Saturday, 30 December 2017

Introducing: Reading Buses

Since the introduction of the Reading Vehicle Finder, a growing fascination for their network has resulted in a trip out of London, to sample various routes over there. As an operator, I'm a big fan of their approach to running services, applying different colours for different corridors, having (generally) high frequencies and luxury features like free WiFi, high back seats and USB ports, along with audio-visual next stop information. There are also a wide range of bus types to try out, which can result in a very busy day. I shall certainly be returning to the town at some point, I thoroughly enjoyed my trip there and most of the routes radiate from the main shopping area and stay within the town itself, although there are services provided by other operators that generally travel much further, to places like Oxford and Henley.

This post should give you an introduction into the town and its network, although I'm still no expert yet and if some key information is missed please point it out in the comments box. For specific details I recommend using the Reading Buses website, which has timetables, maps and even a fleet list which can help in tracking specific buses on RVF. Their depot is based at Great Knollys Street, which is close to the town centre and there is even a Reading Buses shop located in the Broad Street Mall, where services include the provision of timetables, along with purchasing tickets and general enquiries. By taking you through each set of routes, a large variety of types will be documented and my views on each of them will be present too. Hopefully, you are able to enjoy this interlude from the London service changes and are tempted to try out their network yourself. In terms of fares, I would recommend using plusbus, by attaching a "simply reading" day ticket to your train ones, this not only helps save money, but also makes sure you can complete most of the routes in urban Reading for just £4 or maybe less. For more details, click here to investigate which ticket is best for you, although if you want to sample those that travel further afield, a more expensive "simply network" ticket might be better for you.

Reading Buses 1202 is seen on the 1 at St Mary's Butts.
Route 1 is labelled "jet black" and runs between Reading Station and Newbury, via Calcot, Theale and Midgham. It's one of the only routes to leave the "simply Reading" boundary and can be regarded as rural to some degree, taking up to 90 minutes from end-to-end. During the day, it runs every 30 minutes, with an hourly evening and Sunday service. The fleet consists of diesel E400s that are complete with a (sort of) black exterior repaint, with some being based at the Newbury depot rather than at Great Knollys Street. They contain high back seats and have free WiFi, although they should receive a refurbishment soon as some are looking a little tired.There are occasional odd workings on this service, with E400 MMCs that usually work the Newbury Vodaphone services sometimes appearing on the 1. It seems to be quite popular, with a mixture of residents and long distance travellers between the two towns, essentially acting as a trunk route. There haven't been too many complaints about reliability, although the lower frequency naturally helps this. Although I didn't sample the 1 on my trip, it looks like one of the more interesting routes found on the network, especially because it travels through the countryside and uses double deckers - it's probably the only example on the Reading network with this combination. So, if you decide to venture outside of the urban "simply Reading" boundary, perhaps starting you day with the 1 from Newbury is a good idea.

Reading Buses 434 is seen at St Mary's Butts on one of the occasional 2a trips to Tadley.
The lime 2 runs between Reading Station and Mortimer, with some deviations around Burghfield Common being labelled as the 2a. Some trips also extend beyond Mortimer to AWE Tadley, although this only occurs in peak hours, whilst others terminate at Mortimer Station rather than at Glennarp Grange. This route is also more rural in nature, spending a considerable amount of time outside the "Simply Reading" boundary and passing green fields, which blend in rather well with the lime colour scheme, which is applied to three gas-powered Scania Enviro 300 single deckers that are the mainstay of the lime 2 service. It takes around 45 minutes from end-to-end and both the 2 and 2a are coordinated to provide a half hourly service between them, which results in 4bph along the Bath Road corridor which is shared with the jet black 1. On Sundays and during the evening, an hourly frequency is provided. Although I didn't sample the lime 2, it seems to be quite decent for reaching high speed and travelling through the countryside, although there is no alternative for travelling back from Tadley or Mortimer other than using the same bus, unless you happen to catch one of the two trips per day that are extended to the station. The route is pretty busy in rush hour although loadings seem to be controlled during the day, with the 30-minute frequency matching demand well. Therefore, the lime 2 looks like a nice route if you have lots of time for travelling and the appropriate tickets for travelling further out.

Reading Buses 426 is seen on stand at Reading Station.
The leopard corridor now consists of five routes, all of which serve the Shinfield area South of the town centre. The main flow is along Shinfield Road, where 6 buses per hour are provided as a combination of all the services. Half of those are variations of route 3, which runs from Reading Station to Royal Berkshire Hospital, Shinfield and Aborfield Garrison, where some trips terminate. The others continue to either Wokingham or Bracknell (3b), with both of these towns receiving 1 bus per hour. On Sundays, only the 3b and 10 operate at an hourly frequency. These longer trips take around 60 minutes from end-to-end and this route also ventures out of the "Simply Reading" boundary (I can assure you, there really aren't as many as you might initially think). The allocation of gas-powered Scania Enviro 300s with the leopard livery is shared with the 10, which has one bus per hour to Spencers Wood, which is just South of Ducketts Farm and is also outside the boundary. This means that there is a 15-minute service along the Shinfield Road corridor provided by these Enviro 300s, with the number 3 buses also serving some rural areas. From my observations, all of these services load heavily, with the Bracknell and Wokingham 3s being particularly busy. Overall, these services seem like decent trunk routes, although I sampled one of the more anomalous routes along this corridor so personal experience can't confirm whether the sections beyond Ducketts Farm are interesting or not.

Reading Buses 185 is seen along Friar Street.
Reading Buses recently introduced the 10a route to supplement the existing services along the Shinfield Road corridor and provide a bus to the newly opened Thames Valley Science Park, which is close to Ducketts Farm. However, the latter destination has been the terminus of the 10a until recently, because the buses couldn't access the Park at the time. The route operates at a half hourly frequency (Monday-Saturday only) and seems to run a couple of minutes behind the number 3, meaning that it doesn't load very well (mine was empty despite it departing in the evening peak), although I suspect patronage will increase now that the Science Park is open. In terms of routeing, the service is quite interesting, passing through a mixture of shops and houses, although the main reason why I enjoyed the 10a is because of the gas-powered Optare Solo vehicles that operate the route. They are some of the quirkiest buses in the fleet, with the engine producing some amusing and questionable sounds throughout the journey - it's immediately obvious that these buses have been artificially modified. Even though they do operate on other services, an appearance on the 10a is almost guaranteed and it also runs within the "simply Reading" boundary as far as Ducketts Farm Roundabout with Thames Valley Science Park only being two minutes away.

Another oddity that runs locally is the weekday only X3 service, providing three return trips between Central Reading and Shinfield Park Foster Wheeler, running non-stop between these destinations and using the dual carriageway rather than Shinfield Road, with an allocation of double deck vehicles. Although this route should be brilliant for fast running theoretically, it only runs during rush hour so I suspect the X3 is full of traffic rather than speedy buses, although it might be worth giving the service a try just in case. I'm not too sure on loadings for this one as I didn't see the bus at all during my visit, but it seems like one of the stranger routes found in Reading. In conclusion, the Leopard corridor is one of the more varied examples out there, containing gas E300s that go to the countryside, double deckers that run at peak times to offices and nutty gas Solo's that stop within the boundary. Pretty good, I'd say.

Reading Buses 211 is seen on Friar Street working the X4 to Bracknell.
A recent acquisition for Reading Buses is the 4 and X4 services, previously operated by First Berkshire. Both "lion" routes run together from Reading to Wokingham, travelling via Earley and Winnersh, however after this they separate, with the 4 taking a much longer and indirect route to Bracknell, travelling via the Southern industrial and residential areas. The quicker X4 travels straight to Bracknell via the John Nike Ski Centre, which makes it the preferred option for travelling between the two towns - the 4 is mainly used by local residents. Both routes have two buses per hour, providing a combined 15-minute frequency along the shared section, from Monday to Saturday, with each route running hourly on Sundays and in the evening. The X4 is approximately 20 minutes faster, although traffic conditions often slow both routes down - unfortunately for the "lion" routes reliability isn't great. They run with a batch of ADL Enviro 400 hybrid buses that contain free WiFi and USB charging, although the interior seating is fairly basic for now - these vehicles used to run on the claret 21. Two diesel E400s also run the service and are identical in terms of their exterior branding. Odd workings are commonplace, with single deckers appearing from time to time. Both of these routes run outside of the "simply Reading" boundary, which ends at Earley. I haven't had the opportunity to sample these routes yet, although my preference would be to ride the X4 between Bracknell and Reading, especially if you wish to return to the town centre after riding the 3b. However, some people love residential routes that weave in and out of back roads, which does make the 4 service more appealing for this crowd. It seems that Reading Buses made the right decision in obtaining these routes when First surrendered, they seem to load fairly well and the new company have certainly undertaken improvements to make the routes more attractive to users.

