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Route 356
11 June 2010

Route 356 was the last new route introduced commercially by Metrobus in the London area. The company played an important role in the development of local services in the Bromley area, but during the late 1990s these routes began to transfer to London Transport control, a process which was subsequently complete by TfL. Change was accelerated by the arrival of Tramlink in May 2000, with major revisions to bus services in the area phased in over a couple of months.

Many of the changes had no obvious connection with Tramlink, and it was one of the later re-organisations, from 24 June 2000, that led to creation of the 356. The changes were prompted by LT's decision to take over the Norwood Junction Crystal Palace leg of Metrobus commercial route 361 and replace it with an extension of the 410. The 361 was an offshoot of the 351 (now 354), which followed the 351 between Bromley and Beckenham then following a rather circuitous routeing to Crystal Palace. The 351 at the time continued beyond Penge to Sydenham via Kent House Lane.

As a result of the deletion of the Crystal Palace leg, the remainder of the 361 would not have been operationally practicable, and so Metrobus took the decision to simplify services. The 361 was withdrawn and the 351 reverted to its previous structure of running between Bromley and Penge only, increased to every 20 minutes though this represented a reduction from 4 to 3 buses per hour between Bromley and Beckenham, the busiest part of the route. Additionally, route 352 (Bromley to Sydenham Hill) was curtailed at the Sydenham Savacentre.

The remaining sections were transferred to the new half-hourly 356, which thus ran from Sydenham Hill to Savacentre via the 352, then replacing the 351 to Penge, then direct via Croydon Road to Anerley, then following the former 361 to Elmers End Tesco. The section of the 361 to Beckenham via Eden Park Avenue was not replaced, other routes providing adequate coverage of these links, although the 356 did have school day journeys projected to Langley Park School, operating in a one-way loop via South Eden Park Road and Eden Park Avenue.

There was a slight difference in routeing compared with the 351. Replacing both 351 and 352 in the Lower Sydenham area would have entailed a fairly lengthy double run along Sydenham Road as far as Kent House Road. Instead, the 356 operated via Kent House Lane. A width restriction in Stanton Road meant northbound buses ran via Haseltine Road and southbound via Fairlawn Park and Winchfield Road.

There were a few other differences from the present day 356: as with the 352, it operated in an anticlockwise loop in the Sydenham Hill area, with minimal stand time (which was the main reason for cutting the back the 352 and replacing it with a more local service). After Forest Hill buses ran via Mayow Road instead of Perry Rise, providing the dual functions of serving the main shopping area of Sydenham and linking Mayow Road to Savacentre. Finally, buses deviated off Kent House Road via the Cator Park area, serving Lennard Road and Kings Hall Road. Introduction of this loop on the 351 had had a catastrophic effect on service reliability as it added several minutes to an already tight schedule.

The 356 has never been particularly busy and it was not a surprise when Metrobus pulled out of operating the route commercially along, rather more surprisingly, with the 351 and 358. TfL put the routes out to tender for an initial 14 month term which is standard practice in this type of situation, as it allows time for TfL's network review machinery to clank into action before the award of a full 5-year term, and simultaneously avoids the risks associated with tendering such a thing in a hurry. Metrobus was awarded the route, and the contract began on 6 July 2002. The only change at this point was the withdrawal of the Cator Park loop, where population density was sparse, consequently generating few passengers.

Metrobus was again successful with its bid for the full 5-year contract, and this time much more ambitious changes were put in place. At Sydenham Hill, the one-way loop was withdrawn, with a new stand provided outside Mais House in Sydenham Hill, where buses terminated by circumnavigating the roundabout at the top of the hill. From there buses ran both ways via Sydenham Hill (southern leg), Wells Park Road and Kirkdale before returning to the Sydenham Hill roundabout and continuing as before. Then from Forest Hill, buses were diverted direct via Perry Rise to Savacentre, replacing route 194 which was curtailed from Forest Hill to Savacentre. This eliminated the double run on the 356 at Lower Sydenham (apart from the Savacentre access road), and so the route was diverted to run via the northern end of Kent House Road, as the 351 had done.

Finally, at Elmers End buses were diverted away from Tesco to Elmers End Green, Eden Park (as the former 361) and then along Monks Orchard Road terminating at the southern end. The provision of a proper stand at the Sydenham end facilitated this extension, which also resulted in withdrawal of the special school journeys to Kelsey Park School. The main Mon-Sat daytime service was increased from 2 to 3 buses per hour and a half hourly evening and Sunday service was added both changes were necessary as a result of the route's role replacing part of the 194, but the new service level could be considered extravagant on the rest of the route! The combined effect of the changes was to double the vehicle requirement from 3 to 6, although one bus was saved on the 194.

Following expiry of the 5-year term, the 356 was put out to tender and surprisingly awarded to Selkent (along with the 354). After speculation that the route would operate from Bromley garage, it was instead allocated to Catford, which is not too far distant from Lower Sydenham. New short Enviro200Darts were purchased. Seen on the newest part of the route is 36008 (LX56 EAE) in Monks Orchard Road on Monday 15 September 2008. This is actually part of a batch of similar vehicles intended for route 273.

Photo © Richard Pywell.

The extension of the route here at first sight seems a bit strange, as there is no population to speak of along Monks Orchard Road and the route largely duplicates the 194. However, as can be seen in the photograph, the extension passes Bethlem Royal Hospital, which is several minutes' walk from other bus stops, and has proved popular with visitors and staff. The bus provides a handy link to the nearest rail station, Eden Park.

(An historical note from the photographer:- The present Bethlem Royal Hospital opened here in 1930 as a replacement for the building in Lambeth which now houses the Imperial War Museum. Earlier incarnations of the infamous mental institution date back to 1330, and gave rise to the term "Bedlam." By contrast, earlier this year (2008), a state-of the-art new unit opened on the Shirley site, offering the very best medium secure care for patients from all over South East London. No doubt the extra staff and visitors will further increase business for the 356!)

Seen on the first day, 13 September 2008, close up at the Shirley terminus is 36023 (LX58 CEE), from the 356's own batch. Just about visible in the right background is the service road that has proved useful over the last 40 years as a terminus for various routes, e.g. 166, 194A (when not continuing to Beckenham Junction), and short peak hour workings to Croydon on the 119 and 194 (original routeing direct along Wickham Road). In those days Monks Orchard Road (left background), although not actually served by any route, was often used as a short cut to Elmers End garage by empty buses (including on the 194B) until residents complained. The current terminus on the triangle was only brought into use in recent years, and was also used by the short lived 494 route.

Photo © Richard Pywell.

It has been suggested that the 356 should extend a further half mile east to serve West Wickham High Street, but TfL have not yet adopted this idea. I have also wondered if the route could be further extended to the large residential area south of West Wickham High Street, much of which is well outside TfL's normal criterion for proximity to a bus route.

Seen in Elmers End Road opposite Beckenham Crematorium on Wednesday 4 March 2009 is 36020 (LX58 CBY), another of the 356's own batch. The location is just along the road from Birkbeck station, where connections with Tramlink are available, reminding us of the history of the route's creation. The modern houses in the background were built on the site of the aforementioned Elmers End bus garage, which closed in 1986.

Photo © Brian Creasey.

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See also routes 354, 410, 352, 358, 194, 273

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