“I am personally a bus fanatic!” exclaimed Prime Minister Boris Johnson to a packed House of Commons at Wednesday’s PMQs (January 26) as he attempted to highlight the benefits of his ‘Bus Back Better’ policy against ongoing criticism of alleged parties taking place at Downing Street under his watch.
The PM might have a loose relationship with the truth, but we can believe him on that one. The man loves buses.
As I sat on his baby the very same day, the New Routemaster aka New Bus for London aka ‘Boris bus’ on the 313 from Potters Bar to Enfield, it became apparent to me that the unintended consequences of said fanaticism aren’t probably something worth celebrating.
READ MORE : ‘I went on the London bus that only makes 2 journeys a week and it’s the only route where everyone is happy’
The 313 side-by-side with the non-TfL 610 route. Both the routes run from Hertfordshire into North London.
(Image: Callum Marius)
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The 313 is a rather unassuming low-profile bus route. It skirts along the northern edge of Outer London from Chingford to Enfield, then darts northwards to Potters Bar in Hertfordshire, 13 miles from Central London along a long stretch of countryside A road.
The typical Home Counties commuter town happens to be stomping ground of Oliver Dowden, Conservative Party chairman, who is the local MP and Grant Shapps, Transport Secretary, who happens to live just north of the town. Relatively unknown before the Johnson premiership, they’re now household names thanks to their loyalty to the busgeek-in-Chief.
Perhaps that’s why the Boris bus has ended up on the 313. It’s the only route which goes outside of London which uses these controversial vehicles, which have been riddled with problems since their inception. The three door, two staircase vehicles designed to look like a classic 1956 Routemaster bus ignites a certain Johnsonian populist nostalgia which means it ‘looks good’ next to the tourist attractions of Central London. Out here in Zone 11 (yes, Potters Bar is ‘special fares apply’ Zone 11) they look ridiculous and are inappropriate. Even if unintentional, it’s as if Labour mayor-run TfL is forcing the people of Potters Bar to reap what they sow.
Having travelled from St Albans for an extortionate £6.60 return fare, where buses are deregulated, uncoordinated between different commercial operators and near non-existent on evenings and Sundays, I board the Boris bus with relief that at least there is a frequent, affordable and useful bus service I can take for my onward journey to Enfield.
Only Boris Johnson is threatening that.
Boris buses were introduced to the 313 in late 2020 and are now a familiar sight on the streets of Potters Bar, Hertfordshire
(Image: Callum Marius)
After TfL entered a £2 billion financial hole due to passenger fares revenue disappearing overnight during the first coronavirus-related lockdown, it has been forced to beg Mr Shapps and Mr Johnson for funding to keep it going. So far, on four occasions, the bus fanatic-led government has given TfL less money than it has asked for and told it to make millions in savings – talks now suggesting £500million must be found from cuts or new revenue.
That means TfL has been cutting buses by stealth. Unlike Tubes, trains or trams where you can’t sell them off to other cities, or make instant service changes to save money, buses can be removed from schedules overnight easily. Former Deputy Mayor Heidi Alexander admitted that a loophole allows TfL to change frequencies without public consultation, meaning waiting times go up, the numbers of buses, seating capacity and drivers go down and the service proposition is far less attractive killing off passenger growth. Saves TfL a few quid in the short term to appease Boris but in the long term ruins confidence in buses, the largest mode share of public transport in the UK.
The 313 now could be one of the 100 routes TfL will axe entirely or one of the additional 200 routes which will see the above cuts by stealth in its worse case ‘managed decline’ scenario. In the best case scenario, 41 routes have already been hacked at. Whatever fanaticism which dictates such damage to the bus industry is not bus fanaticism, it’s another kind of fanaticism I dare not imagine.
I touch in with my Oyster card, paying £1.55 for the 6.5 mile journey into North London, seemingly good value for money. Due to the TfL funding hostage situation, that fare will certainly not be £1.55 for much longer. The bus serves several green and yellow Hertfordshire Intalink-branded bus stops as it sneaks out of Potters Bar, which is certainly amusing given how the bus was intended to “brighten the day of all who see it humming along our great city’s streets,” according to the former Mayor.
The back door does not open once, the second staircase used just once or twice. They are surplus to requirements on this low profile route which moves around 1.4million passengers a year (pre-Covid), barely a tenth of what the Central London routes it was intended for move.
The 313 enters London here, just south of the M25 junction at Potters Bar; it then proceeds along a long stretch of country road to Enfield
(Image: Callum Marius)
TfL doesn’t know what to do with these buses. It never really has. Unlike every other type of London bus, TfL actually owns these buses instead of making the operators buy them. So, they are shuffled about to squeeze every last drop out of them. Most recently, TfL performed a musical chairs shuffle of buses to get the Boris buses off the Route 91 as they kept crashing into buildings en-route. Now, it is considering running the buses to the ground once they hit a 14 year life expectancy, not going ahead with a refurbishment plan which would have kept them on the road for longer. Somehow, the 313 has been slapped with them.
The total capital cost to TfL for these Boris buses is almost £350million according to its own calculations, so getting rid of them could certainly save a few quid if it has to make bus cuts anyway. Hold on, £350million, Boris and a big red bus? Where have I heard that one before?
The Boris bus is political, and that’s the only thing it’s good for. It was only born thanks to the hate crime of Boris’ murdering London’s most accessible bus ever, the bendybus, ten years ago. The PM gloats about it in the very first paragraph of his plan to revamp Britain’s buses called ‘Bus Back Better’: “As mayor of London, I was proud to evict from the capital that mobile roadblock, the bendy bus, and to replace it with a thousand sleek, green, streetgracing New Routemasters.”
When it comes to the detail on what ‘Bus Back Better’ actually looks like, turn to page 67 and you’ll notice a beautiful image and description of: “tram-style vehicles, which have three sets of doors on each vehicle for speedy alighting and boarding. The Glider provides an inclusive environment, including separate areas for wheelchair users and passengers with pushchairs, step free boarding and audible and visible stop announcements.” That’s right, if it looks like a bendybus and sounds like a bendybus, it’s a bendybus. His own policy admits bendybuses are ‘inclusive’ and ‘better’. The word for this is not fanatic, it’s hypocrite.
Looks like a bendybus to me
(Image: DfT / Translink)
Back to my 313 journey, the bus starts its long promenade down the A1005, known as The Ridgeway. I move to the front seat of the top deck, which offers quite a surreal ride. For all their ills, the Boris buses do accelerate quickly and the bus reaches its upper speed limit of around 50mph as I look out to the glorious Green Belt of rolling hills which form the boundary between London and Hertfordshire. It is a must do for bus fanatics, so perhaps there is a method in Boris’ madness after all.
I get off the 313 in Enfield. A few hours later, I then take it back to Potters Bar. Perhaps I have been too critical, surely there is not an endemic problem with the passenger service offering by bus services across most of the UK, hindered by a lack of focused and innovative leadership?
The ride and the view from the Boris bus 313 along The Ridgeway is quite charming despite the absurdity of how it came to be
(Image: Callum Marius)
I stood at Potters Bar station for the bus back to St Albans. It never came. There was no information, I could see on the company’s Twitter six other journeys on the route had been cancelled but there was nothing about the one I wanted to take. Funny that as page 39 of ‘Bus Back Better’ hails Hertfordshire as a bus passenger information success.
I suppose I could have written a letter to Boris to complain, perhaps he could do something? I decided not to though, he’d only make it worse, not better.
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Follow MyLondon’s Transport Correspondent Callum Marius on Twitter @callummarius
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