London Transport route numbering


TotteringLondon has had three main phases of route numbering, of which the third allocated the 200-series numbers to single-deck routes in 1934.  If you are curious about route numbering, read on...


Route numbers are such an obvious and integral part of the bus scene that it is hard to imagine a network without them.  Yet London's extensive horse bus network in the 19th Century used colour-coded liveries to distinguish routes, and numbering only arrived after motor-buses, in 1906. 


RF525 passes Totteridge Station on 3 Jan 77, in the last month of RF operation of the 251 across quieter parts of north London.  Note the blind display with its nearside number, suggesting that new blinds had been produced for the BLs that were to enter service later in the month.  This was also the bus's last month with LT, being sold to Meopham School in February.

Photo © John Parkin


In the beginning

It was Vanguard, a competitor to the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC or 'the General'), that introduced numbers to its routes in April of that year, to enable motor buses to be used on more than one route.  There were 12 routes by the time Vanguard merged with the General in 1908; several of today's routes have a direct lineage from those original Vanguard numbers, including route 2.


The network expanded dramatically and there were over 100 routes by 1914.  The first use of a letter suffix was on the 35A in 1912, indicating an offshoot to a different destination.  Much use was made of letter suffixes throughout the 20th century - the last was the 77A that was renumbered 87 on 6 Jun 2006.  Suffixes were to achieve a particular importance in 1924.


The Bassom Scheme

Bus destination and route displays were controlled by Metropolitan Police regulations from 1910.  In 1924, the London Traffic Act was introduced, primarily to control the independent 'pirate' operators, but also imposed a numbering scheme on London's buses.  In what became known as the Bassom Scheme, after the acting chief constable of the Met Police, the full length of a route was allocated the main number, whilst short workings used letter suffixes and variations were given related numbers.


This scheme led to some bizarre consequences.  The famous route 11 from Shepherds Bush to Liverpool Street ran (up to every minutes) for nearly 10 years as the 11E, after the route was extended to the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley and therefore only Wembley services could be numbered 11.  The Epping variation of the 10 to Ongar changed from the 10A to the 100.  Another well known pair, which continue to share roads today, is the 59 and its variant the 159, the latter winning everlasting fame on 9 Dec 2005.


Nil Desperandum, there's another along in a momentNumbers 1 to 199 were reserved for General routes and 201 to 299 plus 509 to 599 for authorised independent routes.  An example is the 202, introduced by GH Allitt and Nil Desperandum in 1929, which lasted unchanged into the third generation of route numbers.  Country routes entering the Metropolitan Police area were allocated numbers in the 3xx series (routes from the north) or 4xx series (routes from the south), leading in due course to these series applying to Country Area operations.  The range 601 to 699 was introduced in 1927 for additional LGOC routes.  From 1926, the LGOC acquired independent operators and retained their routes, so the distinction in route numbering was not maintained.


Nil Desperandum YX9732 on the 202 at Surrey Docks Station.  After acquisition by the LGOC, the Nil Desperandum name was retained for a while but buses were fitted with garage and running number plates.

Photo Paul Brophy collection


All through this period, bus usage was such that routes were operated by double-deckers wherever physically possible, except in certain cases of experimental or very rural routes.  Before the second world war, small one-man buses operated the latter routes, whilst some with physical restrictions were very busy and required high capacity, crew-operated single-deckers.  The differentiation was enshrined in the numbering system in the next change, in 1934, a decision which seems rather curious from the perspective of the travelling public.


London Transport

The amalgamation of the Underground Group (including the General) with the trams (together with the acquistion of the independent operators) on 1 Jul 33 brought into existence the London Passenger Transport Board, who soon adopted the trading title 'London Transport'.  Unification led to the third and final numbering system, after the police no longer had responsibility.  The revised system has undergone development since then, but is still broadly in use today.  This was introduced on 3 Oct 34, and allocated specific blocks of numbers as follows:

       1 - 199      Central Area double-deck routes

   200 - 289      Central Area single-deck routes

   290 - 299      Central Area night routes

   300 - 399      Country Area (north) routes

   400 - 499      Country Area (south) routes

Short workings no longer took a suffix and variations were usually identified by letter suffixes.


It is immediately obvious that some groups of routes are missing from the list.  Tram routes used their own numbers from 1 upwards, often duplicating bus route numbers.  Several were renumbered on 3 Oct 34, but still in the 1 to 99 series.  An interesting feature of the tram numbering was the propensity to use pairs of even numbers for the same circular route running in opposite directions - such as Embankment routes 6/8, 16/18 and 36/38.  Trolleybus routes were not renumbered until summer 1935 when they started the 6xx series (routes 1 to 5 becoming 601 to 605), and subsequently the 5xx series was added.  Following the tram format, a few routes worked loops in pairs, such as the 513/613 round the Holborn Circus loop.


