Sunday, 19 February 2017

Random Route: The 372

The 372 runs from Hornchurch, Town Centre-Lakeside Shopping Centre in Thurrock, running every 20 minutes. The journey time takes around 50 minutes and was recently converted to double deck operation, a big relief for frequent shoppers. The 372 is one of the few routes that leave the London boundary, to link the villages of Aveley and Wennington to the massive shopping complex, the 10th biggest in the UK. Typically, my 193 ran early and decided to regulate one stop before Hornchurch Town Centre, meaning that I just missed a 372, feeling furious as I watched it leave the first stop.

A Stagecoach London Enviro 400 pulls up at the Hornchurch stop.
After spending twenty minutes contemplating the rest of the day and taking pictures of other buses (mainly the 252, there are lots of them running around), my 372 finally showed up and allowed passengers on board. The 372 travels through the whole of Hornchurch Town Centre, which is basically a smaller version of Romford, before turning left to serve the residential area of Elm Park. Abbs Cross Lane is full of houses that are almost identical, before turning right into Elm Park Avenue. At the end of this road is the junction that represents Elm Park Town Centre, boasting a minor shopping parade next to the District Line station.

The 372 stopped for the first time since the beginning of the route here, suggesting that this section of the route isn't particularly well used in the off-peak. In rush hour, I suspect that this route can get very busy, full of commuters travelling to/from the tube station and their homes, especially if the more frequent route 365 fails to show up. The 372 prefers to twist and turn through the residential area rather than carry on in a straight line, so after two turns the bus travelled along Rosewood Avenue, where a few more people boarded, but no one dared to venture upstairs.

Elm Park Baptist Church stands out from the dreary housing and the building was greatly appreciated, as I was already starting to feel a little bored staring at the same old buildings with the sun glaring in my face. After a few more minutes of housing, Scargill School provided a nice alternative view whilst two more people climbed up the stairs and sat down on the upper deck, ready to visit Lakeside.  Mungo Park Road consists of a Co-op and that's about it, until the 372 turns onto South End Road, where a few more people boarded the very empty double decker. At this point I noticed that the 365 and 165 follow this route all the way from Hornchurch Town Centre-Rainham, suggesting that the 372 really is a back-up for these two routes, if Romford Town Centre becomes congested, as both of the "65" routes serve there.

However, on Cherry Tree Lane, the 365 can't take endless housing and turns off onto Stanley Road South, to terminate at Orchard Village. I'm sure the destination was Mardyke Estate a few years ago, so the new name merely exists to make the residential area sound more upmarket than it actually is.
The new name looks particularly glamorous on the refurbished Scania OmniCity vehicles allocated to the 365.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw a main road ahead, meaning that the residential section was finally over. The view as the bus waited at the traffic lights was pretty decent, with multiple pylons visible in the distance, representing the extensive Dagenham Industrial Estates situated by the River Thames. Down below, an endless amount of cars raced by as the traffic lights refused to change, with the occasional 287 bus visible flying down the A1306. Finally, the signal changed from red to green and my drained Enviro 400 struggled to keep up with the speed of all the other motor vehicles. The grim buildings of Rainham Tiles and Rainham Construction Centre were aesthetically pleasing to my eyes, tired of watching the same thing over and over again. From this point, the dreary 372 suddenly turned into something quite special.

Before serving the town centre, the 372 completes a double run into Rainham Tesco Extra, where a surprisingly large amount of people boarded. Presumably these passengers came from other routes in the area, where this mini bus station creates an easy opportunity for interchange and a hopper fare, rather than travelling from one retail centre to another. Rainham Town Centre consists of a reasonable amount of shops, just enough for a suburb on the edge of the London boundary. The c2c rail service calls in here once every 30 minutes at Rainham station, the terminus of the 103 from Chase Cross and Romford.

