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Route 486
7 April 2007

Probably the most infamous of the “millennium projects” launched in the year 2000 was the Millennium Dome at North Greenwich. Throughout the year the Dome contained an exhibition celebrating the best of the 20th century and a showcase of how we intend(ed) to move into the 21st.

Undoubtedly one of the biggest issues demanding national attention at the present time is transport. Ever since the industrial revolution, there has been steadily rising demand to go, whether for work, shopping, or leisure, and vast sums of public — and, increasingly, private — money now have to be spent on building and maintaining the infrastructure to meet the demand.

Environmental considerations suggest that the naive policy of building more and more roads will lead to disaster, and therefore greater emphasis is wisely being placed on how to make more efficient use of what we already have. By far the best way of moving large numbers of people and over long distances is rail, but rail cannot cater for more specialised journeys. This is where the bus fits in.

Unfortunately the public perception of bus services is at an all time low, underwritten to a large extent by poor standards of service caused by years of financial neglect. Effort is at last being expended in order to reverse this trend, with a number of quality partnerships/contracts being instigated for specific corridors.

Given what the Dome represents, it was natural to expect that the necessary infrastructure to transport visitors there should be high class. From the start visitors were strongly discouraged from arriving by car — there was no on-site car parking, and a hefty Controlled Parking Zone affects all local roads within a two mile radius. Although disappointing attendance figures have been attributed to this restriction, the alternative would have been unthinkable for the local community.

The main route to the Dome was the extended Jubilee Line, and this part of the route certainly demonstrates the latest technology in rail travel. (However, coming out of the extension at Green Park brings you down with a bit of a bump, quite literally as the train lurches out onto the rough and bendy track, with tatty old stations!) Interchange stations were provided at West Ham and Stratford for connections to rail services to the north east of London, while the Jubilee Line serves numerous central London destinations.

However, the Jubilee Line is little help for those travelling from the south east, and numerous local bus services were extended to the station, right at the entrance to the Dome campus. The most high-profile development was the decision to introduce two high quality routes, dubbed the “Millennium Transit” and numbered M1 and M2, connecting the Dome with (then) Connex stations at Charlton and Greenwich respectively. Tenders were invited for the routes rather earlier than would be usual for the 1 January 2000 start date, and in 1998 London Central was announced as the successful bidder.

There were several features not usual for a LT contract, one of the more basic being air conditioning. One of the routes, the M1 to Charlton, would use a 1.3km section of guided busway, while three of the buses were to use alternative fuels in the form of Liquefied Petroleum Gas. More mundane features included audio visual passenger information inside the buses and powered blinds to ensure a perfect display every time on the front.

The routes would have a very robust schedule, with plenty of recovery time built into that for the M2 which had to cope with the horrors of Greenwich town centre traffic, even though bus lanes were installed where practical on most of the route. A dedicated team of drivers was recruited from the existing team, being put through extensive training in customer care and disability awareness.

The Dome duly closed, slightly earlier than originally expected, on 31 December 2000. Needless to say, the flow of visitors also ceased. The original plan had been to withdraw the M1 and M2 without replacement when the Dome closed — after all, demand for them would disappear. However, the Jubilee Line station at North Greenwich had by now attracted itself another use, possibly even more important than the original aim of serving the Dome. Much of South East London is tubeless, and the Jubilee Line thus provides a useful gateway to the Underground network for the residents of quite a large area surrounding it. The various buses extended to the Dome are all very busy carrying people in.

This included the M1 route from Charlton station to North Greenwich, although the M2 had never carried many passengers. The routes did indeed duly cease after operation on 23 February 2001, but the M1 was instead incorporated into a new route, the 486. As well as covering the M1, this new route continued beyond Charlton station to Charlton Village, the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital on Woolwich Common, Shooter’s Hill and Welling Corner, and has subsequently been extended all the way to Bexleyheath.

The buses from the M1 and M2, DAF SB220s with East Lancs Myllennium bodywork, were duly transferred over to the new route, though the full allocation of 17 vehicles was not required to begin with. The Myllennium was specially designed for the Millennium routes, although has subsequently been made generally available. These were later supplemented by a single Volvo B7L to cover the increased vehicle requirement for the extension to Bexleyheath.

Owing to staff shortages the 486 started off on a reduced frequency of 4 buses per hour Mon-Sat daytimes, 3 evenings and Sundays, with additional short workings to provide the planned 7½ minute frequency between Charlton Station and North Greenwich during peak hours only. The extension to Welling provided links into the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital on Woolwich Common, although demand seemed sparse when I surveyed the route a while ago. The reason for the extension to Bexleyheath is less clear, but it is a more useful traffic objective and provides a link to the hospital from further afield. It also enabled operation of the route to be transferred from New Cross, where the M routes had been based, to Bexleyheath, closer to the route. The full planned frequency was then realised, and the evening and Sunday service has since been increased from 4 to 5 buses an hour.

Unfortunately the DAFs, particularly the gas buses, proved rather unreliable, and the air conditioning seemed to have been disconnected making them uncomfortably warm as they were not fitted with opening windows. Contract renewal from 24 February 2007 resulted in new double deckers being introduced – the 486 was one of very few routes in London to use full sized single deckers, although double deckers had often substituted on the 486.

Photo © John King.

Vehicles chosen were Alexander Dennis's new Enviro400, a new body style on a modified Trident chassis. Here E54 (LX56 EUB) passes along Charlton Church Lane on 3 March 2007. The bus is heading towards the dome but is on a short working – the destination display is not terribly precise, as about two miles of the route’s length could accurately be described as Charlton! However as the bus has already passed Charlton Village the display must refer to the station – coincidentally the original terminus of the M1, from the other direction.

As mentioned, the M1 was to use a new guided busway on the Greenwich Peninsula, with an additional stop at the Millennium Village Halt. Guided busways are not particularly new, but previous guideways had worked on the principal of ‘guidewheels’ — so that the bus would run down a narrow track being guided by physical wheels feeling for the kerbs either side. This has various disadvantages, not least the inability of buses to overtake one another — a potential problem if one breaks down! — and the inability of buses not fitted with guide wheels to use the route. The electronic system, devised by Alstom, gets round these problems, but is obviously technologically more advanced. MD 9-17 were fitted with electronic guidance equipment for use on the M1.

Unfortunately, as with so many of the millennium projects, the busway went badly wrong, and failed to open before the end of the millennium (1001-2000)! Perhaps strangely, the guideway falls under the jurisdiction of Her Majesty's Railway Inspectorate (HMRI), no doubt because of the use of electronics. HMRI is far more meticulous about safety than the relevant road authorities, and there was growing concern late in 1999, as extensive testing and safety checks continued for HMRI, that the busway would not be able to open on time. By the time the services started the story was that it would open in a few months, once testing had been completed ...

But it has now been officially admitted that “the technology is not ready and needs another two to three years' development,” although it has been rumoured that the actual reason is a rather sillier one that the tracks were put too close together for buses to pass safely! Whether or not this is true, it has been pointed out that the original large wing mirrors on the MDs, as displayed at Coach & Bus 99, had been replaced by much smaller standard bus mirrors, which would indeed improve clearance.

Nevertheless, permission was eventually granted for buses to use the busway in unguided mode from 2 June 2001, and this arrangement seems to work quite well. As well as the 486, route 472 used the busway from the start, and a number of other routes have since joined in. This allows buses to avoid the traffic jams that often build up on Bugsby's Way in peak hours, although it is far from a clear run as there are several “level crossings” where buses often have to stop for other (usually non-existent) traffic.

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See also routes 472

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