Green Line services before the war used letters and during the war numbers from 1 upwards; when reintroduced after the war, the range 701 upwards was used.  Over the years, additional numbers were required for night routes, and these were allocated backwards, reaching 284 in 1959.  Meanwhile, the Country Area had run out of numbers with the growth of new towns after the war, and from the early 1950s new sequences were started, with 800-849 in the northern area and 850 upwards south of the river.  The latter were never as numerous and only reached 854.


East End of North StreetOur interest is naturally focussed on the single-deck routes.  45 routes operated by single-deckers were renumbered on 3 Oct 34, representing all but about a dozen that already had numbers in the 200 series.  Among them were a series of routes in the Romford area that had used the old 'outer area' letter prefixes - routes G2 to G7 were renumbered in the range 247 to 252.


Route 250 was renumbered from G7 in 1934.  Here OMO RF461 sits outside North Street garage with its driver's emergency door open.

Photo Ian Armstrong collection


As routes were double-decked, they were initially renumbered out of the 2xx series.  The last to be thus renumbered was Kingston's 214 which was double-decked as the 131 on 29 Oct 41.  Maybe it was felt that renumbering was wasteful in a time of austerity?  So on 25 Feb 42, when the Pinner to Uxbridge 220 was double-decked, it became the first double-deck route in that sequence.  Many more followed as new routes opened up, but it was not until October 1965 that a single-deck route was given a number outside the 200 series, when the 20B was introduced.


When the trams were replaced by buses, the route numbers were accommodated in the existing series, but this could not be achieved for the trolleybus conversions ten years later, so in October 1960 the night routes were renumbered with N prefixes in place of the 2, allowing (for example) trolleybus 605 to become Routemaster route 285.


The next new sequence started with the Red Arrows in April 1966 when the first standee Red Arrow service 500 was introduced.  The two remaining Red Arrow routes still have 500-series numbers.


Old route, new numberThe final significant introduction came as a result of the infamous Bus Reshaping Plan, which started in 1968 in Wood Green and Walthamstow with major upheavals to the pattern of service and the widespread use in those areas of 'flat-fare' routes (now that all London bus journeys cost the same, it is easy to forget that crews used to have to cope with complex fare charts for each route).  These were numbered with a letter prefix based on the area, thus starting with the W series and moving on to include Peckham (unless it's P for Old Kent Road - for the conversion of the 202), Ealing and so on.


Parked at the Old Kent Road Canal Bridge stand in Verney Road, Rotherhithe, SMS351's driver reads the paper, having no conductor with whom to exchange banter.  When you have spent your working life as half a team, working alone would have represented a significant change.  The conversion of the 202 to OMO involved a complex transition to the P1 and P2.

Photo © DC Wilkinson, Paul Brophy collection


Recent times

After the Country Area passed to the National Bus company, the former standardisation began to fragment.  This also meant that the numbers 300-499 were no longer off limits to London Transport, and from about 1990, use of former 'country' numbers started in earnest on central routes. 


Some of the more recent numbers bear shades of the Bassom Scheme.  An early example is the 412, used for the southern section of route 12 when that route was shortened in 1990.  Another is the 329, established in 1992 to cover the former northern part of the 29.  This latter, like several others, betrays its roots by the working over the same roads of the night service of the old route, in this case the N29, where the modern preference for 24-hour services is not practical.


Also widespread are letter-prefixed routes, which unlike suffixed routes have not been outlawed.  Whilst their flat-fare origins are long gone, most but not all reflect local networks.  Special cases include the T-routes at Addington, which complement Tramlink services, and X-routes for express services.


Express services themselves are of course not new.  Several were operated in the 1950s and 60s, including the 93 and 212.  These used blue blinds, a practice which was continued on the Red Arrow services.  Present-day X-prefix routes include the X68 which has operated since the 1980s and the X26, final remains of the 726/725 from the Green Line network.


Various interesting variants occurred in the 1970s, such as the Express Merlin route 615 between Poplar and St Pauls (its numbering derived from the 15), a failed experiment.  Poplar's MBS513 works through the brutalist surroundings of Aldgate's Gardiner's Corner in December 1970 (an earlier photo of Gardiner's Corner, in 1950, is here).

Photo © Roger Newport


Additional sequences introduced in more recent years include the 900-series mobility services, generally operating a few journeys a week, and 600-series school routes.  And happily for those who don't like too much uniformity, there are all sorts of exceptions - the 607 express version of the 207, the 805, a privately-registered route for workers at Heathrow now adopted by TfL and renumbered 435, the PR2 for Park Royal and the RV1 Riverside tourist route.  But no suffix letters, as these would confuse the travelling public.