Superloop is good, actually

Superloop will be a series of orbital express bus routes around London.

I was unable to have a good look at the Superloop bus announcement until a few days after it was made. Lots of people were ready to quickly pour cold water over it, but on reflection I think it has its merits. It could be a useful piece of London’s transport infrastructure, but only once it gets over a number of hurdles.

If you are unfamiliar with it, the Superloop will be a series of orbital express bus routes around London.

Part of it already exists. In fact, as a concept it is far from new. You can trace orbital express bus routes around London as an idea back to the 1946 restarting of Green Line Coaches after the war.

The express orbital routes were introduced from 1953 and by the early 1970s ran as follows:

  • 724 Romford-Harlow-Watford-Heathrow-Staines
  • 725 Windsor-Kingston-Croydon-Gravesend
  • 726 Windsor-Heathrow-Kingston-Croydon-Gravesend
  • 727 Luton-Watford-Heathrow-Gatwick-Crawley

This list omits many service changes, but is intended to show the services formed a loop around London and also went to places now beyond the Greater London boundary. That is because the London Passenger Transport Area was much larger than the London of today. Conveniently, the “Central Area” that has/had red buses maps pretty much to the current Greater London and the rest of the area was Green Line or “Country Area”.

There was a gap in the orbit to the east because of the River Thames, and we’ll come back to that again later.

At least one of those routes might be partly familiar. Route 726 still exists as route X26 which is currently running from Heathrow Airport to Croydon. Superloop will use this route as part of its initial offering. Far from something new, Superloop is a revival.

Boris Johnson promised orbital express bus services as part of his 2008 manifesto and increased the service level of route X26 later that year. The policy was cancelled by 2010. Of the many reasons quoted for the cancellation, the one that caught my eye was the revelation that the buses would require subsidy. Welcome to Public Transport 101, Mayor Johnson! I suspect he was learning this as new information.

One of the claims against the scheme is that it is a desperate rebranding because of bad publicity for ULEZ. On the other hand it is claimed to be a bold innovative answer to the ULEZ. It is neither.

If anything, it is a delayed policy implementation caused by COVID. Orbital express bus routes have been in the Mayor’s Transport Strategy (MTS) since 2018. There are even some indicative corridors in the MTS (apologies if I’ve misread the waypoints on the maps):

  • Heathrow–Harrow–Barnet–Enfield–Ilford
  • Chiswick–Ealing–Wood Green–Walthamstow–Ilford
  • Bexleyheath–Bromley-Beckenham

That’s right! Two orbits in North London, although the Superloop proposal appears to be a mashup of the two. You will also notice that part of it has actually been delivered as route X140 in 2019. It’s all part of the plan and it has been in plain sight for five years now.

So that’s the defence of the Superloop over. Now to the problems.

The biggest issue is going to be reliability. Bus priority schemes in outer London boroughs are not as comprehensive as inner boroughs. The X26 already suffers from poor performance because of congestion.

The indicative map of routes shows that the radial express routes in London will fall under the same brand. There is also the already announced express route from Canary Wharf to Canary Wharf due to start in 2025. This makes me wonder if Transport for London (TfL) have data to show a lot of lower paid workers in Docklands live in Grove Park.

Going back to the old Green Line routes you can see how much closer to the centre the Superloop is, with TfL’s focus primarily on London. That said, some outer boroughs have been omitted entirely from the scheme.

In the east the route is particularly odd. What kind of express bus between Walthamstow and Royal Docks goes via Ilford? Buses with circuitous routes are common, but surely the point of express buses is to get from A to B directly?

The issue of where the routes do and do not stop might prove thorny. TfL will want to keep the balance of speeding up journeys and serving as many passengers as possible. The calling pattern of X28 seems to have caused consternation in the past, but the introduction of X140 seems to have avoided this.

The closing of the loop in the east still presents a problem. Back in the Green Line days they didn’t yet have the Dartford Tunnel. But even when it did open, the connecting service only lasted a year. Lack of demand or congestion? There is currently a X80 route through Dartford Crossing, but it comes nowhere near the proposed Superloop and is notoriously unreliable.

The routes do not overlap in any way, so making orbital journeys between points close to the route end will require a change. Hopper fares will mean passengers are not out of pocket, but convenience will also drive up patronage. There is always the option to extend routes to overlap later, where there are sections of high demand.

TfL have recently announced work on improving bus priority, but more will be needed to make sure the Superloop routes are attractive to passengers.

The Superloop can best be described as having potential. There is a clear precedent, there are known problems and it is fairly clear how to overcome them. There just needs to be political will to see it through and a sustained interest in the policy.