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Route 344
30 September 2009

Route 344 has had a few Trident/Enviro400 buses as part of its allocation for some time, following a service enhancement, but the official allocation has changed completely to the type following contract renewal in August 2009. One of the new buses, a batch being shared with route 156, is 9491 (LJ09 OLB), passing along Albert Embankment during September, with an interesting juxtaposition of architecture and nature.

Photo © Danny Robinson.

This photograph is shared under a Creative commons license.

Some of the previous Trident/ALX400 buses are still allocated to Battersea garage for the moment, for routes 211 and C3, so may appear from time to time on the 344. I am therefore including a photo of one of those earlier buses, 9787 or TA87 as it was at the time (KV02 USC) setting off from Clapham Junction (Falcon) for Liverpool Street on 25 February 2006.

Photo © James Fullick.

The 344 was awarded from London General to Limebourne in 1999. The timing was surprising, as the company was just in the throes of pulling out of receivership. Limebourne had been part of the Q-Drive group, but Q-Drive collapsed due to financial problems with the coaching side, causing an abrupt cessation of operations when the receivers arrived. After a period when various operators helped to provide some sort of service, the management managed to salvage the bus operations, and set up a new business called Independent Way, but trading as Limebourne. Alongside a collection of second-hand buses, for the routes contracted for low floor operation, 17 Caetano Compass bodied Darts were ordered (the only ones in London), and were quickly joined by a further 17 for the 344 which had been awarded on the basis of single deckers at a higher frequency, a popular fad at the time.

Just as Connex was being ousted from its South Central train franchise, the company was beginning to become a more familiar face on south London buses. This process was accelerated by the company’s purchase of the troubled Limebourne operation, and a press release from London Buses at the time boasted of the improvements to services that would follow. Limebourne had been notorious for routinely coming bottom in London Buses’ league tables of operator performance; interestingly, the former Limebourne base at Battersea quickly pulled ahead of the original Connex Bus base in Beddington.

One very clear improvement, albeit one that could probably have come about without Connex’s intervention, is the conversion mid-contract of no fewer than three of the company’s routes from overcrowded single deckers to double deck. The first of these was the 344. It had been suggested that Limebourne was not keen to operate double deckers in any quantity, but now Battersea garage has no single deckers at all! The Caetano Darts were duly replaced with new Tridents on the 156 and 344 (the other route that used them, the 42, having been lost).

Soon after Limebourne took over the 344, the service was diverted from London Bridge Station to Liverpool Street Station, ostensibly in replacement for a special peak hours only service on the 149, although about the only bit it actually replaced was the service across Southwark Bridge – the 344 remains the only bus route to use this bridge, once served by a large number of routes. The bridge has become something of a dead end following introduction of the "ring of steel" around the City of London in reaction to IRA attacks in the 1990s, which resulted in the connection via Queen Street to Mansion House and Bank being blocked off. The route also swapped termini with the 49 at Clapham Junction, now running just to the Falcon rather than through the shopping area to the Northcote.

Since Connex Bus ownership has already changed hands twice. National Express bought Connex's bus operations after Connex lost their other UK rail franchise the decided to quit the UK altogether. The operation was re-branded Travel London. Earlier this year, in order to raise cash to reduce its massive debt pile, the troubled National Express group sold the London operation to NedRail, the Dutch operator, which is apparently to re-brand the business as Abellio London!

The 344 itself dates back to the disastrous 1991 Wandsworth area scheme, which saw a large number of routes split into sections and/or converted to single deck/minibus operation. The 170 was drastically chopped down, running only between Roehampton and Clapham Junction, with new route 344 taking over from there as far as Vauxhall. This maintained the useful links from Clapham Junction to the Battersea and Battersea Park areas. The 344 then replaced the 44 beyond Vauxhall to London Bridge via Lambeth, St. George's Circus and Southwark Bridge Road. The 44 was cut back to Vauxhall, but did overlap with the 344 between Battersea and Vauxhall. The section of the 170 between Vauxhall and Aldwych was not replaced, though it was already covered by the 77A (now 87).

See also routes 156, 211, C3, 42, 149, 49, 44, 170, 87

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