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”.
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?