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Route 507
12 August 2009

The use of the Mercedes Benz Citaro G "bendy buses" on the narrow and congested streets of the capital has been somewhat controversial ever since they were launched 7 years ago. New London mayor Boris Johnson described them, in his typical poetic style, as "writhing whales of the road," and their elimination formed a central part of his election campaign. The plan is for them to be removed as contracts come due for renewal. It was singularly unfortunate, then, that the first routes to be re-tendered were by all accounts those on which the artics were best suited.

One of the main objections to bendy buses is the low proportion of seating, with typically only 49 out of a nominal 140 passengers being seated, compared with 65 out of 90 on a typical double decker. But the first routes to gain the type were the 507 and 521, the last remnants of the once substantial "Red Arrow" network linking London's mainline railway stations with local offices. The routes are very short and are designed to carry large numbers of commuters on journeys of only a few minutes, so that standing is generally an acceptable option. Their quicker boarding times are relatively important for such a short journey, and the artics did a good job of hoovering up the huge queues at Victoria, Waterloo, Cannon Street and London Bridge.

The first day of bendy bus operation in the capital was Wednesday 5 June 2002. This is an unusual day of the week for a new operation to start, but came about because it was the Queen’s Golden Jubilee weekend, with the Spring Bank holiday delayed by a week to 3 June and an extra bank Holiday on 4 June. As the Red Arrows did not run at weekends or public holidays, 5 June became the first day. The first day of the new non-bendy contract was 6 June 2009, but owing to late deliveries the start of rigid operations was delayed until 25 July.

Unlike other artic routes, which will revert to double deck, the 507 (and 521) retain single deckers – the 521 is restricted to single deckers anyway. Full size rigid single deckers with a minimum capacity of 70 were specified, and London General (which retained the routes) opted for the rigid version of the Citaro, so in many respects the new order is more of the same. They have opted to specify a largely standee-based layout with just 21 seats, nearly all in the raised rear section, giving a total nominal capacity of 96 – although, as with artics, it is unlikely that the nominal capacity will be achieved in practice as it relies on unrealistic levels of crush loading. The open boarding system has also been retained, whereby passengers need not show tickets to the driver and can board by either door.

Apart from not being articulated, there are number of detail differences. The vehicles are the re-styled Euro V version of the Citaro. The historic Red Arrow branding has been dropped, which is perhaps unfortunate as it could have been used to distinguish these routes with their non-standard boarding arrangements. The corporate branding has also been changed with the new Go-Ahead London logo being adopted, replacing the London General name and others which were frequently mis-matched in any case. MEC31 (BD09 ZVW) is seen arriving at Victoria on Monday 27 July 2009, the first weekday of operation. The batch does start at MEC1, but most of the vehicles delivered so far have been higher numbered examples.

Photo © Brian Creasey.

The replacement of artics with rigid buses has not been done on a one-for-one basis, as the peak frequency was raised from 12 to 18 buses per hour to maintain overall capacity. Outside peak times, frequencies were kept the same as loadings were light and capacity would not therefore be an issue. That is 6bph between the peaks and 5bph during the evenings. A weekend service, at 5bph, was introduced at the same time, as some roads the route uses are not served by any other bus. It is worth noting that, prior to artic conversion, the 507 was only 15bph, and using 10.3m long Greenway Nationals with 24 seats and a total capacity of 70 – so there can be no doubt that considerably more capacity is provided by the new arrangements than was the case then.

The launch of the Mayor's initiative could hardly have been more ignominious. As noted earlier, the 507 is the most obvious route to use bendy buses on. Many argued that the Mayor should make an exception for the Red Arrows, but as his main argument against them had been on (somewhat dubious) safety grounds that was not an option. The 507 is the shortest of the bendy bus routes, taking about 15 minutes end to end, and at just 3 km compared with, for instance, route 12 at 12 km, 453 (also 12 km) and 73 (13 km). It consequently also has the lowest peak vehicle requirement at just 9, so there was no possibility of a "big bang" introduction. Then the introduction had to be delayed, and even then there appears to have been some nail biting as the first four buses only just arrived on the day before they were due to start, with a further 10 arriving on Saturday and Sunday, again just sufficient to meet the run-out, temporarily reduced to 14 during the school summer holidays. All these were registered very hurriedly on Friday afternoon – though it has been suggested that the vehicles were ready earlier than that and were hidden away, though why this might be is not clear. But TfL could hardly afford any further delay, with the mayor himself scheduled to launch the new operation, with the press all booked to watch.

Labour members of the London assembly have been critical of the mayor's policy, though this is probably more for political than pragmatic reasons. There has nonetheless been a campaign to keep them, albeit based largely on popular myth rather than hard fact, especially as the reality had yet to be experienced until the 507 conversion. But the route has seemingly been hit by reliability problems – there are major roadworks in Victoria – with some passengers reporting that the promised 3-4 minute peak frequency has not materialised, with gaps of 15 minutes and passengers unable to board the first bus – although artics would have fared no better in such circumstances. It is also worth noting that, despite many dark threats about the potential cost of removing artics, TfL sought costs for continued artic operation on the 507 and 521 and these were actually higher, despite the lower frequency needed.

Both the 507 and the 521 terminate at Waterloo, with the 507 terminating and standing in the taxi road shared with the route 211, most convenient for commuters arriving at and departing from Waterloo, the main target market of the Red Arrows. The other end of the route is Victoria, so there is plenty of demand from both ends of the route to offices in the Horseferry Road area, long associated with the Civil Service. The routes are run from a dedicated depot in Waterloo, coded RA for Red Arrow. It is rumoured that regular operations at weekends would not be allowed owing to planning restrictions to prevent noise nuisance to neighbouring residential properties. The weekend service is nonetheless operated from there, but apparently only until 29 August when route 521 is converted and gains an allocation at Mandela Way garage – that will cover the weekend 507.

The original Red Arrow route, from 18 April 1966, was the 500, which ran from Victoria to Marble Arch, extended during shopping hours to Oxford Circus in a loop via Brook Street and Oxford Street. It was operated from Victoria garage using XMSs. This must have been a success as 7 further routes, 501-507, were introduced from 7 September 1968. The network saw much change over subsequent years, with the 507 being the last survivor of these early routes, although the 521 is a derivative of the original 501 which was withdrawn in the 2002 change. The other routes did not generally provide any unique features and have simply been absorbed by other "normal" routes. The 507 is largely unchanged from its original form, although the original route differed by running both ways along York Road, rather than via the cab road, and ran westbound via Marsham Street, whereas now it runs in both directions via Artillery Row and Horseferry Road.

The RA garage code was first introduced when the Red Arrow buses were based at Walworth garage (Hackney also operated some of them) before the dedicated Waterloo base was opened. There were fears that the artics would not be able to use the cramped Waterloo site, and ironically Camberwell, just across the road from Walworth, was considered for a time. However, these problems were resolved in time for operation to start at Waterloo.

Thanks to Jordan Young for compiling part of this article

See also routes 521

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