“Please wait while we regulate the service”

Want to know why London’s passenger numbers are stagnating? That dreaded phrase above is one such reason.

Let’s take a bus journey at around midnight last week as one example. It’s late. The roads are pretty much clear as I wait at the bus stop. A decent number of people are also waiting for the bus. It arrives. We set off.

And doesn’t break 15 mph despite very little traffic. The first stop takes ages. For no discernible reason as it sits there long after people have stopped getting on or off.

Photo courtesy: grassrootsgroundswell under Creative Commons 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

At the second stop it’s the same story. It isn’t moving again. Then the driver, fiddling with a piece of laminated card showing their timings, plays the “bus being held” noise. It’s midnight and the bus timetable seems to be based on a journey taken in the middle of rush hour.

And some wonder why Uber is decimating late night bus travel. It’s painfully slow.

As the bus trundles off and again doesn’t exceed 10 mph, holding up buses behind, some people nearby complain they’ll miss their connection to the last train of the night given the slow progress.

The bus wasn’t even running early to explain the snoozy progress. It left bang on time according to online apps and the route timetable on London bus routes.

It’s just timetabled to now be excruciatingly slow at midnight even when traffic is very light.

There’s no benefit to passengers in clear roads as the timetable assumes heavy traffic at all times of day and night.

Plenty of people board en route so that doesn’t explain the lethargy. I had to feel for the driver. Others got fed up after the third long stop and yet another announcement of “bus being held” was played. Some people banged their feet and went to ask what’s going on.

This sort of thing used to happen in other UK cities where frequency was much lower. I was always glad buses in London hadn’t followed suit. Increasingly it seems they are.

In total there were four “regulating the service” messages on a 30 minute journey that would have taken 5-10 minutes in a car. The bus never exceeded 15 mph. It waited excessively at every bus stop. People missed late night connections to other buses and trains given the extreme paucity of progress.

And given that, I’d rather walk a mile or two than take another bus. Others will jump into Ubers, or black cabs, or do just about anything to avoid such turgid transport.

I began to wonder what good the Hopper fare is if it can take over an hour to travel even a few miles at midnight with no traffic on the roads. TfL need to get a grip as even more will turn away from buses if this becomes the increasing norm.

Companies like Ford are now starting commuter mini-bus services to North Greenwich and Abbey Wood station as a sort of halfway house between uber and traditional buses, in part due to the slowness of bus travel, though of course that’s at peak time.

Both Labour and Tories in Greenwich borough are also calling for express buses to Woolwich from Eltham, again mainly for commuters, but clearly slow journeys are becoming an increasing issue and not only at peak times, particularly as high houses prices and rents push ever more people out and so requiring longer commutes and journeys.

Ever slower buses are not going to arrest the falls,or at best stagnation, in income and passenger numbers for TfL.




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I've lived in south east London most of my life growing up in Greenwich borough and working in the area for many years. The site has contributors on occasion and we cover many different topics. Living and working in the area offers an insight into what is happening locally.

17 thoughts on ““Please wait while we regulate the service”

  • I wholeheartedly agree.

    I also think that the bus stops are way to close to each other. Surely people can walk more that 100m to a bus stop?! The constant stop/start not only defeats the purpose of a speedy transportation system but makes a mockery of bus lanes whilst contributing to pollution and wear and tear on the bus. Remove every other bus stop now!

    • I think there are more factors at work than “people can’t walk 100m to the next stop” – for example, spacing out passenger intake prevents overcrowding and long dwell times at single bus stops for passengers to board and disembark, which might (in some circumstances) actually be slower than repeatedly stopping to take on a couple of passengers where the dwell time might only be a few seconds.

  • I was on a South London bus last week when the driver pulled over for several minutes at the third stop on the route. It seems this was purely to stick to the timetable, which, as you suggest, had acres of padding added. Four further long pauses followed.

    On these low frequency routes (the majority of nightbuses included), it seems the new god is reliability, not usability.

  • Schedules should be tailored for specific times of day. That’s a basic requirement in compiling it. However, what a schedule can’t do so dynamicly is predict changes in traffic patterns. If the road is clearer than expected then the bus will run early.

    Now that frequencies are being trimmed, particularly at night routes are running at ‘low frequency’ times (15min or lower), so it’s reliability and on time departures that cause the driver to ‘scratch around’.

    • This was on a route where the bus behind was timetabled as 10 mins away even at midnight. I’ve taken it at that time a few times and the roads are always quiet at midnight.