Reading Buses 760 is seen at Station Road on the 5 to Northumberland Avenue.
Some of the busiest and more prolific routes in Reading are under the "emerald" brand. They run to and from dense housing areas South of the Reading Town Centre, travelling along urban corridors en route. The 5 originates at Northumberland Avenue and essentially travels in a straight line (bar one deviation in the middle) until Reading, where a one way system results in a massive loop around the town centre. It only takes 23 minutes from start to finish, with an 8 minute frequency at peak times. The 5 is one of a handful of 24-hour routes in Reading, with 1 bus per hour during the night. On Sunday, the frequency varies throughout the day, ranging from three buses per hour in the afternoon, to hourly in the mid-morning. Its batch of MMCs are fairly new and are built to a high specification, containing a smart black/green interior with USB charging, free WiFi and comfortable seating, along with the wood-effect flooring. They seem quite fast and are very nice to travel on - they would be some of my favourites if it wasn't for the massive screen which has been plastered over the front window. Couldn't the next stop info be placed anywhere else? With a window seat the view isn't obstructed too much, but it's a real pain when the bus is busy, which is often the case on the 5. Reliability seems bearable, with a very frequent service to cater for the high demand. Although the 5 seems like a nice urban route, it has a very loose schedule which means buses are regulating at almost every stop, something which I find extremely irritating when riding routes. Therefore, I suggest completing the 6 over this one.

Reading Buses 527 is seen on the 6 to Whitley Wood.
 Although the illustration may confuse you, the 6 is also an "emerald" service, running slightly to the West of where the 5 terminates at Northumberland Avenue. Although branded vehicles do make up most of the allocation, there are a fleet of spare buses that are painted in a generic "grey" livery and can turn up on any route. The example above is a DAF DB250 Gemini, which was purchased from Arriva London recently. They run on school services under the "silver stars" brand, although in rush hour they can turn up on anything where gaps are present in the branded vehicles. However, the 6 normally shares the same batch of lovely MMCs as the 5. It runs between Central Reading and Whitley Wood, along the Basingstoke Road corridor and the edge of Kennet Island. It is also an hourly 24 hour service, although during the day a 10 minute service is provided. The 6 has 3 buses per hour on Sundays. It's another short route, only taking around 30 minutes from start to finish, although the schedule is less relaxed and a fast-paced journey is more likely. This also means that reliability isn't always on point, with bunching being the most significant and apparent issue, although the high frequency means that gaps are usually bearable, even if the buses are heaving afterwards.  However, I do hope the tight schedule remains in use as otherwise the enjoyment of this route might be affected. Although I did travel on the entirety of the 6, the service I rode was actually a variation with a double run in the middle, which only runs a few times a day.

Reading Buses 765 is seen on the 6a to Tesco Depot.
Reading is also home to a huge Tesco Distribution Centre, located near Whitley Wood and the Madejski Stadium. The site operates on a three-shift basis and the 6a operates when changes occur, providing a few trips a day either transporting workers to or from this complex. Some trips only run between Reading Station and the Depot, whilst others simply undertake a double run in the middle of a 6 trip to or from Whitley Wood. The midday shift changes are the most accessible and I decided to take a ride then, on one of two departures to travel to Whitley Wood first, before travelling back to Reading via the Tesco Depot. Typically, the two buses bunched and leapfrogged each other for the entire journey, but thankfully the large crowd at Tesco were evenly distributed within the two buses that turned up simultaneously. In terms of routeing, the 6/6a are great for passing urban areas, with some housing towards the end. However, there are always other sights to see (like the Kennett Island retail area) and I found my journey very relaxing on the E400 MMC. The industrial interlude into Tesco was also interesting, making the difficulty in catching this journey feel rewarding. However, the normal 6 is arguably just as enjoyable and I would recommend riding this emerald service regardless of whether you catch one of the Tesco runs.

Admittedly, I only found out that Reading Buses runs a number 7 service a few days ago, after my trip there. It's one of the most elusive routes on the network, with no advertising and no colour-coded branding either. The 7 only runs during the evening (one or two trips in each direction) and on Sundays, where four return trips are provided. The route runs to Riseley, a small village located outside of the town centre and the "simply Reading" boundary, further South than Spencers Wood. In order to travel between Riseley and the Central Reading, the 7 goes to Kendrick Students Village and then uses Basingstoke Road like the 6, although instead of serving Whitley Wood it continues in a straight line further South than the M4. This service only runs at these quieter times because Stagecoach number 7 service stops before the evening and doesn't run on Sunday - it actually continues all the way to Aldershot. Presumably, they withdrew these short trips and Reading Buses stepped in to save them, so Riseley continues to have a (sort of) accessible bus service. The route is operated by single deck gas-powered Scania Enviro 300s and I would love to be able to try the 7, but unfortunately I wasn't in Reading late enough to be able to snap one. It looks like a somewhat interesting route, becoming rural after leaving the boundary and if you are committed enough to intercept one of these rare trips, you might be in for a treat.

Reading Buses 167 is seen on the 9 to Whitley Wood, using a bus that's colour-coded for the 12 but actually turns up on any of the Earley Gate routes.
Three infrequent single deck routes serve the Earley Gate (back entrance) of Reading University, along with the Royal Berkshire Hospital. After running along this corridor and providing a combined 20-minute frequency at times, each of them all set off on extremely indirect and tedious residential routes until reaching their respective termini. None of them run on Sundays. All three services use the same vehicles, which is a pool of white E200s branded as the "nineteens" and a solitary orange Wrightbus Streetlite, which should be used on the 12 (as it serves the orange Woodley area), although in reality it turns up on any of the three routes.

Routes 9 and 19 both serve similar areas and are often grouped together, although this wasn't always the case. The 9 actually had its own brand before, it had an allocation of gas-powered Scania E300s and was labelled the scarlet, running at a civilised 30-minute frequency - it was quite a substantial service in the Reading network. However, it seems that all of these scarlet buses have disappeared and are now found in different liveries on other routes, like the leopard services, presumably because the 9 wasn't used much. It now uses a neglected batch of E200s that trundle back and forth between Reading and the large one-way loop at Whitley Wood. The 9 takes considerably longer than the 6 to reach Central Reading, but it serves more housing and delves deeper into the estates at Whitley Wood and the edge of Shinfield Park. After running past the Royal Berkshire Hospital and University Of Reading, it serves side roads in a horizontal direction until ending up at the edge of Kennett Island, where the 9 runs along Basingstoke Road Southbound only, until Whitley Wood, where it curves around and joins the outbound routeing again at the edge of Shinfield Park, allowing the bus to travel back into Central Reading. Confusing, isn't it. The 9 generally runs at a dismal hourly frequency, with no buses at all during the morning and evening rush hour, bar two trips that run between 7 and 8pm, after a three hour service gap. The downfall of this service is unfortunate to see, especially with the frequency cut and unappealing bunch of buses.

One of the E200s is seen on route 19 to Lower Earley.
The 19 follows the 9 along the University corridor, until Earley where all three routes separate. This one continues straight down, past Chatton Close Asda, to serve the sprawling residential area of Lower Earley and specifically the part which the more substantial double deck Claret 21 doesn't reach. After navigating this, it completes a modest loop within Shinfield Park, which is self-contained within the baffling 9 circuit. The 19 then goes back to Lower Earley and makes its way up to Reading. It also has an hourly frequency, but unlike the 9 it actually runs in rush hour, with some more frequent intervals too. A full circuit can take well over 90 minutes and this route looks pretty tedious too, after the Earley Gate anyway. This route is very residential and indirect and not my cup of tea, but it serves a large part of the town I've never been to so I feel obliged to sample it at some point.

