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Route 61
13 December 2006

The 61’s main claim to fame is its ten years of operation by the Orpington based Metrobus company. Metrobus was formed in September 1983 with a small commercial network centred on Croydon – Orpington route 353. However, the company soon branched out into tendered bus work for London Transport, and the first route was the 61. This more than doubled the size of the fleet, and 13 former London Transport DMS class Fleetlines were acquired to run the route. This was the option chosen by LT against options of new double or single deckers.

Metrobus, as a small company, had put quality of service at the top of the priority list from the start, and standards were not going to be allowed to slip on the LT work. Indeed the 61 gained much acclaim for the way it was run by the company, and is probably just about the only route where the promise that “We do all we can to run the services shown but circumstances beyond our control mean that we may not always succeed” printed on bus timetables was arguably fulfilled.

The company’s blue and yellow liveried buses took the route over from 30 August 1986, at which time the section between Chislehurst and Eltham on Mondays to Saturdays was transferred to new route 61B. This replaced an original intention to split the route at Orpington, which would have resulted in the loss of links to Farnborough and Bromley Hospitals from Petts Wood and Chislehurst. The original proposal was entirely understandable, as in its current form the route is a 10-mile-long U shape, yet Bromley to Chislehurst is only 3 miles by the direct route.

The section between Chislehurst and Eltham via Edgebury and New Eltham was in fact the longest-standing section of the route, the section beyond Orpington to Locksbottom and Bromley having come only later. The 61B lasted only a matter of months, being replaced from the same November by circular routes 228A/C which were in turn renumbered to 228/328 in 1988. Initially the 61 continued to run to Eltham on Sundays only, until January 1991 when the 228/328 were introduced on Sundays throughout allowing the 61 to be standardised to run between Chislehurst and Bromley only. The 228 and 328 were later replaced by alterations to the 160 and 233.

Meanwhile, Metrobus began to upgrade its double deck fleet from 1989 with new Leyland bodied Leyland Olympians, with a total of 15 eventually entering the fleet. Three or four were bought each year, until when, by the end of 1992, almost all the DMSs had been removed, the remaining two being relegated to spares only.

A major blow came in 1996 when the route was re-tendered. Contracts, although awarded for a fixed term, were often extended at LT’s discretion, usually where an operator’s performance was up to scratch. The 61 had by these means run nearly five years longer than the contract. However, this was deemed against the spirit of competitive tendering, and so routes now have to be re-tendered when the existing contracts expire. The Orpington area Roundabout network of minibuses was being re-tendered, and the opportunity was taken by throwing route 61 in as well. The most unexpected result of this exercise was that most of the routes, including the 61, were lost to a total newcomer to the area, in the shape of Centrewest, a former London Buses subsidiary based in west London.

A new base was set up in Orpington for the routes for the start from 13 March 1996. For the 61, thirteen new Volvo Olympians were purchased; when operated by Metrobus, the route had a vehicle requirement for 10 buses, but an extra journey was added to the timetable at school times to overcome overcrowding, increasing the requirement to 11. In other respects, however, the timetable was almost entirely unchanged, apart from the withdrawal of short working journeys on depot runs to and from Metrobus’s depot in Green Street Green.

Despite assurances that Centrewest would strive to maintain standards, it soon became evident that they could not, and the 61 is really pretty much like any other bus route these days — although, it has to be said, Metrobus has also suffered an amount of slippage, no doubt due to the rapid expansion that has occurred over the last few years. But, initially, there were many hot collars and strained words, and Metrobus even registered a commercial 610 over the same route. However, this slightly childish sounding proposal was not taken up in the event, because work was found for the drivers by taking over four routes (138, 161, 181, 284) from the troubled Kentish Bus.

Contract renewal again in December 2001 resulted in new vehicles low floor Volvo B7TL double deckers being introduced. The 61 timetable had become decidedly old-fashioned in the eyes of LT, who liked to see Monday to Friday shopping hours frequencies matching the peak frequency — even if there is not the demand. Therefore the previous 15 minute service at these times was increased to 12. More seriously, the Sunday service was only half hourly, and furthermore was operated using Dennis Darts from the R1/R11 allocation and was consequently quite severely overcrowded. Again the new contract addressed this problem with a 20 minute Sunday service and the same vehicles as the rest of the week, although oddly the Sunday evening service remained half hourly, when it it is every 20 minutes during the week.

Further tendering for December 2001 saw the route changes hands again, the route being one of a spate of losses by First recently. This time the beneficiary is Selkent, whose Bromley garage operated the route prior to its loss to Metrobus. The route was won while Selkent was still part of the Stagecoach group, but the London operations have now been sold to Macquarie bank and local management have decided to restore the previous identities.

Photo © James Fullick.

First up is 19133, LX56 EAJ, heading north opposite Bromley garage on the second day of Selkent operation, 10 December 2006, displaying the reinstated "Bunch of hops" logo to good effect. The Selkent name, incidentally, is a contraction of South East London & Kent, although their Kentish presence is largely confined to postal districts! Hitherto Stagecoach's London low floor double deck fleet had consisted entirely of Alexander ALX400 bodied Tridents, but the bodywork design has now been replaced by this Enviro400 design. Personally I think they look rather odd with a bulging front married to completely flat sides; inside they offer the highest yet number of seats downstairs for a low floor decker, although some of them have been squeezed into rather unsuitable spaces. These are the first Enviro400s for former Stagecoach operations, and also the first long wheelbase Enviro400s anywhere in London.

The new buses were a couple of weeks late being delivered so to start the route off some existing fleet Tridents had to be scrambled together at short notice. As they are likely to appear from time to time even when all the new buses are delivered I have taken the opportunity to include 17356 (X356 NNO), now one of the oldest in the fleet, seemingly carrying a good load in the other direction on the same day. This bus, like a number of others, carries advertising for TfL’s Oyster Cards on the sides; it is strange how the strict regulations on red paintwork can be relaxed when it suits TfL!

Photo © James Fullick.

The new contract again resulted in some controversy as it was decided to reduce the main daytime frequency from every 5 to 4 buses an hour – which is rather ironic given the changes made in the previous contract change! However the main reason is the improved service levels on other routes serving the same area with the recent double deck conversion of route 353 and the planned extension of route 261 to Locksbottom – although the latter has had to be deferred due to a lack of stand space. If London’s transport network were truly integrated the 61 reduction would have been put on hold until whenever the 261 can be extended, but the bureaucracy of individual route contracts makes that too complicated!

See also routes 353, 160, 233, 286, 138, 161, 181, 284, R1, R11, 261

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