The 53. Everybody loves the 53. It finds the parts of south-east London other links with the centre of town can’t reach – even if it isn’t allowed too near any fun spots any more (Routemasters ran to Camden until 1988, it last reached Oxford Circus in 2003).
The Plumstead to Whitehall service is also a vital connection for those who can’t or won’t pay expensive rail fares – from London’s army of service workers to those who simply appreciate a door-to-door connection with a view from the window.
It’s these people who’ve borne the brunt of fare rises under the current mayor – up from 90p in 2008 to £1.50 today. And for them, it’s about to get worse still. Travelling on the 53 yesterday, I noticed this message…
“From 17th Jan, route 53 will terminate at Lambeth North.”
Being cut to Lambeth North? From Saturday? No consultation, no notice, no explanation? I fired off a few tweets to see if anyone could work out what was going on.
It turns out things aren’t as bad as the scrolling message would indicate – the cut is a temporary one to facilitate roadworks at Parliament Square. I’m indebted to transport expert Paul Corfield, who passed on this from TfL this morning:
BRIDGE STREET/PARLIAMENT STREET, SW1 ROUTE 53: from 0415 Saturday 17th of January until Sunday 29th March, buses terminate and start at Lambeth Palace due to closure of Bridge Street SW1 for utilities work and carriageway resurfacing.
It’d nice if TfL had given us a bit more warning, of course, and maybe even talked it over with local representatives. At least it’s a temporary cut, but it’s going to be a painful one for many – especially with other connections with central London in turmoil.
But it’s worth watching this like a hawk. London Transport tried to cut the 53 back to the Elephant & Castle in the late 1990s, arguing that the new Jubilee Line extension meant it was no longer needed. I’m sure TfL would love to try that again if it knew it could get away with it. It helped that back then, local MP Nick Raynsford was a regular on the 53, as it provided a near-door to door link from his home to Parliament. In the end, express buses were axed – heaven knows they’d be useful now.
Indeed, the often-packed 53 really needs a modern-day champion. Frequencies were cut when the 453 was introduced in 2003 and haven’t been improved since, with successive mayors concentrating on the other service. The big groups of passengers changing from the 453 to the 53 at Deptford Bridge tell their own story.
So the news isn’t as bad as it first appears. But if you value a bus to central London, it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.
5.25pm update: Thanks to Neil for sharing the email he had from TfL in the comments below – the curtailment won’t apply overnight, so from midnight to 6am buses will still depart from Whitehall. The arrangements, worryingly, are “until further notice”.
Sighs of relief in New Cross today, as its fire station has escaped closure under revised plans to make £29m of cuts to the London Fire Brigade.
But the news isn’t so good for Woolwich fire station, tucked away in the back streets – one of 10 stations still due to shut by October, although fire chiefs now plan to give East Greenwich a second engine to partly compensate for the loss.
The Fire Brigades Union says the campaign against the remaining closures, which also include Downham fire station, will go on; while the political fall-out is bound to continue.
But it’s worth comparing and contrasting the approaches taken by both Lewisham and Greenwich councils with emergency services under threat in their patches. They differ somewhat – and, as we can see, ended up with differing results, too.
Lewisham fired off a seven-page response to the proposals from a senior council officer, after inviting its borough commander to two council meetings. Lewisham had two stations under threat on its patch – New Cross and Downham. Its response takes each point in turn, and contains a wealth of statistics and real examples of how the borough and its neighbours would be affected by the proposed closures (51% of New Cross call-outs are in Southwark, with a small handful in Greenwich).
That latter point’s an important one – borough boundaries are irrelevant in the fire cuts debate, as many stations predate even the old metropolitan boroughs, never mind the current ones; indeed, east London tenders are sometimes called to fires on this side of the Thames, and vice versa.
So we learn from Lewisham’s document that one in 20 of Downham’s stations call-outs go into Greenwich borough – presumably towards Eltham and Mottingham.
Greenwich sent a two-page letter from cabinet member Maureen O’Mara. It focuses solely on Woolwich and contains two glaring errors.
The first is in a strange example given to demonstrate traffic congestion…
Woolwich often experiences serious traffic congestion particularly when the Woolwich Ferry is busy with large lorries queuing to cross the river or when only one ferry is in operation. For example, the mean weekday run time on bus route 472 (which runs on the Woolwich side of the ferry), over a six month period (January to June 2012) is 1.1 minutes. However the maximum run time (during congested periods) is 42.6 minutes.
And the other seems to get Plumstead and Greenwich fire stations mixed up…
There is a major chemical factory in the Plumstead area which the Fire Brigade has committed to attend within six minutes in the event of a fire. If appliances based at Greenwich had already been called out to a fire elsewhere, the next closest ones would be in East Greenwich and would not be able to arrive within the agreed time frame.