The final route along the corridor at the back of the University is the 12, which was introduced fairly recently to replace routes 19a and 19c. After the Earley separation point, the 12 crosses Wokingham Road and heads up to Woodley, where it serves a few inner roads which the substantial 13/14 circuit routes can't reach.  It then terminates fairly close to the town centre. It takes 55 minutes from start to finish, which is 30 minutes longer than the 13/14, but this route isn't meant to be a fast link into Central Reading, but rather a lifeline where mainstream routes are inaccessible. It runs at an hourly frequency, although in rush hour the bus terminates at Chequers rather than running all the way to Culver Drive in Woodley. The route is technically allocated the solitary orange Streetlite, although this isn't always the case and one of the "nineteens" branded E200s is often seen on the route. Like the other two, this one doesn't seem particularly interesting and spends 80% of its time going past houses, although the actual Earley Gate corridor itself could be fascinating, especially if there are glimpses of the university. Therefore, even though these routes may not seem appealing on the surface, being very residential and not running very often, they might be fun to ride on some degree and I'd definitely be inclined to try them out, even if they're not a top priority for exploring the town.

Reading Buses 419 is seen on route 11 to Coley Park.
 One of the shortest routes found in Reading is the 11, shuttling between the town centre and Coley Park, an inner-suburban housing settlement marooned between the A33 dual carriageway and the sprawling Southcote estates. The 11 has a peak vehicle requirement (PVR) of 2 gas-powered Enviro 300s, which satisfy the 20-minute frequency, in operation from Monday-Saturday. On Sundays, the route runs every 30 minutes, whilst the evening frequency is hourly seven days a week. There are two buses that are painted in the bronze livery, although other vehicles like the gas Optare Solo buses do appear occasionally. Overall, I can't find anything particularly interesting about the 11 in terms of its routeing, although if you need to kill time for 30 minutes I would recommend trying this out, purely to explore another area of the town. Most of the journey is spent travelling around the town centre anyway.

Reading Buses 903 is seen outside the Station.
In addition to the infrequent single deck service 12, two much more significant double deck routes serve the majority of the sprawling Woodley estate. Both of them follow each other until Cemetery Junction, although from here the 13 navigates the estate by travelling in an anti-clockwise loop, whilst the 14 heads in a clockwise direction, with the latter route serving Shepherds Hill, Chequers, Woodley Airfield, Earley and Bulmershe in this order. These routes are kept well-hidden from the town centre, terminating at the Station rather than negotiating the tedious loop involving St Mary's Butts and Friar Street. From Monday-Saturday, both routes run every 30 minutes, although this is reduced to hourly during evenings and Sundays. On Friday & Saturday nights some extra trips run until 3am on route 13 only. A fleet of six Wrightbus Streetdeck vehicles satisfy the PVR, although a generic grey DAF DB250 can often be found roaming around on the Woodley routes and is allocated as a spare. The main allocation is complete with an orange livery, with high back seats, WiFi and USB charging all present, along with the usual wood effect flooring. A few images of oranges (the fruit) have been plastered over the tables and ceiling and these buses even have a sofa upstairs, which is rather difficult to remain comfortable in as the bus navigates the tight corners of Woodley.

Admittedly, I did find route 13 a little tiresome, as much of the scenery in Woodley is identical, consisting of low-density housing with nothing much else to see, bar the occasional school or green space. The full circuit takes around 70 minutes to complete and there are certainly more fascinating parts of the town to admire. However, for residential route lovers this route is probably perfect and the fleet of high-specification Streetdecks are unique in the Reading fleet and I enjoyed my experience on them. So, perhaps the Woodley circular routes are some to try, perhaps for the bus type rather than the surroundings.

Reading Buses 840 is seen on route 15 to Calcot IKEA.
 Two routes are found under the sky blue brand, numbered the 15 and 16. The former route runs between Central Reading and Calcot IKEA, travelling through Oxford Road, Dee Park and Tilehurst Triangle in the process, with this journey taking around 35 minutes from start to finish. Some trips, numbered the 15a, only run as far as Dee Park, giving 4 buses per hour between this housing area and the Central Reading, as both services run half hourly, although the 15a doesn't run during evenings and Sundays. Both sky blue services are officially allocated a batch of Scania Olympus vehicles, although they are very worn out now and are proving troublesome in terms of reliability, so two ADL E400H vehicles are also branded for the 15/16 and the generic Scania OmniCity vehicles are frequent visitors to the services. Both routes have been affected by the closure of Cow Lane in recent times, which has resulted in congestion around Oxford Road and a deterioration in the reliability of these services, although controlled traffic is starting to return to the area now.

I sampled the 15 on my trip to Reading, taking an Olympus to Calcot, which sounded a little clapped out - the engine was screaming its head off and the bus struggled to maintain any kind of speed above 15mph on both the dual carriageway and the massive hills that this route has to undertake. This amusing bus helped to make the experience even more fun and the 15 is one of my favourite routes run by Reading Buses. Some of the via points are rather quaint and the sheer variety of areas this route passes through in such a short time period makes it constantly intriguing, with no boring parts at all. Although the approach out of Reading is urban, along the bustling Oxford Road, the route all of sudden becomes extremely hilly and serves Dee Park, a relatively new housing area that's surrounded by a power station and what appears to be the side of a valley, creating a rural atmosphere. After some fast running, the 15 briefly becomes residential, before passing the urban part of Tilehurst and the stunning water tower. Some sensational views of the Berkshire countryside can be found as the 15 curves its way downhill through green forest, until the final stretch of dual carriageway which leads it to Ikea and Sainsbury's, the terminus of the route. The 15 certainly isn't your average route and hopefully you can understand why I love it so much, it's definitely one to try out!

Reading Buses 843 is seen on route 16.
The other sky blue service runs much further North-West, terminating at Purley Chestnut Grove and serving a plethora of housing after abandoning the Oxford Road in Tilehurst. It seems heavily residential and serves a lot of homes alone, resulting in the service being fairly busy all the way through to Reading. A quarter-hourly service is provided from Monday-Friday, although this reduces to every 20 minutes on Saturday and becomes half hourly on Sunday - during the evenings there is generally a 60 minute frequency. The journey takes around 30 minutes to complete and Purley is a dead end in terms of having other services - the only option is to take the 16 back into town. The mixed allocation is shared with the 15 and both routes use the same vehicles, although the 16 does have a higher PVR. In terms of preference, the 15 seems more appealing than this route - largely residential routes like the 16 tend to have a lack of variety in terms of surroundings and this often makes rides boring, although as I haven't sampled the service yet I could be in for a surprise. However, riding the 15 (almost) guarantees a good experience in my opinion and if you had to choose one sky blue service to sample, it seems like a safer bet.

Reading Buses 220 is seen on route 17 to Tilehurst Water Tower.
The purple 17 can be seen as the flagship route of the company, remaining virtually unchanged since the trolleybus era. It is the only substantial cross-town service and doesn't terminate within Central Reading, originating at Tilehurst Water Tower and travelling to Wokingham Road Three Tuns, located near Earley. Intermediate destinations include the residential area of Norcot, the hubbub of Oxford Road and town centre (where buses operate in one-way sections), along with the exotic Cemetery Junction and the revolutionary contraflow bus lane on Wokingham Road. It's a rather urban service and I certainly find the route attractive - the company clearly take great pride in the service and it's a shame I didn't have the opportunity to sample the 17 on my trip. Regular users claim that it's the "backbone of the Reading network" and I would still recommend trying it out as it gives a great introduction to the town without venturing too far out. The 17 is another 24-hour service (running half hourly throughout the night) and has a 7-8 minute peak frequency, with 6bph on Sundays and a 15-20 minute service during the evening, with some trips curtailing at the town centre for operational convenience. Up to 17 buses are required for peak time operation, which is the highest example on the Reading network.

Reading Buses 1101 is seen on the 17.
Generic spare vehicles frequently find themselves on the 17, especially because the route has donated two of its E40Hs to the sky blue 15/16 prematurely, allowing some of the unreliable Scania Olympus buses to undertake an early withdrawal. The main allocation of the route has consisted of ADL Enviro 400 hybrid vehicles for a few years, being rather basic in terms of their interior, with no wood effect or high back seats. However, these vehicles should be receiving a heavy refurbishment soon and conversion to diesel, along with a transfer to the pink/sky blue services, as a brand new batch of vehicles have started to enter service on the purple 17 very recently, typically only two days after my visit to the town! After extensive summer trials on the route, which involved a New Routemaster, hybrid Plaxton President and an ADL E40H MMC City, the latter vehicle has been chosen as the worthy replacement of the old guard, albeit in the form of gas-powered Scania N280UD models.  They are also the first buses on the network to feature dual doors, something which will be particularly beneficial to the 17 route - as it crosses the town centre there is a lot of simultaneous boarding and alighting and hopefully the second exit will help speed up the journey. The City vehicles have been built to a high specification, with a purple livery containing all the interior luxuries, or necessities, found on other new vehicles on the network. So far, the feedback has been positive and hopefully they settle into the 17 comfortably and continue to provide for one of the most successful and popular routes in Reading.

