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“Why was the 351 re-numbered 354?” was the question asked of me a few years ago. The 351 was an unpretentious little midibus route linking Penge and Bromley via various back roads, and the local clientele could not see any reason for a couple of strokes being added to the route number. However, while to the general public there was nothing obvious to distinguish the 351, this was no ordinary route, being a commercial route by Metrobus rather than contracted by London Buses as is the case on almost any other route.
During the late 1980s and 1990s, Metrobus had built up an extensive and unique network of commercial bus services centred around Bromley. While London Transport, or Transport for London as it is now called, is responsible for the provisison of London’s Bus network, anyone is allowed to run buses as long as they obtain a so-called London Local Service Agreement (formerly Section 3(2) agreement). In principle there is no obligation for LT to make such an agreement, but as long as there is no reasonable objection they will usually be granted. LLSAs are most useful on cross-border routes, which are unfortunately in no-man’s land as far as responsibility is concerned, but there were a handful of routes, such as the 351, entirely within London.
The small number is no doubt due to the fact that – strangely – it is very hard to make a profit on London bus work, and most routes require varying levels of subsidy. However, Metrobus bravely persisted with its little network, which saw a number of often innovative changes intended to make the routes more useful. Very little of the network has been abandoned, demonstrating a determination to succeed. However, increasing interference by London Buses, as well as reduction of fares to uneconomic levels, combined with the need to fund increased service levels, meant that Metrobus was no longer able to operate the routes without subsidy, and all their London area routes have therefore been absorbed into the London Buses network.
This happened to the 351 on 6 July 2002; because there was another 351, an LLSA route in the Romford area, the opportunity was taken to change the number to avoid confusion at LB headquarters. However, only two years previously there had been another 354 in the Bromley area, also a commercial route by Metrobus, but which was withdrawn upon the opening of Tramlink with partial replacement by route T33, so this change could well have caused confusion with passengers instead! Ironically, the Romford 351 was severely cut down quite soon after, and withdrawn altogether a few years later!
The 351 was introduced in March 1991 to serve the Ravensbourne area of Bromley, and also the Churchfields area of Beckenham. The latter was particularly useful since London Transport route 194 had had to be diverted away from Elmers End Road due to the weak bridge at Elmers End station; in the event this “temporary” diversion became permanent as the routeing through Beckenham proved useful, but the 351 makes up for that. Initially the 351 ran half-hourly, but demand soon saw this upped to every 20 minutes, and the original Mercedes 709D minibuses were replaced by larger 8.5m Dennis Darts from August of the same year.
The 351 started off running pretty much the same route as presently, i.e. from Bromley North to the Crooked Billet terminus in Penge. To begin with buses ran via Oakfield Road in Anerley, but later the route was diverted via Anerley Park instead, albeit with buses towards Penge having to miss most of this road, due to it being one way, and running via Thicket Road instead. Later the route was extended from Penge to Lower Sydenham, adding Kent House Road to the bus map, initially with a one way loop via Kent House Lane.
A more major development was the introduction of new route 361. The 351 reverted to half-hourly, but the 361 doubled this up on the busiest sections, also providing some new links. The 361 ran as the 351 to Beckenham, then diverting via Village Way to take over the former 352 route via Eden Park, Elmers End, Birkbeck (where it met up again briefly with the 351) and Norwood Junction to Crystal Palace. This coincided with the opening of a new Savacentre store at Lower Sydenham, and the full length of Kent House Road was now served in both directions so that the 351 could terminate at the store.
A further development in 1999 saw buses omit a short section of Kent House Road, running instead via New Beckenham station and serving the Cator Park area. However, this proved to be a fatal mistake as the extra minutes added to the journey time made the timetable almost impossible to keep to, and the reliability of the 351 and 361 dropped to unacceptable levels. In addition, London Transport Buses wanted to take over the section of the 361 between Norwood Junction and Crystal Palace by extending route 410, so Metrobus took the opportunity to re-cast the routes completely. The 361 was withdrawn, and, ironically, the 351 reverted to exactly the same form as before, running every 20 minutes from Bromley to Penge! The left over bits were taken over by new route 356.