  • Most night buses run on a low frequency timetabled service, Of course the bus is going to hold if it starts to run ahead of its scheduled time. If the time posted on the bus stop or TFL website clearly states the bus arrives at 03:00 and actually arrived at 02:55, 5 minutes early and the passenger misses his bus, this is not good. All London services are run under contract to TFL who set out the service frequency and spec. It is then down to the operator to run the service as per the tender award contract. If the operator fails to meet the spc of the tender and the buses run early outside the stated time it is the operator who receives big fines from TFL.

    • All that is known. The issue is enormous padding in timetables assuming gridlock at midnight which doesn’t exist 99% of the time. Its driving people from buses

      • Maybe you should visit the west end of London of a weekend, Regent Street / Piccadilly, even Shoreditch are all hot spots which on an average weekend I record delays up to 30 minutes. We are in a 24 hour city now, coupled with ongoing road improvement schemes and regular events which result in lengthy diversions, it is almost impossible to run to a perfect timetable.

        • I know them all very well and spent many a night out there, but am not referring to routes in those areas but those that go nowhere near them, nor anywhere similarly busy late in the evening. Timetables aren’t being adjusted to conditions on certain routes to detrimental effect.

          In terms of roadworks, temporary timetables can and are introduced but excessive holding at stops is happening at quiet, off-peak times on standard timetables.

          It isn’t happening at the mid-way point either. At the second or third stops shows something’s amiss.

          London isn’t really a 24 hour city compared to similar sized cities in North America, Asia or Europe, or even the rest of the UK. It’s quiet in most places after 11pm (I wish it was more lively) except those few places you mention. Most of the suburbs are pretty boring and too quiet if anything!

          • Unfortunately it is almost impossible to build a timetable that is bullet proof. I have been in this industry for 30 years as a driver and controller. Traffic conditions change by the day of the week, each hour and so on. It would be impossible to predict changing conditions. You can have an almost perfect run and in a split second, something can happen where service control intervention is required. I will give you an example. On a 30 minute headway a bus may have to be taken out of service for some reason, due to the gap this will create adjustments will be required with either the bus ahead of the missing one and the one behind to close down gaps in service and minimise passenger disruption. It’s an ever changing situation which can destroy a perfect service in a matter of minutes. Road closures, buses trapped,police incidents, fare disputes, the list is never ending. The schedules are built to the best possible, but they can never account for the unexpected in the real world. Having a crystal ball would be lovely, but not possible.

          • Thanks for the insight. It’s not an easy job by any means.

  • The question is whether to run a time tabled service, or a metro-style with x bus an hour. If the wait time is <10 minutes, the latter works. But it does sound like the timetables are wrong.

    • Mike, there a few night services that operate on a high frequency service, the N8 is an example. This works quite well as it’s an extremely busy route.
      Unfortunately it would not be practical to run all services as HF, due to cost and passenger levels. The current system works well on most routes. There will be times where the bus picks up time and will be instructed to hold to maintain scheduled time.

    • I’d like to see data on how many people actually use bus timetables these days. I for one never check them; I use the data feed via Google Maps or the departure boards on some bus stops to tell me when the next bus is. Before having a smartphone I was using the text message service. My point being that a lot of passengers must now be treating buses like metro services even if they’re not.

  • It’s not just the night service where this happens. Timetabling seems to be based on peak demand. If you take a bus mid-morning, the driver will often amble along at 20 miles per hour with quite long ‘dwell’ intervals, sometimes more than one.

  • I have been a London bus driver on many routes for many years on a late rota And feel for the passengers frustration Unfortunately its normally the Driver who takes all the agg as they are first point of contact Some routes have almost perfect timings but many have not One route I drive regularly if I drove at normal speed would get me to the other end of the route at least 20 to 25 minutes early if I didn’t have to hold at several stops to correct the time believe me it is very frustrating to have to do this at 0100 in the morning all of the drivers have complained to management about these routes many times but years later they are still exactly the same If we are told to hold by our control room and ignore but just carry on we are put on report and have to attend a disaplinary which is placed on our record Passenger just want to get from A to B as quickly and safely as possible Tfl and bus companies need to start listening to the public and there drivers

  • I have been really concerned about the recent cuts to Night bus (N Prefix routes) and 24 hour bus routes through the night, There are a lot of people who work shifts which mean working until late at night early hours of the morning or starting work between 4am – 5am. These people now often have to wait on their own at bus stops in the dark for for a lot longer, With the way crime has risen in the Greater London of late.

    Most people just want to come out of work home etc and get on a bus. Most areas of the London Boroughs of Bexley, Bromley, Lewisham and the Royal Borough of Greenwich are not close to a underground station so we rely on our bus services in these Boroughs has the main form of Public transport and will continue to do so in the future.


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