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Slashing Bus Routes Would Cut Off a Lifeline for Ordinary Londoners

For many busses are the only affordable commute.
(Photo by Flikr user Edward Simpson)

Catford Bus Garage is not a place for rhapsody. It’s one of the largest and best-used termini of its kind in south east London and the city as a whole. The name is slightly misleading in truth, being shunted closer to the Bellingham fringes rather than the area’s centre, home to the giant fiberglass cat of legend and a bustling, active high street.

It’s here that serves as Catford’s launchpad to the rest of London. Granted, there are the two train stations, but they’re an expensive, irregular option, and finish early. You can get pretty much anywhere from here, cheaply and frequently. Central, east, the rest of south – joined up in a way that makes an unremarkable slice of semi-suburban Zone 3 feel like London and not just a flailing, self-contained outer limb.


But could be set to change and diminish with last week’s revelation of proposals for permanent TFL cutbacks to the service of several of south east London’s most important bus routes, an effort to “reduce the flow of traffic” in some of London’s busiest areas, which could take effect in 2019.

The 171, the 172 and the 53 – each one is a connective chord to the centre of town and an invaluable, much used means of linking home and work without the punitive expense of travel cards or time consuming rush hour changeovers in already-packed transport hubs. All three face having their routes trimmed, stopping well short of the city centre. There will be a consultation on the plans.

It’s a fairly dismal Wednesday morning in Bellingham. The 171 starts it’s long, sloping journey to Holborn here, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A route that takes in Crofton Park, New Cross, Peckham, Camberwell, Walworth and Waterloo among other places. Under the proposed cuts, the service will terminate at Elephant and Castle, a smallish sounding but hugely impractical change for the passengers that rely on it daily.

I spend a bit of time chatting at the bus stop. A couple of older men give out some curt disapproval, while one woman offers a single word: “disaster”. It isn’t the place for dissertations. People are busy, waiting for their days to start. The bus is just as much of the inevitable morning routine as brushing teeth or gulping down breakfast. Another young woman says she didn’t even know about the cuts, rapidly telling me of her annoyance as she flags one down.


Opposition to the plans arrived almost as soon as the announcement itself, with much more sure to follow before the official consultation takes place in the autumn. For some, it seems like a calculated, perhaps even cynical gamble on the part of TFL to combat a financial squeeze almost amounting to a perfect storm. The well-intentioned four year price freeze introduced by Sadiq Khan last year, plus the swingeing cuts in day-to-day government funding introduced George Osborne's chancellorship and the upcoming opening of Crossrail in December, the swanky new tube line and funnel for Home Counties labour.

Further along the route, by the Brockley Barge Wetherspoons, I briefly get chatting to Keira. She tells me that she works a few jobs, dotted around the city. One of them involves an already laborious journey with a change in town to head further north. Under the proposals, two journeys suddenly becomes three. As it stands, the 171 or the occasional 172 is the springboard for the easiest, least expensive route.

For her, the changes aren’t just an irritation. It means more money from her wages and added time spent lingering at train stations or interchanges. “I didn’t even really know that much about it until the other day”, she adds, “of course it’s going to make a difference to my life”.

The changes, as always, will impact the poorest hardest. It’s not just about money alone. Factor in the time taken to change at Elephant and Castle, plus the added congestion on one of London’s already teeming transport hubs and you create a web of eminently avoidable difficulties in an ever more difficult city. After all the admitted (yet partial and contentious) improvements in south east London’s connectivity, with the 2011 reopening of the old East London Line and its boost to 24-hour status at weekends earlier this year, it’s a retrograde step. All-night trains to Dalston are hardly consolation to a early shift worker in Plumstead, or a school kid in Woolwich.


Halfway to New Cross, I strike up a conversation with 20-something Tom. He’s clad in paint splattered clothes, evidently on his way to work. Tom moved to the Brockley/New Cross borderlands about a year ago. He often finds himself doing long, late hours in town, with the bus providing a cheaper, guaranteed mode of transport between central London and home. “I’ve used the service everyday since I moved here. It’s going to cost me more money: that’s the main point really”, he tells me.

It’s not about nostalgia. No one wants to spend an hour-and-a-half crawling in rush hour traffic from Stanstead Road to Waterloo Station if they can help it. I spent a significant chunk of my youth and adolescent in my grandmother’s flat on Faversham Road, Catford. Her life was shaped around the 171 time table. The train was out of the question, in price and discomfort for an elderly, arthritic woman. My aunt, who I was also lived with, had a grim period using the service to get to a locum job at Camden Council. The commute was harrowing, but doable – just.

It’s the people just about managing that will be losing out. The response to the news has been instructive in several ways. There’s few things quite as effective as transport to highlight the fractures of class and clarify people's attitudes to those they perceive as beneath them in the immutable order of things. There was a tweet doing the rounds when the cutbacks were announced last week. The poster just didn’t see the problem: “The 53, ram packed, day or night, all the way from SE London to Whitehall is honestly the stuff of nightmares! Get a bloody train to Charing Cross, or change at London Bridge. Much more civilised”.

In it’s stunning tone deafness and lack of awareness, it stands as the microblogged equivalent to Thatcher’s grim 1986 dictum about any man “beyond the age of 26, (who) finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure”.

If there’s any failure here, it is surely a city that is prepared to cut its lower income inhabitants off.