from the end of the month

Transport for London’s bus service cuts are spreading further into south east London, with a key route linking Lewisham, Shooters Hill and Bexleyheath being reduced in frequency.

Route 89, which runs from Lewisham to Slade Green, will be trimmed back to five buses per hour rather than six during Monday to Saturday daytimes from 25 November.

Night service N89, between Trafalgar Square and Erith, faces an even more severe cutback, dropping from three buses an hour to just two at weekends – even though the service will feed into all-night Overground services at New Cross Gate from next month.

Other key routes have already been quietly cut back with little publicity “to better match demand” as TfL grapples with a steep loss in income.

Route 47, which links Shoreditch with Catford bus garage, has also been cut from six buses an hour to five, with Sunday passengers getting just three buses per hour.

There have also been cuts to another key Lewisham service, route 321 (New Cross Gate to Foots Cray).

TfL’s finances are being squeezed by central government scrapping its grant funding as well as mayor Sadiq Khan freezing some fares until 2020. Increased traffic congestion in central London has been blamed for falls in bus ridership after years of growth.

This process of stealth cuts has been taking place for some time – firstly with fringe routes on the borders of Greater London, then as a reaction to congestion in central London. But now the process appears to be accelerating and broadening in scope.

N89 bus
N89 users will face longer waits at weekends (Photo: Aubrey Morandarte via Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

All three daytime routes have seen declines in passenger numbers in recent years – and all were also affected by congestion in Lewisham town centre as the road network was remodelled.

The 89 has gone down from 3.94 million trips in 2012/13 to 3.62 million in 2016/17.

The 47 went down from 7.74 million passengers in 2010/11 to 7.29 million in 2014/15. It recorded 5.63 million passengers in the last financial year, but that will also reflect the route being cut back in central London due to construction works.

And the 321 has lost 600,000 passengers after recording 5.59 million in 2011/12.

Night routes have also been hit by competition from minicab app Uber, which offers heavily subsidised fares while it builds up market share, while the roll-out of Night Tube services has also led to service cuts.

The N89 recorded 363,734 annual users in 2013/14, but this dropped to 300,893 in 2016/17 – through a time that has seen the rise of Peckham as a nightlife destination and the Night Tube to North Greenwich (and minicab or 486 to Shooters Hill and Bexleyheath) as an alternative to waiting for a bus in the West End.

While trimming bus services may seem a logical response to a financial crunch and falling usership – and is certainly easier than taking on congestion or heavily-subsidised minicabs – many in the industry fear that hard-won gains in bus services are being lost, and a once-booming service will start to become unattractive for customers and will go into decline.

Other services that have recently been cut include the 269 (Bexleyheath to Bromley) and P12 (Surrey Quays to Brockley Rise). Diamond Geezer has been keeping a full list.

Some of the planned changes to buses for the opening of Crossrail also include stealth cuts – such as replacing the six-buses-per-hour 180 to Lewisham with a 129 that runs just five times an hour.

Without a change in policy from either the mayor or central government, it looks as if the story of bus cuts will go on for some time yet – and is one to keep a close eye on.

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