An E400 MMC navigates Friar Street on route 21.

The claret 21 runs between Reading Station and the residential part of Lower Earley, via Reading University. It's another main trunk route radiating out of the town centre and is one of the busiest on the network, having a quarter-hourly service between Lower Earley and Central Reading, with additional trips during term time boosting the frequency to 8bph between the town centre and Reading University. The Sunday frequency consists of 3bph, whilst evenings and Friday/Saturday nights have a half-hourly service, with this reducing to hourly on Monday-Thursday nights ; the 21 is another 24-hour service running to the South-East of the town centre. A full circuit takes around 65 minutes and despite the residential nature of the service, I really enjoyed my trip on the 21. There's a wide range of different housing areas, from the large mansion-style homes near the university, to the typical outer-suburban settlement of Earley, although there are frequent breaks including green spaces and retail areas, making the route both balanced and a relaxing experience.
Reading Buses 807 is seen on the 21.
Two bus types are officially allocated to the 21. The five claret branded ADL E400 MMCs are some of the first examples of this populous type found in the UK, with Reading Buses receiving them before London's first batch. They contain all the usual specifications and seem like decent vehicles, with the Lower Earley service sometimes operated with these vehicles alone during term time. However, I sampled the service by using the more interesting part of the allocation. Four Scania OmniDekka vehicles, which are rather old compared to the rest of the modern fleet,
have been heavily refurbished and work the 21a shuttle between the town centre and Reading University during term time. These vehicles are called  Claret spritzers and on the surface they might look like typical branded Reading buses. However, the upstairs interior has a rather radical design, which is meant to be appropriate for the university students who are the regular users of the 21a. Towards the rear seating is in a social style, with tables and a U-shaped booth. There are three zones, with the front portion of the bus being dubbed the "study zone", where people can simply sit down and enjoy the view (like I did) or get on with work - unusually on the right hand side the seats are isolated rather than being in a pair. There is also a lamp for anyone wishing to study, although unfortunately the light bulb has been stolen on 807. In the middle there's the spritzer library, where people can exchange different novels by placing them on the bookcase and collecting another, but on my trip it was empty. The play zone contains tables which should have tablets embedded into them, along with board games and lego, although none of these luxuries were present on my bus. At the rear there is the lounge zone, with the seating booth, contactless phone chargers and an mp3 jukebox, which can be connected to electronic devices in order to play music on the bus, although this seemed to be dead too. Even though students seem to have taken advantage of these spritzer vehicles and almost nothing works, the interior is quirky and they're still a pleasure to travel on. They don't just run during term time either, they are frequently found on the Earley service and other Reading routes during holidays. The revamped OmniDekka's are certainly some of my favourite vehicles in the fleet and I definitely recommend you take a ride on one.

Reading Buses 201 is seen on the yellow 26 at Calcot IKEA
Route 26 runs between Calcot IKEA and Reading Station, via an assortment of housing areas just South of the Bath Road, including Southcote and Kennet Valley. It runs every 10 minutes during the week, every 12 minutes on Saturdays and every 20 minutes on Sundays, with the evening frequency being half hourly. An hourly night service is provided, making this the last 24 hour route found on the network and another one of the busiest. I sampled the service after travelling on the 15 and felt pretty disappointed after alighting in Reading town centre. Apart from the superstores and high street at either end, the whole route is just constant housing with nothing else to look at and a rather daunting continuous array of side streets, which the 26 serves in great detail, taking a rather indirect route in comparison to the jet black 1, although end-to-end journey time is only 30 minutes. Even though I recommend travelling to Calcot IKEA via the 15, your return journey will be much more fun by taking the number 1 service from Sainsbury's, a 2 minute walk away. However, it is half-hourly and if you are pushed for time and that bus isn't coming for a while, it's fine to endure the 26 - just don't expect it to be anything interesting!

Reading Buses 803 is seen on stand at IKEA.
The yellow 26 is allocated six ADL E40Hs and are the first examples of this type in the fleet. Unfortunately, one of them caught fire recently so the sequence is incomplete. They are feeling very worn out now, with a basic interior and frequent breakdowns. Spare, generic buses are found on the 26 regularly and it's a shame to see the allocation in such a sorry state. Thankfully, a major refurbishment programme is planned and hopefully they can be restored to an acceptable condition, perhaps with a more appealing interior and some modifications to make them more reliable and regular on the yellow 26. It seems to be a very popular route already and extremely useful for the large number of residents living along the line of route, so it can be viewed as successful even if it's not enjoyable.

Reading Buses 704 is seen on route 33.
The royal blue 33 runs between Central Reading and the Turnham's Farm estate, via Tilehurst Road and Tilehurst Triangle. A supplementary 33a service terminates here rather than continuing to complete the loop at Turnham's Farm, although this service picks up some passengers of its own by using exclusive roads just before the terminus. It then returns via the main 33 line of route. From Monday-Saturday, both routes run every 20 minutes, providing 6bph along the core Tilehurst Road corridor, with three of these continuing to Turnham's Farm. The 33a doesn't run during the evenings and on Sundays, with the 33 running hourly and half-hourly respectively at these times. Reliability isn't great, with buses frequently running in a convoy - mine was part of a triple bunching heading into Reading.

Personally, I feel that the route could be a candidate for 24-hour operation, as it serves a large chunk of residential housing that's isolated from the rest of the night network and the route seems to be quite busy overall, with lots of demand for both services. Nevertheless, I sampled the 33a service on my trip (due to time constraints I couldn't continue all the way to Turnham's Farm) and the route was decent. I was entertained throughout the journey, even though much of it is residential in nature. There are occasional green spaces or unique buildings to look at, although the Turnham's Farm section does look pretty tedious with pure housing and a couple of schools. However, the most interesting element of the 33, in my opinion, is its allocation. Two ex-Claret diesel MMCs are branded for the service, but the five gas powered versions are what appeals to me. They are some of the first double deck examples of gas powered buses in the UK and are in the form of five ADL Enviro 400 MMC-bodied Scania N280UD vehicles. In terms of engine, they sound pretty similar to a regular OmniCity, except that the tone is more refined and the build quality is superb, offering a smooth ride and a motor which is satisfying to listen to. They have comfortable seating and all the Reading Buses extras, making them some of my favourite modern buses in the fleet. Therefore, I recommend catching a 33 to Tilehurst purely because of these buses ; you don't usually find them elsewhere. 

Reading Buses 431 is seen on Friar Street.
All Reading Buses routes running North of the River Thames, to the various settlements in Caversham, are branded in a striking pink livery. These routes have been struggling recently after the disruptive Cow Lane closure, causing horrible traffic queues all along the approach into Central Reading - as a result I saved sampling these pink services for another trip to avoid the mayhem.  There are two major single deck routes, numbered the 22 and 25. The former service serves the Westernmost area North of the Thames, called Caversham Heights. It completes an extensive one-way loop around the settlement, before returning quickly to the town centre and using the Western bridge and completing another circuit around Central Reading, involving the use of Friar Street and the Northern forecourt of Reading Station. Monday-Saturday daytime frequencies are set at every 30 minutes, with an hourly service provided during the evenings and on Sunday. However, patronage on this route has been falling rapidly and future cuts can be expected, which is a real shame as the 22 is the only bus serving Caversham Heights, which seems like a potentially profitable area. It uses two gas-powered Scania E300s which are completed in a pink livery, although the generic gas buses also make regular appearances, along with the occasional double deckers. The 22 seems like quite an interesting route and I'd like to sample the service once the works are over.

The pink 25 is the only service to leave the "simply Reading" boundary on the Northern side of the town and is the last example to talk about that does this. It undertakes a loop in Central Reading and uses the Eastern crossing to leave the town centre. Instead of faffing around in the housing settlement, the 25 takes the most direct route through Caversham, being significantly quicker than the 24 or 23 in reaching Emmer Green, the end of the "simply Reading" zone. After this, the 25 becomes somewhat rural, serving the small villages of Sonning Common and Peppard Common, where it terminates. Route 25 fascinates me, not only because it goes to a large chunk of Berkshire on its own, but because of the isolated settlements and villages in the middle of the countryisde that it serves in detail- it's one of the only routes on the Reading network to do this, and if you invest in the more expensive "simply Network" ticket I'm sure using the 25 will be interesting, if you like looking at nature. A modest frequency of every 30 minutes is in place from Monday-Saturday, with this reducing to hourly on Sundays. Surprisingly, this route doesn't run late in the evenings, with the whole service packing up by 20:45. Its allocation is shared with the 22, using the pink gas-powered E300s and only two of these are required to run the service at peak times, due to tight timetabling. Overall, the pink single deckers seem to be largely interesting, with the 25 being particularly unusual.

