Route 486 bus
Room on the top: Route 486 is one of many services to have seen recent cutbacks

Rush-hour buses should be standing-room only at at their busiest points and times, according to new route planning guidance issued by Transport for London.

Services are now being planned so that the buses are 90% full at their peaks – and if they are less busy than that, then those routes could face cuts.

The guidance may suggest that passengers who board packed buses at locations such as North Greenwich station, Woolwich, Lewisham and Catford during the rush hour and other busy times are unlikely to see much relief – or at least get a seat – on those particular routes soon.

The revelation – which emerged in a Freedom of Information answer to a member of the public – comes as TfL seeks to cut back bus mileage in response to budget cuts and increased congestion in central London.

A final decision on plans to cut a swathe of central London services – including the 53 between Whitehall and Plumstead and 171 between Holborn and Bellingham – is expected any day now.

But TfL says the revised guidance reflects how the bus network is operating more efficiently, and so it is easier to predict how well routes will be used.

The FOI request, from an M Clary, asked for a definition of “excess capacity” when it came to bus services. After some delays when TfL said it did not have information about what this meant, the mayor’s transport agency responded with a link to a 2012 document about bus service planning.

It added: “I can also advise that due to improved reliability, we are now working towards planning a route based on approximately 90% of the total capacity of buses along a specific route over an hour. This is to take account of reliability factors.

“Therefore, if the number of passengers on buses at the busiest point at the busiest times is less than about 90% of a route’s hourly capacity, we would seek to reduce excess capacity.

“For example, if there are ten buses an hour, each of 90 capacity, we would plan to 90% of 90 x 10 = 810 capacity per hour. If the number of passengers is less than 810 at the busiest point, this would be deemed as excess capacity accordingly.”

A TfL spokesperson told 853 the trigger point used to be 80%, but has been increased because the system is more reliable.

“We don’t plan for 90 per cent occupancy across the route, just at the busiest points at the busiest times,” he said. “This spare 10 per cent accounts for any sudden rush of extra but inconsistent numbers of customers. We used to do this at 80 per cent as the network was more unreliable.”

TfL says the bus network is running at record reliability, which means the service is more regular with fewer unscheduled long gaps, which should mean fewer occasions where there are unexpectedly large numbers of people at bus stops, which then means that planners don’t have to leave 20% of space in reserve, and can make do with 10%.

A number of key routes in SE London have been reduced in frequency in recent months, as TfL wrestles with the conseqences of the loss of its central government grant – cut by Evening Standard editor George Osborne as chancellor – as well as delays to Crossrail and London mayor Sadiq Khan’s partial fare freeze, and falling ridership.

They include route 486 between North Greenwich and Bexleyheath, which saw services cut in February. The number of buses on the 286 route, one of the few north-south routes in Greenwich borough, will be trimmed in April.

But at last week’s People’s Question Time event in Bexleyheath, Sadiq Khan pledged to increase bus capacity in outer London: “We will improve the frequency of our services in outer London. We will make sure we put the buses where we need them: look at London Bridge, look at Kingsway, look at Park Lane, where there are queues of buses, back to back to back, empty, because they are not needed there.”

Last month, it emerged that plans to add a new service from North Greenwich to Kidbrooke Village via Charlton and Blackheath Standard were at an advanced stage.

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