‘I went on the London bus route that only runs once a week and absolutely everything went wrong’ – Callum Marius

From the weirdest bus route that suddenly finishes at 2.52pm to the poshest where most people are on by accident, I’m no stranger to some of the odd and sometimes downright bizarre bus routes across London’s transport network.

But one of the most unusual bus routes is the R17 bus. It runs just once per week on Wednesdays between Carpenders Park (near Watford, Hertfordshire) and Hatch End in Harrow, North West London. It’s run by Uno under contract to Hertfordshire County Council – it’s not a TfL service. The route has its origins in former joint TfL/Hertfordshire bus route 350, which used to provide a regular bus service between Watford, Carpenders Park and North West London. The 350 was axed in 2006 when passenger numbers dropped to just 760 per day.

A 2015 report by Three Rivers Council states that the R17 carried 2,500 passengers in the year 2013/4. That amounts to 24 passengers per journey, which seems impressive for a bus route that runs just once per week. Eager to find out if the healthy load of passengers on this quirky bus route was still thriving, I made my way to Hatch End to do some empirical research. Much like my reporting on the 969 or the recently thrown into peril 84, I wanted to shine a light on what bus routes like this mean to their local communities, why they are a lifeline, as well as being just a curiosity. I was wrong. Nothing went to plan…

READ MORE: ‘I went on the poshest London bus route that makes just 4 trips a day and found most people were on by accident’

I was the only passenger aboard for the entire (cut short!) journey

The R17 is a convoluted route on purpose. It starts at Carpenders Park station, does a lap of South Oxhey, goes back through Carpenders Park station to Bushey, heads southwards through Watford Heath, enters the area known as Carpenders Park (stopping at the back entrance of Carpenders Park station, a five-minute walk from where it had just started), then enters London on Oxhey Lane and terminates at Hatch End. There is a Morrison’s with a café, a library and an arts centre next to the final stop, meaning the route offers residents of South Oxhey and Carpenders Park two hours and 19 minutes per week to use those facilities and services.

The alternative is the London Overground, which runs between Carpenders Park and Hatch End every 15 minutes every day, taking just three minutes. The R17 is clearly aimed at those with mobility issues who need a door-to-door service.

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The R17 is supposed to go on a route all around South Oxhey and Carpenders Park, two residential areas severed by a railway line close to the London border. They have two bus services, the 8 and W19, which connect residents to shops and services in Watford so it is unclear if the R17 has much utility.

I made my way to Hatch End for the afternoon return journey, which departs at 12.45pm. When I arrived, that’s not what the bus stop said. The timetable stated 1.10pm. Imagine doing your entire week’s shopping, arriving at the stop at 1pm hoping to catch that one bus per week, only for it never to show up. There’s also a rather confusing situation as the route starts on the opposite side of the road to its direction of travel, goes up to a roundabout to do a U-turn, then heads back past that bus stop towards Carpenders Park.

There was no sign of anyone else waiting for the R17 and when the bus arrived five minutes late at 12.50pm. ‘Arrived’ might not be the fairest lexical choice – the bus bumped into the curb hard with a loud scratch. The driver was furious with me – his only passenger – for daring to attempt to board and shouted an angry “YEAH?!” at me. “Hi, can I get a single to Carpenders Park please?” I asked politely. The ticket machine was punched in its face and the driver responded “£2.30”. I thanked them to no response and took a seat like a naughty schoolchild who had upset the teacher for asking a question. Everybody has bad days.

1 Hatch End map

The R17 does not appear on the TfL bus maps on display at Hatch End and its timetable shows the wrong times at bus stops

The bus was clean, well-presented and had timetable booklets available with all the Uno bus route timetables (not the elusive R17’s though!). The journey started well and we glided our way towards the London boundary. Unusually, the R17 is the only bus route to serve the very tip of this corner of London along Oxhey Lane since the 350 was axed. All the bus stops have been removed though, so Londoners almost don’t benefit from the route at all.

We crossed into Hertfordshire just a few minutes after leaving Hatch End and instead of turning left, the bus continued straight on. We were now off-route, bypassing much of the residential area the route is designed to serve. There weren’t any roadworks and we were now on time so there seemed to be no reason for this. The bus then turned into By-the-Wood and started travelling the wrong way back on itself. This is when the penny dropped.

Clearly, the driver had no interest in driving the actual route and just wanted to dump me as close as possible to my destination. So that’s what happened, we pulled up at the back entrance of Carpenders Park station and I got off. At this point, I had my two smartphones in my hand, my reporter’s pad in my pocket and had picked up an Uno bus timetable book so I would have thought it somewhat obvious even if I wasn’t a journalist that I was perhaps a bus enthusiast, a blogger, a ‘mystery customer’ or someone on some sort of mission to travel on the route. It was then 1pm on a Wednesday too and I’m a relatively young adult with no visible mobility issues so regardless of my attire, you would pick up a certain vibe from me. I got a cheerier “Thank you mate!” when I hopped off.

3 centralline

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I decided to walk the five minutes around the corner to the main entrance of Carpenders Park station. There’s a Greggs there and it was 1.05pm – sausage roll time. Opposite Greggs is a live departures screen of all the buses stopping there. I noticed that the R17 was still showing on the board for a 1.16pm departure for the rest of the route, arriving back there to terminate at 1.26pm.

So, where did the bus go? Armed with my sausage roll, I went to the stop where the bus should have dropped me off to see if it would come. I went to search for the helpful ‘Uno bus tracker’ function on my smartphone to investigate but when I looked into my pocket, I could see the bus in the corner of my eye in a lay-by down the street. The bus had dropped me off, raced to the terminus and then gone a bit further down the street for an ‘extended rest period’.

0 R17 break

I spotted the R17 bus having a lengthy pause down the road instead of completing its once per week route – hopefully nobody missed it

What a shame. It was night and day compared to my previous experience with the same bus company. For a previous investigation, I tried out their 614 route and the driver’s service and professionalism could not have been better. It was genuinely exemplary. This, a taxpayer-subsided route where the one-bus-per-week doesn’t even complete the route was the total opposite. I dare not even think about the finances/taxpayer ROI, given that bus made a total of £2.30 for that journey, less than the driver’s wage for the hour, less than the cost of the fuel to run that journey and less than the cost of putting the journey information online. If there’s any consolation for Londoners, it’s that it’s Hertfordshire’s problem, not TfL’s, which has enough of its own.

I’ll try out another cross-border London bus route instead soon, in the hope I’ll have a more positive outlook on the bus’ role rather than an impromptu sausage roll.

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