Reading Buses 1104 is seen on the 24 to Emmer Green.
One of the double deck Caversham pink routes is the 24, taking a somewhat direct route to the terminus at Emmer Green, although the 25 is quicker by around 4 minutes. The 24 takes the Western crossing out of Central Reading and serves Caversham Library before continuing on its twisty route to Emmer Green, although it doesn't deviate to serve any separate estates throughout its journey. In terms of routeing, the 24 doesn't stand out as being particularly interesting, being very short in nature and serving nothing but houses and shops in the town centre. However, viewing the River Thames from the top deck does sound pleasant and if you don't fancy taking the 25 all the way to Peppard Common and back, bailing at Emmer Green on the return and taking the 24 instead might make the journey more varied. Three buses satisfy a 20-minute frequency, which reduces to half-hourly and hourly on Sundays and during the evening, with what appears to be some generous stand time at Reading Friar Street. The 24 runs with pink Scania OmniCity vehicles, although these will be replaced next year with existing E400s which are currently in the process of being removed from the purple 17 and converted back to diesel. Therefore, the 24 seems like a fairly popular short and useful commuter service linking Caversham residents with the town centre very efficiently.

One of the generic OmniCity vehicles is seen on Friar Street. The blind clarity isn't great on these vehicles - the destination is Caversham Park.
The other double deck pink service is numbered the 23, using Reading Bridge to serve the Eastern parts of Caversham, before undertaking a large one-way anti-clockwise loop around Caversham Park, with the Emmer Green interchange point situated roughly in the middle. During the week three buses are used at peak times, allowing a 20-minute frequency throughout the 35 minute journey time for one complete rounder, although this reduces to half-hourly on Sundays and the typical 60-minute evening frequency applies for this route. One large batch of Scania OmniCity vehicles is shared with the 24, although occasionally generic grey vehicles can appear, including the example illustrated above. The 23 is one of the busiest Caversham services, serving a rather dense area and its frequency wasn't affected by the recent Caversham consultation, which proposed reductions and changes to many routes in this loss-making area, however most of these aren't going ahead, bar some cuts on route 22 and restructuring of routes 27 and 29 (see below). Overall, there doesn't seem to be anything outstanding about the 23, but it has double deckers and serves one of the residential areas further than most from the town centre, so there might be a few rural elements too. Like the 24, ex-17 E400s will displace the current Scania vehicles after their conversion to diesel.

Reading Buses 654 is seen on Friar Street working route 29.
Two of the shortest routes on the network are routes 27 and 29, which both originate or terminate at the residential part of Lower Caversham, which is fairly close to Central Reading. Buses that take the more direct routeing to and from the settlement are numbered the 29 and this route runs every 30 minutes during the day, with a total circuit taking 22 minutes, however the frequency returning to the town centre is only hourly, as the one vehicle flips its blind to become the hourly 27, which only runs to Central Reading, although after 7pm this is not the case. The 27 serves shops located on Church Street in Caversham and takes a much longer route into Reading - after its single journey the bus flips its blind again to become a 29. However, changes will occur from next year, which sees both services becoming circular routes, enabling a more direct return routeing from Caversham Church Street, rather than enduring a cumbersome one-way loop which involves travelling through the town centre and going through the process of changing number. The usual allocation consists of a pink Wrightbus Streetlite, although a grey E200 is sometimes used instead. Overall, these routes seem to be popular, even if the allocation isn't attractive for me.

 The community link services 18, 28 and 28a are funded by the council and travel down roads that can't be served by the main bus corridors, with all three following a rather complicated service pattern. Route 28 is the most apparent of all three and has lots of different short trips that take place throughout the day, but three services seem to serve every destination. The 28 originates at Kentwood and travels through Tilehurst, before using some more side roads and following the main Bath Road corridor into Central Reading. Whilst some trips either terminate or start here, others continue undertake a double run in order to serve King's Meadow Tesco and then another one to serve Rivermead Leisure Centre - buses can terminate at both of these places. After this, three trips per day carry on in order to reach Caversham and its Park Village, which is also served by the pink 23. The routeing is extremely indirect and there are so many different variants of the 28 service, although hopefully this should give you a general idea of where the route runs. A 28a service serves some additional roads in Southcote, with one trip in the morning which extends to Caversham and three in the evening, starting at either Tesco or Reading Station and continuing to Kentwood. An 18 service also runs one trip between Tesco and Kentwood in the morning and three in the evening back to the town centre. These routes usually run with the gas-powered Optare Solo vehicles and there isn't really a general frequency, with passengers relying on specific times instead. There is no service on weekends. Unfortunately, due to a lack of funding from Reading Borough Council, these community link services will be withdrawn from April 2018, as Reading Buses won't be taking on these routes commercially, which is a real shame as some large areas of the town will be unserved as a result. However, these buses often run empty and it seems that they are no longer economically viable. Despite these cuts, the other community link service, numbered the 42, will continue to run.

Reading Buses 381 is seen on the 42a to Central Reading.
Although it's advertised as a bus service, van-like vehicles are the allocation of this service, with no recent appearances of anything longer in terms of length. The buzz 42 runs between Rivermead and Kenavon Drive, two settlements located a few minutes East or West from the town centre that don't have a mainstream bus service. Through services are numbered the 42, although in the morning and evening peak the Rivermead element doens't run, with the short Kenavon Drive-Central Reading trips called the 42a. The one vehicle can provide a 40 minute frequency when running to both areas, although in rush hour a bus arrives/departs at Kenavon Drive every 25 minutes. On Saturdays, the Rivermead service runs all day apart from one 42a trip in the evening and there is no service on Sundays. The previous allocation consisted of a Mercedes Sprinter minibus vehicle, which I sampled on my trip to Reading. It's a dinky little thing, seating roughly 18 people (which was plenty of space for the six passengers on board) and has a rather grim interior, with dark blue seating and some dim lighting, although it was good enough and certainly made for an interesting journey, with nothing like this in London being classified as a bus service. Although the Kenavon Drive area is mainly residential with a retail park next door, I found my 42 experience both amusing and enjoyable, with the tiny van and basic facilities making the service seem even more crazy. Surprisingly, this route is evidently a success as I believe this one has escaped withdrawal despite it also being a community link service - it must be a lifeline to both Kenavon Drive and Rivermead residents. This service has also received a recent upgrade, with a brand new Mellor Strata vehicle entering service recently on the buzz 42, which features bright lighting and an upgraded interior, with high back seats, headrests and a better ride quality - it is apparently much smoother and less rattly than its predecessor. Hopefully, regular users of the 42 appreciate their new bus and I would actually recommend you give this one a try, especially if you need to waste time, as a full rounder to and from Kenavon Drive only takes around 15 minutes.

Reading Buses 402 is seen on the Greenwave service 53 in Central Reading.
The final group of routes in Reading are the Greenwave services, which all run South of the town centre and serve a variety of destinations there, including the Tesco Distribution Centre (limited service), Reading International Business Park, Mereoak Park & Ride, Madejski Stadium, Green Park and Kennett Island. In my opinion, some of their routes are quite easily the best on the network, although understanding the timetable is virtually impossible with an extremely complicated layout and service pattern, so my advice would be to either simply rely on this page as the mainstream routes run fairly regularly, unless you want to catch a specific journey. In that case, I would recommend using the Traveline South East website and simply typing in Reading Buses into the operator search box - that way every service operated by them is shown and this includes all of the Greenwave variants and these are all shown individually here. There are actually 22 different routes which come under the Greenwave brand, with some running all day and others only having one or two trips at unsociable hours, although each general area is served at all times when there is demand. The easiest time to travel is during the middle of the day on Monday-Friday or on a Sunday if you want to trvael through most of the areas, although I will provide information about routes running during other times too.

