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Route 54
4 February 2010

The hired Selkent Tridents previously featured on this page have now all gone as the new Scania/Olympus buses ordered for the 54 are all in service. Three photographs of the new buses are included below, to give a sample of different parts of the route.

Photo © John King.

First up is 886 (PN09 ENC) at Elmers End Green on Sunday 9 August 2009. The bus is not actually in service at the time – having just completed its run to Elmers End Tesco, it is now returning to the stand to take layover before its next trip, when it will run back empty to Tesco for the run to Woolwich. So this bus is where Woolwich-bound buses pass in service! We will return to this subject later ...

Photo © Brian Creasey.

Near the middle of the route, the same vehicle picks up a passenger in Lewisham High Street on the morning of Thursday 30 July 2009. Metrobus continues to cram its fleet numbers into a 3-digit system, which is nearing saturation point. The 8xx block was formerly for Olympians, the last few of which were still bowing out as these came into service.

Photo © RNAM200.

Finally, 896 (PO59 KFY) seems to be doing rather more business at Blackheath Royal Standard at dusk on Tuesday 26 January 2010.

The route is operated from Orpington garage – some way off the route, but the same garage runs several other routes in the area! There was a suggestion it would run from the company's Croydon garage, which would at least have made driver changes easy as there is a fairly quick, albeit no longer direct, tram service from nearby to Elmers End.

The loss of route 54 (and 75) by Selkent ends a long association of that route with Catford garage, which it passes. However, whilst traditionally a Catford route (with the “prestigious” running number series TL1+, until that got used for something else while the route was away), other depots, notably Plumstead, have helped out from time to time, to suit needs on other routes. Plumstead ran the route from November 1988 until August 1989, helped again from April to November 1991 and gained the route outright from 24 July 1993 to make room for the hefty 208 at Catford. It remained there until January 1999, when it was moved back to Catford to make room for the 96, 99 and 178. However loss of route P3 (now 343) and gain of work at Catford (181/284) saw part of the allocation moved back to Plumstead from March 2001, but it reverted to Catford (along with the 202) in March 2003 to make room at Plumstead for new articulated bus route 453.

The 54 is however perhaps best known for an unfortunate saga in the story of Croydon’s new Tramlink system. It was inevitable that when trams started running there would be some changes to local buses. Many of the changes were sensible and predictable, others were pointless but harmless. A couple however were quite unexpected and unpopular. Easily the most controversial was the proposal for route 54, which for as long as anyone can remember had been the trunk route linking Woolwich, Lewisham, Beckenham and Croydon. In 1934 the actual route was Plumstead Common to Selsdon, but apart from losing those end sections and a few brief extensions at the Woolwich end, the route had survived completely unchanged until 2000 (apart from the Catford one way system, which has since been removed as far as buses are concerned).

Now, the Tramlink network includes a branch that heads off from Croydon in vaguely the same direction that the 54 did, towards Elmers End and Beckenham. In order to remove any possibility of buses undermining Tramlink’s success, the 54 was withdrawn between Elmers End and central Croydon. Such cutbacks are not unusual, and admittedly the 54 was quite a long route by modern standards, but were it a purely bus change there would doubtless have been a substantial overlap between the 54 and its replacement at the Croydon end. However Tramlink terminates at Elmers End, so there is no such overlap. As a result, where passengers from places such as Bellingham enjoyed a direct service into Croydon, they are now deposited in the middle of nowhere, expected to walk some distance to catch a tram, and pay again for the privilege!

Moreover, Tramlink follows a substantially different route between Elmers End and Croydon, running via Addiscombe instead of Shirley Park. Bus route 289, the only other route along Long Lane between Elmers End and Ashburton Park, continues via Addiscombe into central Croydon. It would have made more sense to withdraw this, as very little would have been lost.

Most exceptionally the operator, Stagecoach Selkent, publically objected to the forced change by London Transport. During the consultation period, notices were placed on buses to the effect that the 54 would be curtailed to Elmers End, and anyone affected should object in writing. Many did (including myself), but their concerns were completely ignored apart from a polite reply containing nothing but a load of waffle and spin. Even the highly pro-tram webmaster of the Unofficial Croydon Tramlink Website was not impressed, commenting “This is integrated transport at its worst!”

At least the original proposal to terminate buses at Elmers End Green was not proceeded with. This would have led to a 10 minute walk to the tram stop. Instead it was decided to build a small interchange in a triangle of waste land beside the Elmers End Tramlink terminus (which is within the railway station). However, as the launch of Tramlink loomed there was no evidence of any work taking place. So when the day (20 May 2000) came, buses dumped their passengers on the road past the station (still several minutes from the tram platform), before going on quite a lengthy adventure round the back streets of Anerley in order to turn themselves round for the return journey! This took up to ten minutes, by which time buses would have been half way to Croydon anyway.

But the damage was done. People do not like changing, especially if it means a change of mode with the substantial time and price penalties that incurs. A journey from Bellingham to Croydon previously took about 30 minutes and cost 70p, after the change taking about 40 minutes and costing £1.60. Passengers from Lewisham and Catford transferred to route 75, but that takes several minutes longer and, at the time, only ventured as far as West Croydon, not ideal for shoppers. Those from Woolwich and Blackheath seem to have vanished without trace while most of those from the Beckenham Hill area have generally opted to walk to Beckenham Junction stop instead.

Apart from the considerable inconvenience to passengers, all sorts of things were wrong with the new arrangements. Tramlink was not very frequent, with just a half hourly evening and Sunday service, so it was important to co-ordinate the timetables to ensure the minimum of delay. Despite this being done in the first instance, it was not unusual for buses (or trams) to arrive late resulting in a missed connection and a 30 minute wait. Frequent timetable changes in the early months of Tramlink were not speedily matched by changes to the bus timetable, and indeed on one occasion the 54 timetable was altered to match the latest Tramlink times only two weeks before the next Tramlink change!

Moreover it was impossible to achieve the evening timetable co-ordination in a cost effective way, leading to 30 minutes stand time having to be allowed at each end of the 54. Thus the same number of buses was required as for running into Croydon! On Sundays buses on the 54 had run every 20 minutes, so to co-ordinate it was a choice between running buses every 30 minutes or every 15. Clearly the former would not be acceptable so the frequency had to be increased, again meaning no savings in vehicle and staffing requirements. And with the lengthy terminal working at Elmers End only two buses were saved even during the day on Mondays to Saturdays.

And that was another problem. Needless to say the residents of the formerly quiet side roads around Anerley cross-roads were not too pleased to have double deck buses thundering past every 12 minutes. Also, there was no proper stand on the road outside Elmers End station, leading to buses blocking the carriageway on this busy road.

Since nobody seemed to be changing to the trams at Elmers End, it was decided to abandon this silly terminal working loop and instead terminate buses outside Tesco’s nearby. That way buses could run back via the Tesco’s roundabout in order to stand on Elmers End Green – still not very efficient operationally, but in most respects an improvement. Passengers wanting to travel to Croydon were advised to change at Beckenham Junction instead, although this is not ideal either, involving crossing a busy junction, which takes several minutes.

See also routes 289, 75, 199, 96, 99, 178, 343, 181, 284

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