Sadiq Khan has announced plans for what Transport for London is calling “limited-stop express bus routes around outer London” with a view to creating faster connection times between suburban town centres, stations and hospitals. The project has been christened the Superloop. Buses bearing that name were unveiled yesterday and an “initial catalyst” for it of £6 million has been pledged.
There is something familiar about this project and it goes back to at least 2008. In his transport manifesto for the mayoral election of that year, Conservative candidate Boris Johnson promised “a trial of orbital express bus routes for outer London”. He continued: “I believe they should be designed as a distinct mode of transport, connecting, for example, key rail terminals initially across South London with coach style vehicles and a limited number of stops.” The stated objective was to “encourage modal shifts in these areas”.
Nick Rogers of the London Assembly Conservative group, who represents an outer London constituency, has mocked the Mayor’s announcement as a “superflop”. Perhaps Mayor Johnson’s experience with his similar-sounding plans provide grounds for so tart a dismissal. In November 2009, 18 months after Johnson’s election, TfL’s surface transport panel (as I later reported for the Guardian) poured call water on the outcome of the trial the Tory Mayor had wanted:
“The change has been well received by users and stakeholders. However, net operating costs have risen by £1 million per year, with benefits to a relatively small number of passengers. The frequency has been retained as withdrawal will lead to significant adverse reaction from stakeholders…In the context of TfL’s current Business Plan, the level of benefit delivered per pound of investment suggests that further investment in express orbital routes would not be a priority over other calls on funding.”
In other words, the findings of the trial suggested that although a small number of bus passengers were made happier, steaming ahead with the policy would be a poor use of TfL’s money. The surface transport panel took the view that “the dominant type of bus trip in the suburbs will remain relatively local”. And it should be noted that, 14 years on, there are currently about 200 non-express London bus routes that can be described as “orbital”. So what makes the current Mayor and TfL think their Superloop can succeed when the previous Mayor’s “orbital express bus routes” plan was abandoned?
Perhaps the trial under Mayor Johnson was inadequate. All that happened was that the frequency of the X26 bus route, covering nearly 24 miles between West Croydon bus station and Heathrow but with a small number of stops, was doubled. Whatever, Johnson’s own statutory transport strategy, published in May 2010, pointed to a “relatively low demand for orbital public transport, particularly in Outer London (compared to radial transport to central London)”.
It was remarked by a TfL insider at the time that not all that many people who live in Harrow want to travel by bus or anything else to the branch of Marks and Spencer in Hendon when they have one of their own (or words to that effect). Another objection made to instigating new, longer bus routes with fewer stops is that, due to their very length, they are more susceptible to disruption by congestion. Will buses on the Superloop be given extra priority?
A spokesperson for the Mayor said “London and demand for public transport in our city are different now compared to 2008″ and that TfL data show that “express routes increase both demand and customer satisfaction”. It was added that the legacy of the pre-Covid TfL fares freeze and the introduction of the Hopper fare – which will apply to Superloop services – have added to the attractions of the bus. “The Superloop will strengthen alternatives to private cars and help Londoners prepare for the expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone London-wide, which will bring cleaner air to five million more people,” the spokesperson said.
Yesterday’s TfL press release struck a similarly optimistic note about demand, based on services that already exist and will be gathered under the Superloop brand banner. It said the relatively new X140 limited stop route, linking Heathrow and Harrow since December 2019, has “delivered a 10-15 per cent increase in weekday demand” and that passengers were happier with their journey times. A more frequent X26 service is proposed too, by the way, doubling it from every 30 minutes to every 15.
“The next new part of the outer London bus network will be the route linking Harrow with North Finchley, subject to consultation,” the press release continued. Other possible Superloop sections include “limited stop express” provision between North Finchley and Walthamstow and between Walthamstow and the Royal Docks by way of Ilford. TfL’s Superloop consultation page says “proposed new routes could add over 4 million kilometres on to London’s bus network” but also that is “proposed to be introduced in stages”.
You’ll have spotted that the Superloop, complete with its own roundel, isn’t going to be completed all that quickly, and not before the Mayor’s intended expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone to the whole of Greater London near the end of August – a policy whose adverse impacts on some car-owning households the Superloop is explicitly intended to mitigate. But does that make it a dud policy?
Liberal Democrat Assembly Member Caroline Pidgeon, who is vice-chair of the Assembly’s transport committee and has chaired it in the past, has long campaigned for more and speedier orbital bus routes in outer London. In August 2017, the Pidgeon-chaired committee’s bus network report urged Mayor Khan to “simplify the routes serving major corridors, consider a move toward a feeder/trunk model of bus routes, and establishing more orbital and express routes”.
Pidgeon describes the Superloop announcement as “interesting” but lacking ambition. “In reality it is a new route in north London, a few more buses on an overcrowded existing route in south London and a lot of gaps which may be filled at some point in the future,” she says. “This makes it look like a smokescreen for the ULEZ, rather than a genuinely new form of travel.”
In Pidgeon’s view what’s really needed is “a massive and quick boost to buses in outer London as an alternative to the car”, something akin to what Ken Livingstone did at the time of his introduction of the Congestion Charge in 2003. She also thinks a whole new type of bus is needed, with wi-fi and a “slicker design” for longer journeys.
Will the Superloop really take shape? Will it substantially reduce outer London’s public transport deficit? Will the promise of it soften suburban opposition to the advent of the larger ULEZ? Make your feelings about it known while you watch and wait.
Dave Hill: Fast orbital bus routes have been rejected before. Will Sadiq’s Superloop fare better?