Personally, I wouldn't bother trying to use a bus that serves the Tesco Depot, there's nothing much to see bar a massive warehouse and the timings are extremely inconvenient - you can probably catch a  glimpse of it on the 60 service anyway. If you travel on a weekday, I would recommend using the Greenwave services between 9:45 and 13:00, before and after all the other messy route variants kick in. To start, take the 53 from Reading Town Centre to Madejski Stadium (this takes you via Green Park) and then take the 50a service from the Stadium back to Central Reading, this route takes you through Kennet Island. After this, use any route 60 variant that turns up apart from the 60X and this covers both Reading International Business Park and Mereoak Park & Ride - you'll probably end up using the same bus to head back into town. The total journey time for travelling on all three routes is around 135 minutes, which does sound like a lot, although this does cover pretty much everywhere on the Greenwave network and you might be inclined to skip out a route or two once I give details about where they go.

Reading Buses 409 is seen on route 50a at the Madejski Stadium.
Travelling on a Saturday isn't brilliant for using Greenwave, with Reading International Business Park being inaccessible and all the services being cut off from each other. I'd suggest taking route 52b from Central Reading as this takes you through Kennet Island and terminates in Green Park. After taking the same bus back into town, take any route 60 variant (apart from the 60X) to Mereoak Park &  Ride and back into Central Reading. This should also take around 2 hours and does cover a decent amount of the areas served, although I'd check football match times before travelling as this can cause lots of traffic around the Greenwave areas.

Sunday is surprisingly a really good day for using Greenwave, although travelling on the rest of the Reading network can be a pain. There's a service called the 62a which runs hourly from Central Reading and serves Kennet Island, Green Park and Mereoak all in one journey, with the other areas all visible from the bus. Travelling there and back takes around an hour and you can cover a decent amount of this industrial area, although checking for football/rugby matches is always a good idea.

A generic gas-powered E300 is seen in Reading Town Centre.
You're probably wondering why I've made the effort to try and understand this complex affair. It's because the Greenwave services are my favourite routes on the network and I absolutely love everything about them. All routes use the A33 dual carriageway at some point, enabling some fast running with these gas-powered Scania Enviro 300s, which are actually really fast buses. Route 63 to Mereoak is especially good for this, with a 10-15 minute non-stop section between Central Reading and the Business Park and that's the main reason why I suggest you try out this service, although it doesn't cover many new areas and if thrash isn't really your thing then perhaps it's one to leave. The other two services, which conveniently go hand in hand, the 50a and 53, take you through some of the weird yet wonderful parts of this town (the Saturday 52b and Sunday 62a also do this).

Kennet Island used to be really industrial and there is still evidence of old warehouses and factories, some of which are abandoned, although a bunch of new homes have been built near the dual carriageway, along with a retail park. The contrast between the modern residential architecture and the abandoned, derelict and forgotten factories which lie so close by make this area strange yet satisfying to travel through, as if you've so many different sides of the town all in around 5 minutes. The nearby A33 also provides the constant noise of various vehicles roaring by at high speed and it was definitely one of my favourite places to travel through on my trip.

When there are no matches, the terminus at the Madejski Stadium feels desolate and lonely - a bunch of parked cars and a massive, daunting sporting venue essentially in the middle of nowhere, with not many people walking around and the sight of factories in the distance. From here, the 53 takes you through Green Park, which is essentially a business park not dissimilar to Stockley Park and Chiswick Business Park in London. Although there are so many tall and metallic offices, green space surrounds the sole through road, Longwater Avenue, and there are lakes and patches of water everywhere. The whole area feels quiet and is almost always deserted, with the nature outside being quite the opposite to the thriving technology inside the buildings. Beyond the offices, a housing development is being built opposite the lake with some of the homes next to the dual carriageway - seeing a construction site in action is always intriguing and it will be nice to see the finished product in a few years. A railway station along the GWR Reading-Basingstoke line will open here in 2020. I hope my description gives you a vague idea of why I loved travelling through Green Park and the justification for route 53 being my favourite on the Reading network, having both fast running and some interesting sights to pass through too, with the quiet terminus being the cherry on top.

There is another service operated by Reading Buses that goes to Winnersh Park & Ride, but it uses a bog-standard E200 and runs outside of the boundary, so personally I wouldn't bother. They seem to be quite elusive anyway and I was unsuccessful in snapping one during my trip.

Reading Buses 526 is seen on the 33 to Turnham's Farm.
I hope this post has given you working knowledge of the network now, being rather legnthy in nature and hopefully not having too many misleading facts - a month ago I couldn't name a single route in the area so I've had to learn all of this quite quickly! Remember to use Reading Vehicle Finder to track specific vehicles, consult timetables if necessary, give the exact fare on the bus (as drivers don't give change) and either buy a simply reading or simply network ticket if travelling for the whole day, but I'm still not sure if the latter fare is valid on all rural routes, so please double check beforehand! If you have any further questions for planning (like if you're struggling to sequence all your preferred routes together) or about the network itself, please don't hesitate to drop a comment in the box below, I'm more than happy to help.

Thanks for reading, stay safe and hopefully you enjoy the Reading network if you go there, just like I did.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

West London (United)

London United, a part of RATP Dev London, have been busy in West London as of late, with their recent work including the introduction of New Routemasters on the 267 and a mid-contract takeover of route E10 following a surrender by Arriva.

3428 pulls into Greenford Broadway en route to Ealing, sporting the old Arriva logo.
 Before London United stepped in, the situation regarding the E10 was rather complicated. Technically, Tellings Golden Miller, a subsidiary of Arriva London, had won the contract from Metroline with the vehicles based at their Heathrow (HE) garage, although anything TFL-related (iBus etc) was controlled by Arriva Southern Counties. However, in 2016 the route was transferred to Arriva London operation, in an attempt to integrate all of the operator's TFL routes. Tellings Golden Miller became a family based operator once more and sold Heathrow (HE) garage to their management, OFJ Connections, who then gave their depot to Rotala. This meant that there were a bunch of Arriva London E200s sat in a yard full of non-TFL vehicles belonging to a different company. Additionally, the dead run to Ealing Broadway was exhausting and involved excessive usage of a dual carriageway, so the buses became tired quickly and frequently needed repairs. In essence, the E10's management was not ideal and Arriva were understandably struggling to maintain an operable service, especially with the garage being in an inconvenient location and having no facilities, and the need for spare vehicles from Dartford (DT) garage, which is around 30 miles away. This mess was unnecessary and Arriva decided to surrender the service in the middle of the contract, meaning that another operator would take over the route until the full term was up.

London United SDE20286 is seen at Ealing Broadway.
London United were the chosen operator, with the new base for the E10 being Hounslow Heath (HH) garage. The existing Arriva E200s and their drivers transferred over swiftly, with the presentation on the first day being perfect with new logos and drivers wearing the correct uniform - the interior being the only give away that this bus wasn't originally handled by RATP. Fleet numbers have been changed to fit in with the SDE class given by London United for this bus type, rather than the "ENN" system which Arriva provided. The route is now controlled from its base and spare buses usually come in the form of an older E200 from the E11 allocation, although this has only happened once and since then the vehicle has returned to its home garage in Park Royal. Operation has been decent so far, with the E10 not being particularly demanding, mostly using back roads between Ealing and Northolt. In addition to the improved management and operation, conditions should hopefully become better for the passengers using the service, subject to the TFL Crossrail consultation, which is now closed. The E10 will receive a frequency increase to every 12 minutes and an allocation of longer buses, which should hopefully relieve the overcrowding on this service and prepare it for the introduction of the Crossrail service at Ealing Broadway, which is likely to increase passenger numbers on the route. Therefore, the E10 is now in a much better place with London United than Arriva and hopefully further improvement is due soon in regards to passenger experience.

London United SLE40660 is seen at Brentford Market Place.
Route 267 runs between Hammersmith and Fulwell, passing through Chiswick, Brentford and Twickenham at a 10 minute frequency in rush hour, which justifies 17 buses for its peak vehicle requirement. London United operates the route from its Fulwell (FW) garage, which is conveniently the Southern terminus for the 267. Reliability has always been hit and miss, although the demanding nature of the route, which includes traffic hotspots like Chiswick Roundabout and Twickenham, can frequently cause disruption beyond the control of the operator. Scania OmniDekka (SLE-class) vehicles have made up the 267 allocation for a number of years now, with both this batch (ex-27) and the older vehicles which have moved on to duties outside of London. These buses are a rarity within London and only one other operator, Go-Ahead, has them, on a limited number of routes running around Croydon. However, the SLEs are expected to operate on the London Overground replacement service (between Gospel Oak and South Tottenham) until Sunday 14th January 2017 and not all of them have left 267 duties yet - RATP also have some others on route 292 in North-West London. The allocation at Fulwell (FW) garage has always been fairly loose, so other types like Scania OmniCitys, Trident ALX400s and Wrightbus Gemini 3 B5LH vehicles can appear regularly. Due to the Chiswick High Road low emissions corridor, the 267 now requires greener buses that match the demanding standards. Therefore, the long awaited final batch of New Routemasters have now been allocated to this service and are starting to enter service already.