Metrobus acquired 7 9m Dennis Darts from Kentish Bus in 1996, when it took over route 181 from KB. Later that year, the 181 was converted to longer 9.8m Darts, and the ex-KB Darts were moved to the 351/361. However, now that the route has been absorbed into the TfL network, it has been subject to tender; following an initial temporary (17 month) contract, Metrobus successfully retained the route for a 5 year term from 30 August 2003, and new low floor Darts were specified.
Following completion of the route contracts they were re-tendered after 5 years, and perhaps surprisingly were awarded to Selkent, thus ending 17 years of Metrobus operation. The original contract change date was 30 August, but as Selkent (which also won the 246 and 356 in the same round) had simultaneously lost route 202 to Metrobus it was decided to harmonise the dates to 13 September 2008. In fact, Selkent's buses were not ready until a few days before this anyway, so it was just as well! The new buses are Enviro200Darts; the smallest, 8.8m, variant continues to be necessary owing to a rather tight turn into Downs Hill in Ravensbourne. Operation is from Bromley garage, although early plans showed it running from Catford to balance out with the 202 loss and achieve a common allocation with the 356 – it is actually about the same distance to either from Bromley North Station, where the 354 terminates.
|Photo © Richard Pywell.|
An unidentified member of the batch approaches Birkbeck station on Monday 15 September, while a tram passes over the bridge. The pub on the right is named after the famous cricketer W.G. Grace, who is buried in the adjacent cemetery. At the same location, but facing the other way on the other side of the bridge, and giving a better view of the vehicle itself, is 36016 (LX58 CBF) on the same date.
|Photo © Richard Pywell.|
The 354 is quite unusal in not having a Sunday service, particularly as some of the areas it serves are quite remote from other bus services. Unfortunately funding of London's bus services tends to follow a bit of a "boom-and-bust" pattern, with contracts awarded at times of plentiful dosh getting all the bells and whistles, whilst others are much less fortunate. In 2003 funding was being diverted to rescue cross-border routes, with all available spare funds going to increasing services in central London for the congestion charge. There was hope of a Sunday service being added to the 354 mid-contract, but this did not come to fruition, and by the time of re-tendering in 2008 the extravagence of earlier years had certainly caught up, with a major funding shortfall predicted in the near future, so the 354 has again lost out.
The bridge in the photos carries an unusual dual rail/tram alignment; the railway branch from Crystal Palace to Beckenham Junction was singled some years ago, owing to the low number of trains using it (just a half hourly shuttle to London Bridge), and so (after the rail line was re-aligned to one side) the Croydon Tramlink was able to take over the other line for its new Beckenham branch which opened in 2000. A very lucky photographer might thus have been able to get a Southern train in the shot too! Birkbeck is the only station on the branch, although Tramlink has a couple of extra stops between here and Beckenham Junction. The two platforms are accessed by steps (or ramp for Tramlink) from opposite sides of the bridge, so do not make for an ideal interchange!
The following notes are from the photographer: Although the 354 duplicates Tramlink between here and Beckenham, there is perhaps a small potential Tramlink feeder role from the other (Anerley) direction. Also, a few people do use the 356 from Shirley and Eden Park to connect into Tramlink (at Elmers End) and trains (at Birkbeck) even though neither the 354 or 356 are officially designated Tramlink feeders. Meanwhile, just down the road, plans have been in the pipeline for the past few years to provide a purpose built bus interchange on the eastern side of Elmers End station as part of an expansion of the Tesco store. This will provide what should have been built when Tramlink first opened, i.e. a proper interchange with route 54, although the 356 is not expected to deviate into it.
If the proposed Tramlink extension to Crystal Palace goes ahead it will of course call into question the future of the infrequent heavy rail service between Birkbeck and Crystal Palace, which would be undermined by the frequent connections available by tram (changing at Harrington Road).
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