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‘I went on the London bus that only makes 2 journeys a week and it’s the only route where everyone is happy’ – Callum Marius

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I wouldn’t blame you if you’ve never heard of the London bus service the 969.

It’s not one of the more recognisable bus routes that pretty much all Londoners know, like the 11 between Fulham and Liverpool Street, or the 15 between Blackwall and Trafalgar Square – it’s actually London’s least frequent.

It makes just one return journey twice per week, so is in service for just four hours a week – so only runs a total of 208 hours a year. The 24 bus, which runs between Pimlico and Hampstead Heath, runs the same amount in just nine days.

It runs from Roehampton Vale Asda to Whitton via a series of residential areas, Barnes, East Sheen and Richmond, which might leave you wondering ‘What is the point?’ – so I went to find out.

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The 969 bus is London’s most obscure too – here it as at its terminus where there is no physical bus stop to mark the end point!

The 969 is timetabled so that effectively you can make a twice weekly shop at Roehampton Vale Asda. It would drop you off at 11.02am on a Tuesday and Friday morning and pick you back up at 1.15pm. I joined the last journey of the week a few stops in at Barnes.

The bus arrived one minute early.

I imagine timekeeping would be pretty important on a route so infrequent. A confused lady squinted as I boarded, as if I was boarding a spaceship and she could not understand why I would want to do that. I expected to see a few trolleys and the odd pensioner but when I boarded the bus there was only one other passenger.

The 24-seat bus glided its way with relative ease through leafy Barnes. It’s one of the rare London buses without a middle door, as passengers per bus are so low boarding and alighting from the same door is not disruptive.

With the bus so empty, all the Covid signage seemed a bit overkill. Between the driver, me and the other passenger we had more than enough room to socially distance and you’ll be happy to know that passenger mask compliance was 100 per cent.

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Bus driver Mohamed took extra care to make sure the elderly passengers using the route with heavy shopping were comfortable and got home safely

I started speaking to the other passenger to see if I was just being a transport geek or this was common knowledge. His name was Dan and he was making a trip to see friends in Whitton on his day off from work.

He told me: “I know there’s loads of other ways to go but this is definitely the friendliest and the nicest.”

He is conscious that a route like this could fall victim to incoming TfL cuts : “It’s not vital for me but for some of the old ladies, you can tell it’s their vital link to the rest of the world. It would be a shame if this went.”

A third passenger boarded at Barnes Pond. They immediately got off at the stop after. I wondered if they knew they’d just used London’s least frequent bus, it would be four days before they could make that one-stop journey again.

We stopped to pick up four more passengers in East Sheen. One of them had no idea the bus was so unusual: “I don’t even take the bus,” she insisted. She alighted with her Waitrose bag shortly after.

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The 969 does have some impressive views as it longs the Thames including here in Richmond

Another passenger, Luke, was making a regular journey home from his parents’ place. It was the first time he’d been on the 969 and asked: “How long’s it been running?”

“Around 20 years I think,” I responded. “Really?! Are you sure?” he replied.

The 969 is the last remaining ‘Mobility Buses’ route operating in the capital. It was part of a network of bus routes which ran daily or weekly to those with extra mobility needs from their local amenities right to their front doors. They have largely been replaced by Dial-a-Ride schemes and special minibus networks that run in Ealing and Sutton.

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The 969 does have fixed bus stops on some parts of the route

“I have a Freedom pass. I use it to go everywhere. For me, it really is my freedom,” Luke tells me he’s not too fond of a particular bus stop in Kingston as it can be very overcrowded and people push in his way.

The 969 by contrast was nearly empty and fully accessible, there was zero pushing. Luke told me he had a stroke several years ago and the bus network is his only way to get about.

At Richmond, half the bus (two people), left and another half replaced them. They were a couple, Michael and Margaret.

“There are the regulars, unfortunately we’ve lost six due to old age though, not due to Covid,” they told me.

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Where Michael and Margaret live in Whitton is around a 20 minute walk from the nearest bus stop involving either a footbridge or a subway across the busy A316 dual carriageway. Happily retired, they are somewhat unhappily isolated.

“There have been muggings along the subway. It’s not the safest. We thought when they extended the 110 it would come right up to Meadway but it didn’t,” they told me.

They told me of the trips they’ve started on just the 969 and the people they’ve met along the way: “We used to have a regular bus driver called Steve. He was lovely. He knew all of us, he even gives a few of the regulars a ring once in a blue moon just to check in on them.”

As we darted in and out of the side roads off the dual carriageway Margaret pointed forward and shouted: “50 more yards please, driver!” before dropping them off virtually at their front door.

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Gladstone Avenue is only accessible from one side of the dual carriageway, meaning the 969 has to serve it in a one-way loop. It starts here but actually terminates on Lincoln Avenue, at the other end of the loop meaning this screen is technically wrong!

As we reached the terminus at Whitton, I was the only passenger left. The route ends on Lincoln Avenue, a tiny road so small that there are no actual bus stops. The bus just stops where it’s safe to.

I spoke to our driver Mohamed. He usually drives the 267 but occasionally does the 969. He said: “It is a nice route to drive, you often get the elderly ladies at Roehampton with their shopping. It’s friendly!”

In a busy, crazy city like London, there’s something very cathartic about having a friendly bus route. We could certainly do with more of them.

Even though the route is infrequent, it does not detract anything from the wider transport network in London.

“With your Oyster card, look how far you can go. You can go everywhere!” Mohamed told me.

“I had these American tourists on my bus, they said to me ‘you know London has the best transport system in the whole world.”

I shared a few laughs with Mohamed before he set off back to Twickenham bus garage, where the route is operated from. It was now my weekend, so I headed back home.

I took ten steps to the end of Lincoln Avenue. I now had Margaret’s problem. Four lanes of chock-a-block Friday traffic to get to the other side, where everything is. Instead of proceeding directly forwards to the local shopping precinct to grab some lunch and catch the train back, I had to detour via a footbridge either 200 metres to my left or 500 metres to my right.

Choosing the shorter option, I ended up in a sea of children finishing a PE lesson on one side of the carriageway who were using the footbridge to access their school on the other side. “Sir, can you just wait a minute please?” A PE teacher said to me as around 150 adolescents plodded over the bridge. I could have really done with another 969 at that point.

There’s a lot to read into the future of the 969. The bus route is being reviewed, along with all London bus routes, by Transport for London (TfL) and the central government as part of strict conditions imposed by central government on a £1.9billion bailout for TfL.

Its low frequency leads to its low usage, it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the route has no fixed bus stops on the important sections where it is the only bus, there is no visible way for residents to know it runs unless they happen to research it online.

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By the end of the journey, I was the only one onboard so it was very easy to socially distance!

Running it at least once per day and putting the most basic of bus stops along the whole route would go some way in showing the residents of the area who have been blighted by poor urban planning that the transport system does actually care for them.

Yet, the 969 is one of a few routes which genuinely serves its purpose – it does genuinely help those who can’t get about as easily and rely on public transport, it does link residential areas with important amenities and it even brings a community together – it’s the only bus route in London where everyone is happy and smiling.

You might not be able to find out the exact cost of happiness, but it’s a metric we could all do with right now.

Have you ever travelled on the 969? What are your impressions of London’s most obscure bus route? Let us know in the comments below.

Got a transport story, no matter how quirky, for MyLondon? Email [email protected]

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