London United LT149 is seen at Twickenham Station, with no flag tiles on the bus stop.
In addition to the brand new batch, two existing vehicles were transferred down from Stamford Brook (V) garage, following a PVR reduction on route 10. These buses have been used for type training and entered service prematurely in November and were the only two examples of the LT-class buses on the 267 for a considerable amount of time. I was never a fan of this particular batch of vehicles, which made my expectations low when I managed to catch one during a mid-November morning. Thankfully, the bus was empty so this didn't make my experience too uncomfortable, but being on one of these "Central London bound" buses in the West London suburbs of Brentford felt strange and wrong. In my opinion, the Scania OmniDekka buses are so much better, offering larger windows and being infinitely faster and often fulfilling the thrash opportunities found on this route. This LT felt sluggish and sounded unhappy at high speeds and I honestly couldn't wait to alight after my brief ride. Personally, I think these vehicles have ruined the 267, although I decided to give the type another chance by sampling one of the newer vehicles when they finally entered service.

London United LT991 is seen at Hammersmith.
The final batch of New Routemasters, LT984-LT1000, tentatively entered service on the 267 at the beginning of December, although their introduction has been very slow and the older SLEs still dominate for the time being. Coincidentally, one turned up last Sunday to start a trip to Central London, with my journey being from Brentford-Hammersmith. The bus was surprisingly busy for 8am, with everyone staying on until the penultimate stop, although there were still a few seats upstairs and I luckily managed to bag my favourite on these buses - at the back on the right. Typically, the bus was freezing and it seems that the temperature on these LTs is consistently irritating for passengers, feeling like a greenhouse in summer but rather like being inside a refrigerator during the colder months. In my opinion, this batch of vehicles are superior to the existing ones, partially because they haven't had the opportunity to become tired after working for a long period of time. They seem more refined and have a better build quality and the bus seemed to be more willing to reach higher speeds, although this was no match for the Scania OmniDekka that flew past in the other direction.

In conclusion, this second change has been disappointing, decreasing the likeability one of my local routes and making travelling on it a chore, which is a real shame. The OmniDekkas gave the route character and the views are quite interesting throughout, especially between Brentford and Hammersmith. With the new LTs, the small windows obstruct your ability to admire the surroundings, conditions are almost always uncomfortable and they are simply very boring compared to the older vehicles. They all sound the same, have the same interior and have the ability to make a bus journey pretty depressing, for me. If you haven't sampled the 267 yet, my recommendation would be to nip down to West London quickly and enjoy the OmniDekkas, although if you're a fan of the New Routemaster then perhaps wait to try and catch one of the new vehicles, as they are slightly more bearable than LT149/LT150.

Thanks for reading and stay safe!

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Remember Remember The 11th Of November: 176 and 188

The other two notable changes on Saturday 11th November involved Go-Ahead London gaining routes 176 and 188 from Arriva and Abellio respectively, with both having at least a partial allocation of brand new buses ordered for them. Welcome to part 2 of this documentation on one of the biggest days of the year in 2017, for enthusiasts anyway. Our first focus is on the 176.

Arriva London VLA73 pauses at Charing Cross Station on the final stretch towards Tottenham Court Road.

The 176 runs between the South London suburb of Penge to Tottenham Court Road in the West End, via Sydenham, East Dulwich, Camberwell and Waterloo. It's a very busy route, proving popular with many residents along its route for travelling into London, rather than taking the infamous Southern service in that part of London. The end to end journey time can feel painfully long, taking up to 100 minutes in rush hour, as much of this is spent navigating the traffic-filled zone 1. Previously, Arriva London ran the route from Norwood (N) garage with a dedicated batch of Volvo B7TL ALX400s, which were surprisingly old for a route operating in Central London. Nevertheless, they were popular with enthusiasts and were often praised for their excellent capability of climbing hills, something which is essential for this route. In addition to the VLA-class ALX400s, some ADL E400s and Wrightbus Gemini 3s occasionally strayed onto the 176, with the night service in particular having a strong presence of these newer buses - residents were understandably not too keen on roaring B7TLs cruising past their households in the middle of the night. The loss to Go-Ahead was upsetting for many of us, as Arriva undoubtedly gave the route character and the new buses would definitely reduce this. Go-Ahead also already operate a large number of routes along the corridors shared by the 176, so this makes variety less interesting. Nevertheless, the hole left at Norwood (N) garage will be filled eventually as Arriva have won the 468 from Go-Ahead, with this taking effect from Saturday 31st March 2018.

Go-Ahead London EH79, an E40H MMC, pauses at Leicester Square en route to Penge.
The 176 has only received a partial allocation of new vehicles, purely because some money can be saved by sourcing existing buses in the fleet which were made redundant following frequency reductions, but are still compatible with the Central London emission standards. EH162-EH170 are the brand new ADL E40H MMCs that entered service prematurely at Camberwell (Q) garage, where they comfortably settled into the large common user pool in the garage, meaning that the MMCs appeared on a wide range of double deck routes there, including the 35, 40, 42 and 468. Some existing MMCs are also allocated to the 176, with most of them coming from Putney (AF) garage following frequency reductions on routes 14 and 74 over there. Recent cuts to the 1 have resulted in a few Wrightbus Gemini 3 B5LH vehicles transferring over to Camberwell (Q) garage and these also appear on the 176 daily. Finally, two of the MCV EvoSeti buses that were already at the garage have been reblinded are also officially allocated to the 176, although their appearances on the route are sporadic and it took me a while to eventually snap one! As you can probably tell, the 176's assignment of buses isn't particularly neat, but rather a cost-cutting efficient one that still ticks all the boxes, even though various different batches now work on the same route.

EH162, one of the new intake, is seen on the 35 in October.
A rocky start was evident for the first couple of weeks in terms of service, with various curtailments and large gaps as Go-Ahead got to know this challenging route. TFL also slyly introduced a frequency reduction on the 176, coinciding with the new contract, making the route both an operational nightmare and even more oversubscribed than previously. The first day also produced some difficulties due to the Lord Mayor's Show, with buses congregating at Waterloo instead of completing the full journey to Tottenham Court Road. Although there is still considerable development that needs to be undertaken, the service has been gradually improving over the past few weeks, with some evenings having relatively adequate headways, which is a massive step up from the shambles in the first week. Although the 176 is tough and surprisingly difficult to operate in the beginning, Go-Ahead are such a large company that they undoubtedly have even more challenging routes to comprehend with and most of them operate well, so the future in terms of reliability looks bright for the 176.

Go-Ahead London MHV55, an MCV EvoSeti, represents the minority of the 176 allocation.
There hasn't been much appraisal of the new MMCs, mainly because they don't stand out in any particular way, being neither exceptionally good or abnormally bad. Along with the existing E40H MMCs, their ability to tackle hills is superb - this was shown in Sydenham where my bus, EH130, climbed them with ease despite the lack of a run-up as such. There are doubts with the Gemini 3 and Evoseti vehicles, which both use the B5LH engine. Although they're certainly powerful when at high speed, their acceleration is sometimes poor and this feature is crucial for a route like the 176, which is both hilly and slow-moving. Nevertheless, there haven't been many complaints about them either and I'm sure commuters on this service appreciate these newer vehicles, as the B7TL ALX400s were starting to feel a little worn out towards the end of the contract. Personally, I would recommend the E40H MMCs (which thankfully make up the majority of the allocation) if you feel the need to travel on this service, as they have comfortable seats, power and speed along with a large front window. The obstructive Gemini 3 pillars, along with the shallow upper deck windows, ruin the experience in terms of viewing, whilst the MCV EvoSeti seats are painfully uncomfortable, being extremely hard, narrow and lacking depth of any sort, something which isn't ideal for long trips which are inevitable on this South-East London trunk route.