Hopefully a corrected version was sent. There’s no mention of Downham, even though it serves Greenwich borough residents. It also misses the fact that Woolwich fire station serves a small part of London City Airport’s crash zone – a big argument on its favour.
The response largely falls back on the same old stuff about population growth, but there’s no research into how the fire brigade serves Greenwich borough. Compared with Lewisham, it’s a very limp response indeed.
The question’s got to be asked – how serious was Greenwich Council about saving Woolwich fire station?
The London Fire Brigade report into the consultation says the council refused to put up posters publicising a consultation meeting held in Greenwich on 28 May – forcing it to rely on editorial in the council’s weekly Greenwich Time instead. Why on earth would any council decline to put up posters for a public meeting about something which could have such grave consequences for its residents?
It’s worth pointing out that local Labour party members – including local councillor and cabinet member John Fahy – actively campaigned to retain the fire station. But why didn’t the council that their party supposedly runs back them with something meaningful, rather than a token letter?
Still, if Greenwich Time is stil limping on in a year’s time, there might be a nice little puff piece for some luxury flats in an old fire station in Woolwich, with some quote about how it’s a pleasing sign of the area’s regeneration. We’ll just have to hope a fire doesn’t break out…
South-east London’s first cycle superhighway will only run as far as New Cross Gate after Transport for London abandoned plans to run it as far as Lewisham.
Route CS5, which is due to open next year, is being cut short because “opportunities to introduce Cycle Superhighway-type infrastructure are limited” at the New Cross one-way system and on Lewisham Way, where the route was due to run towards Lewisham town centre.
The Barclays Bank-backed route will run from Victoria, across Vauxhall Bridge, and through Kennington, Camberwell and Peckham to meet the A2 at the Queen’s Road/ New Cross Road junction. It is due to open next year.
A letter from TfL told cycling campaigners it had “decided to concentrate investment in the area of highest potential demand” but would still deliver 700 metres of cycle lanes between New Cross and Lewisham, albeit without the distinctive blue branding.
CS5 will be London’s fifth cycle superhighway, and is due to the the first to head into south-east London. A further route, CS4, is due to run from London Bridge via Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, Deptford, Greenwich and Charlton to Woolwich in 2015.
While some parts of the fledgling superhighway network, like the one pictured above on Cable Street in Wapping, are generously-sized, other parts of it have been criticised for being too narrow and too dangerous. Last year, two cyclists died within three weeks at the end of CS2, at the Bow flyover in east London.
If TfL is unwilling to alter roads in New Cross to accommodate safe lanes for cyclists, it remains to be seen if CS4 will run to its full length, since it has the obstacle of the Woolwich Road flyover in east Greenwich to cross – where a cyclist died in 2009 – as well as the Greenwich one-way system.
Mayor Boris Johnson told a London Assembly meeting in May there was “a plan” to introduce Dutch-style cycling infrastructure at Vauxhall Cross – on the route of CS5 – and “in Greenwich”. Six months on, neither he nor TfL have elaborated on what he meant, or where he was talking about.
2.55pm update: London Assembly transport committee chair Caroline Pidgeon says: “Just one week after the Mayor and TfL were boasting about the new Victoria to Lewisham Superhighway we now discover that the plans have been seriously scaled back.
“The excuses for not linking the Superhighway to Lewisham show a total lack of ambition by Transport for London.
“This foolish decision suggests the Mayor of London is not really serious about introducing Dutch-style cycling infrastructure across London.”
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?
I took a trip on my bike last week to north London. Up from the Woolwich Ferry, through the docks, up the Greenway to the Olympic Park, through Victoria Park and Hackney, along the canal and up to Highbury, where I stood in the middle of the old Arsenal Stadium, gawping at the redevelopment as the sun set. Somehow, I could still see Thierry Henry backheeling the ball past Dean Kiely as I stood under the Clock End, looking at the flats that surrounded me. The Highbury ghosts glowed as brightly as the flat screen TVs out of each window. I shuddered, and moved on. Time to go home.
I cheated and took the bike on the train. Canonbury to Kidbrooke via the all-new extended East London line – not glamorous, but it did the job. But it got me thinking. Why was the East London line extended from New Cross Gate, but not New Cross? In fact, the New Cross route is the Cinderella service of the shiny new Overground. Trains only run to and from Dalston Junction, so if you travel from Highbury or Canonbury you have to change trains and face a five or 10-minute wait.
It seems such a waste to have kept the line running only to New Cross. An Overground link to Lewisham would be tremendously useful, and from there there’s a host of places it could run. But it dawned on me as I got to Kidbrooke that there was a big housing development here – and one crappy station with a rubbish service that Southeastern, with its newly-extended contract, is unlikely to improve. Will Kidbrooke Village‘s new residents really tolerate a miserable two trains per hour in the evenings? As I pedalled out via the still-dismal bus interchange, the question hit me. Why on earth isn’t the London Overground going to Kidbrooke?
