Route 171 in Catford, 17 September 2018
New figures show more people are using the 171 – but TfL still plans to cut it to Elephant and Castle

Two south-east London bus routes which are threatened with service cuts saw an increase in passengers last year, according to new figures released by Transport for London.

TfL plans to withdraw routes 53 (Plumstead station to Whitehall) and 171 (Bellingham to Holborn) from parts of central London as it grapples with money problems following the loss of its government grant and mayor Sadiq Khan’s four-year fare freeze.

The mayor’s transport agency has cited falling passenger numbers as a reason for the cutbacks, which would see the 53 trimmed back to County Hall and the 171 chopped back to Elephant & Castle.

But new figures released by TfL show usage of the 171 – which runs through Catford, Brockley, New Cross and Peckham – has gone up from 7,803,927 journeys in 2016/17 to 7,902,040 in 2017/18. (Updated 21 September with corrected information from TfL.)

Slight rise for the 53

The increase for the 53, which runs through Woolwich, Charlton, Blackheath, Deptford and the Old Kent Road, is slight – from 10,897,221 to 11,147,115. It is London’s 13th busiest service, and the second busiest in south London.

But even accounting for the fact that the most recent figures cover a 53-week year, rather than a 52-week year, it still shows an increase of 710 passengers – about 10 extra bus-loads – per week.

A third route in line for cuts, the 172 from Brockley Rise to Clerkenwell Green, showed an increase from 3,801,881 to 3,951,564. This route was extended from St Paul’s to Clerkenwell Green during this period – a change which TfL now plans to reverse, rerouting it to Aldwych instead.

The cuts were exclusively revealed by 853 last month, and were followed up by local, London and even national media, with both mayor Khan and his transport deputy Heidi Alexander taking to TV and radio to defend them.

Greenwich and Woolwich MP Matt Pennycook has said the 53 cut will “punish my working class constituents” and has launched a petition against the proposal. No similar campaign has been launched for the 171.

53 bus
A petition has been launched to keep the 53 running to Whitehall

Passengers were undercounted

TfL has also revised figures for every service for last year because it found that passengers were being undercounted. The new figures, which are said to account more closely for people who do not need to touch in on ticket machines, show increases on many services.

The rationale for many of the cuts will be brought into question by the new usage figures.

But TfL says the long-term trend for both the 53 and 171 is still one of decline.

‘Removing overcapacity’

A spokesperson told 853: “Some sections of the routes have a number of other parallel routes, these sections are used significantly less than the rest so we are proposing changes aimed at removing this overcapacity from those sections of London’s roads.

“Our data suggests that, on average during the morning peak, the 171 is around half full travelling north of Elephant & Castle. The busiest point of the route is at Walworth Road Library, north of which the average number of passengers falls.

“And our data suggests that, on average during the morning peak, the 53 is less than a quarter full travelling west of County Hall.

“That is why we are looking at modifying the routes on the quietest sections.”

The spokesperson added passengers on the 171 could switch to a 68 at any point north of Camberwell Green, while 53 users could use a 3, 12, 159 or 453 to carry on their trips from County Hall to Whitehall.

Historic data seen by 853 shows the 171 was used for 8.5m journeys in 2013/14, while there were 11.7m trips on the 53 in 2011/12.

A public consultation on the plans is due to be launched this month. 853 understands that the 53’s night service – itself cut in frequency earlier this year – and the N171 night bus are not affected by the plans.

Story updated on 21 September to take into account corrected information from TfL.

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