WHV113, a Wrightbus Gemini 3 B5LH, represents another type of bus found on this service
The 176 is one of my favourite routes in London, and one of the more useful ones in zone 1 too, providing some valuable links between places like Waterloo and Leicester Square, with the latter having a surprising lack of bus services. It's surprising that the service hasn't been curtailed to somewhere like Waterloo yet, with the e2e journey time being noticeably long, so if something goes wrong en route the whole service can just collapse. However, Arriva did a sterling job of maintaining headways and the 176 still soldiers on into the heart of the West End, something that's certainly popular with tourists, even though sometimes it's quicker to walk than navigating Trafalgar Square heading Northbound. I love the 176 because it travels through such a wide variety of areas, from the bustling Leicester Square filled with shops and tourists, to the urban Camberwell high street, or upmarket settlement of East Dulwich and the hilly and leafy parts of Sydenham and Penge. It takes you through so many different suburbs the view out of the window is always interesting, despite being fairly 'urban' for the entire length. I would suggest travelling on this service outside of rush hour, ideally towards the middle of the day or early on a weekend, as people often lose concentration on long trips and this isn't ideal for absorbing the external surroundings. Catching an EH-class MMC is also better, in my opinion, than the other two. So far, the service on the 176 hasn't been great, although I still have confidence that a sense of normality will resume soon and the patchy allocation seems to be working fine, so that's something successful to talk about. I wish Go-Ahead the best in running the 176 for the next few years, from their strategically placed Camberwell (Q) garage.

Abellio London 2429, an ADL Enviro 400 hybrid, stands at Russell Square
The final route that changed hands on Saturday 11th November was the 188, running between Russell Square and North Greenwich. It accomplishes this by passing through Cutty Sark, Canada Water, Bermondsey and Waterloo, being rather long in terms of length. It's pretty indirect in Central London, detouring to serve Elephant & Castle and Bricklayer's Arms, rather than travelling straight through London Bridge between Waterloo and Bermondsey. It also travels through many congested areas, including the aforementioned Elephant & Castle roundabout, Aldwych and Cutty Sark town centre, where the narrow one way system provides some difficulties in navigating this tourist-filled town centre. Nevertheless, it's the fifth best route in London for me, being one of the most unique ones to enter zone 1.

It's terminus is quiet, along the picturesque Russell Square, in contrast to the bustling hubbub of Holborn and Aldwych, jammed with noisy cars and having either tourists or workers clogging up the pavements. Riverside views over Waterloo Bridge are always stunning, whilst the baffling Elephant & Castle roundabout is always amusing. The arty nature of Tower Bridge Road gives another insight into inner South-East London, whilst Jamaica Road can provide an opportunity for speed, or standstill traffic in rush hour. The retail areas in Canada Water are always fun to pass through, especially with the narrow road swerving between the various units, whilst the stretch through Deptford is more residential, providing some balance. Greenwich is beautiful to look at, as the 188 passes the park, Greenwich Market and the Maritime Museum. The last section into North Greenwich is rather industrial and the view of the millennium dome provides an interesting background before the bus terminates within the station. This brief description should hopefully emphasise how varied the 188 route is, and perhaps show you why I love it. Therefore, the future curtailment to Waterloo saddens me, as the 188 will no longer cross the river nor serve the office district of Holborn. However, it will certainly improve reliability and at the moment, the 188 is sparsely used North of Aldwych, having many frequent alternatives along the Kingsway corridor which still serve similar places, making the cut back is understandable.

Abellio London 9069 takes a breather at Canada Water Bus Station en route to North Greenwich.
Abellio operated the 188 from Walworth (WL) garage, which was conveniently only 15 minutes away from Elephant & Castle, where some painfully long driver changes took place. The allocation consisted of some ageing first-generation Wrightbus B7TL Gemini vehicles, which were in varying states of health, with some being notorious for either roaring or having a distinct lack of speed. Some hybrid E40Hs also appeared on the route as a partial allocation, although they also started to feel a little worn out towards the end of the old contract. Both of these batches have moved on to pastures anew outside of London, although the strays that often appeared on the route in the form of diesel E400s or occasionally E40H MMCs still run on routes running out of the garage. Bar the ridiculous driver changes, Abellio handled the 188 very well and I've certainly never had any issues with reliability despite the sheer length of the route, being as demanding as the 176. Although the fleet of buses weren't always praised for their comfort or condition, they gave the route some character which no longer exists with its boring, unvaried current allocation. I definitely miss Abellio on the 188 and their presence in a large number of areas has become non-existent as a result of the new contract. However, I was going to give Go-Ahead a chance to prove themselves that they were the worthy winners of the competitive 188 tender result and hopefully they execute this successfully in the future.

Go-Ahead London WHV184, a Wrightbus Gemini 3 B5LH, stops at Elephant & Castle.
Many existing garages were suggested for Go-Ahead's operation of route 188, although an unexpected brand new site was opened weeks before the new contract commenced, which is conveniently along the 188's line of route. The garage can be found in Greenwich and is called Morden Wharf (MG). The 188 operates from there, along with fellow DD routes 129 and 180, although their Wrightbus Gemini 2 B9TL vehicles haven't been reblinded to include the 188 and its destinations, so there have been no strays since the new contract began. The 188's Wrightbus Gemini 3 B5LH vehicles were initially used on routes at Camberwell (Q) garage, like the 45 and 40, to iron out any teething issues and also provide a clean fleet of buses for the routes that crossed "green bus corridors" over there. After this, the buses swiftly transferred to Morden Wharf (MG) and debuted on the 188, with all of the vehicles appearing fairly soon after the contract date. Unfortunately, the vehicles aren't particularly well thought of by enthusiasts, being some of the worst Wrightbus Gemini 3 B5LH vehicles I've ever sampled. They're pretty sluggish and seem to overrev excessively upon pull away, resulting in poor acceleration. They also don't seem capable of reaching high speed, although an urban route like the 188 shouldn't make this much of an issue, apart from when Jamaica Road is clear and the speedy runs there will be sorely missed.

Their interior is the bog-standard Go-Ahead one and overall they seem like a boring batch of vehicles, which is a real shame for such an incredible route like the 188. Although the former allocation was unhealthy, the rides were still enjoyable, but now with the quiet motor and shallow upper deck windows, the journey just isn't as interesting anymore. I was certainly disappointed when I sampled the service last Sunday - the bus was very busy and the windows were very steamy, which meant that I couldn't admire the external surroundings. My focus on the bus itself, therefore, was even clearer and it didn't entertain me in any fashion. So, the allocation of the 188 isn't of a high standard, but hopefully some blinds will be ordered so the decent Gemini 2s can stray onto the route.

Go-Ahead London WHV168 is seen on route 40 to Aldgate. This was taken when the buses were experimented at Camberwell.

To make matters worse, reliability of this service has been shambolic since the contract change, with no real signs of improvement yet. The poor start on the first day can be excused, due to the Lord Mayor's show diversions, but there are still instances of large gaps and unbelievable bunching on a daily basis, particularly in the late evenings. Admittedly, tackling the 188 isn't an easy task, but sometimes the cause of the abysmal service is unclear - at 11pm on a weekday there's not much traffic around and the consistency of this poor management is concerning, especially as Abellio undertook operating this service much more effectively. Curtailments are not only frequent, but spontaneous in nature, with buses often turning short of their destination with very little notice to passengers. Thankfully, we are still only one month into a five year contract and there is still time to rectify the issues spotted so far, although a sooner turn around is ideal as eventually regular users will simply be fed up with the poor service. There is certainly hope of a better future, especially as Go-Ahead and Morden Wharf (MG) garage are successful in operating many other long distance trunk routes, like the 108 service between Stratford and Lewisham, which has improved significantly in recent times. I must wish Go-Ahead the best in operating the 188 successfully for the next five years - the pending curtailment to Waterloo will hopefully make running the service a little easier for them.

Go-Ahead London WHV179 is seen at Surrey Quays, Greenwich bound.
This final paragraph concludes the extensive 11th November changes, which saw enthusiasts invade Central London en masse and revel in the excitement of operators struggling to operate new routes. Cruel, isn't it. London United are starting to flourish in operating their biggest route in London so far, the 18, with a decent batch of Gemini 3s, despite some occasional hiccups and a worrying start. The excellent service previously found on route 45 has continued into the Abellio contract, complete with some nice ADL E40H MMCs. Go-Ahead have been introduced to two demanding routes recently, with the 176 getting on rather nicely at Camberwell (Q) garage with its varied allocation. So far, the 188 change has been the most disappointing, with substandard buses and a concerning service, although there is no reason to believe that this will be permanent and hopefully all four routes will provide a sufficient service sooner or later.

Two more "changes" posts are pencilled in within the next week or so, along with an exciting post documenting the Reading Buses network, which I visited recently.

Thanks for reading and stay safe!