There are obstacles in the way of this – you’d have to build new junctions at New Cross, and the tangle of train tracks around Lewisham station (which contains a “temporary” bridge erected after the 1957 crash) would have to be sorted out. Yet this shouldn’t be a reason not to do something here – surely all south-east London’s train services would benefit from fixing the junction at Lewisham, where capacity is limited because trains clatter across each other’s paths. In fact, it’s that limited capacity which saw Blackheath lose some of its trains to central London, to free up space for extra trains from Orpington.
If this can be fixed, then you could have Overground trains running through St Johns and Lewisham through to Blackheath, the new homes at Kidbrooke, and to give a much-needed boost to transport in Eltham too. Further on, an Overground connection would help Bexleyheath feel less remote. It’s not as if Kidbrooke Village developer Berkeley Homes isn’t keen on investing in local transport – it’s paying for initial work on the Woolwich Crossrail station – so surely it and Barratt Homes, which is building new homes at Lewisham, could be tapped up for cash for these improvements which will add extra value to their developments.
I’m thinking aloud here, because I’d like to know what you think. But it does strike me as strange that nobody lobbied for such an extension to the Overground when it was being built – and that nobody’s lobbying for it now.
Diamond Geezer visited the other Blackheath Library. That’s almost certainly safe as houses, but there’s no word from Greenwich Council yet on the future of its library service – just the old rumours about them going self-service and/or being spun-off into a separate organisation. Unless you know different, of course…
I was six when the New Cross fire happened, so my memories of it are dim to say the least. In the early hours of 18 January 1981, a fire at at a 16th birthday party on New Cross Road killed 13 young people. They were all black, all aged between 15 and 20. A survivor took his own life a couple of years later. Today, a memorial plaque was unveiled at the site of the fire.
It was thought at the time that it was a racist attack – there had been others in south-east London during the 1970s, and these were the days of a significant National Front prescence in the area. Some still believe it was a racist attack. What is known, though, is that abusive letters were sent to victims’ families, who were treated harshly by both the police and the media.
Some weeks later, supporters’ of the victims’ families marched from Fordham Park to Hyde Park, angered at the way they had been treated. The Sun headlined its story: “The Day the Blacks Ran Riot in London”. Later still, a wave of riots swept through Britain’s inner cities – notably in Brixton. The Scarman report into the Brixton riot spoke of “a tale of failure“ in the police’s relations with black communities.
In recent years, we’ve watched the casual racism and sexism of 70s and 80s Britain in police drama Ashes to Ashes, where if your face didn’t fit, you were a non-person. In the 1970s and 1980s, great swathes of New Cross and Deptford found their faces didn’t fit – and were reminded of it on a daily basis.
The last inquest into the fire deaths, in 2004, recorded an open verdict.
The sense of injustice remains. Playwright Rex Obano, who is helping to organise the memorial event at the Albany on Friday, was featured in an article in The Guardian this week. He stated: “To me, the New Cross fire, the fact that no one in authority seemed to care, forced the black community to unify, to find its voice in a way it hadn’t before. This politicised people from all over the country. They marched in protest: thousands of people on a workday. I was 13 at the time and I always thought the older generation was comparatively passive. New Cross shows it wasn’t like that at all. They dealt with so much. There had been other uprisings. But this was a line in the sand.” – Transpontine: New Cross Fire – the bleakest moment.
Until the week before the fire I was living on the Old Kent Road, next to the Dun Cow, a little bit further up the road from the New Cross end where the fire took place, so such a terrible event felt very close to home.. A week after the fire we turned up at a flat in Clapham North invited by a couple we hardly knew… Talk naturally turned to the New Cross fire. The casual racism with which one of the party introduced it quickly developed into a into a shocking and callously racist dismissal of a group of young black people’s lives… That we apparently shared their abhorrent racist views was their unspoken assumption. – Deptford Visions: The New Cross Fire, a memory
As a fledgling reporter on the South London Press, the Deptford fire was my first big story… That same weekend a number of teenagers died in a fire at a disco in Ireland, prompting an immediate letter of condolence from Buckingham Palace. No such message was sent to the families of those who died in Deptford. This only fuelled the suspicion that the establishment, the police, the media and white society in general regarded the deaths of black people as less important. – Martyn Bedford, The Guardian
Three decades on, and 439 New Cross Road is a smart terraced house. For those not around at the time, it’s hard to comprehend just what happened that year. But what can’t be denied is that its effects are still being felt. At least now, the site of the tragedy has some official recognition.
Transpontine’s posts on the fire and its aftermath make for enlightening, and moving reading.