The 372 is the only London route that travels along the B1335, where a few more people boarded the bus. This route just can't get enough of housing, but soon after the view out of the front window changed dramatically, from a fairly urban environment to the rural countryside. To the right all I could see was grassland, with a few remnants of an industrial estate in the far distance. A sign welcomed my bus to Wennington, a rural village in the heart of Thurrock. Not long after, around 10 terraced houses stood all alone in the countryside, like a tight-knit friendship group, with cars parked in a ditch on the other side. After the bus negotiated a priority scheme, open countryside dominated the view outside of the bus, which is very unusual for a TFL service. This section allowed my worn out Enviro 400 to gain some speed, reaching 40mph after some sluggish acceleration. My driver was pushing the boundaries for my bus, which was crying out for some rest, after the strenuous journey through Wennington. A much bigger cluster of housing followed the thrash section, all concentrated on the right-hand side of the road, so the residents can stare at the countryside out of their bedroom windows. Unusually, at the end of the cluster one house was situated on my left, with about 6 cars in the driveway.

After the small village residential area, the road continued to twist and turn towards Lakeside, through more greenery, until a junction with an A-road. I was slightly surprised to find a Premier Inn in Wennington, although it may be useful for ramblers, or for when there is a Darts competition on at Lakeside, seeing as it's a mere 15 minutes away on the bus. The 372 briefly turns right, but gets back on track at the next roundabout, where the bus started to pick up speed again, on the longest countrified section so far. The final town before Lakeside is the small residential area of Aveley, the last pick-up point that passengers actually use before Lakeside. The bus got substantially busy at this point, with most of the upper deck seats taken, showing that this route must have been heaving with single deckers, especially with hundreds of shopping bags on the return journey.

Lots of teenagers use this route in Aveley over any of the other three services, taking advantage of the free travel provided by TFL on the 372 for them, unlike any of the other routes there. After negotiating the narrow streets, the 372 uses Ship Lane, which provides a stunning view of the countryside on either side, with the contrasting hubbub of the M25 visible in the distance. The bus crossed a fairly tall bridge over the A13, a road that was also visible back in Rainham. The 50mph section provided more high speeds, with another world of industry present in the far distance. The stop for the Thurrock Hotel was the last for a while, with the approach to Lakeside next. Pylons ran alongside the West Thurrock Arterial Road, where I witnessed hundreds of cars parked up next to each other and a beautiful lake, on the side of the retail centre. Arena Essex, the Karting centre, is the last attraction before Lakeside Bus Station, where the Enviro 400 terminated and let off around three dozen eager shoppers, desperate to buy new things or eat in one of the various restaurants found in Lakeside.

The red London bus certainly looked odd alongside the blue and white livery of Ensignbus, but I hope that the 372 and other cross-border services continue to serve these out-of-town locations, even with the upcoming review, involving cuts to routes 465, 167 and possibly more routes. It's a real shame, as these TFL services are needed, proven by the busy 372 in the off-peak. I award this route 7/10, for redeeming itself after the tedious first section. If you like residential or countryside routes, this one is for you, but if both of them are unappealing to you, stay away!

Thanks for reading.  

Sunday, 12 February 2017

So Close, But Yet So Far: Barking Riverside & Thamesmead

The development site of Barking Riverside and the residential area of Thamesmead are very close to each other, geographically. Unfortunately, traveling between them isn't so easy, as there is a huge chunk of water acting as a barrier. The Thames Gateway Bridge also doesn't exist, so people have to take a very long way round to get between the two. In around 15 years time, Barking Riverside will have its own beach, pier and numerous retail outlets, so a connection to a huge residential site with a Crossrail station makes sense, especially as the two are only a couple of miles apart as the crow files. However, getting between the two isn't so easy. Here are some examples.

The driving route between Thamesmead and Barking Riverside.
Driving between the two takes a ridiculous amount of time, taking 40 minutes on a quiet Saturday evening, a distance of over 21.1 miles. This time sounds reasonable (unlike the distance), but if there was a road bridge in place this journey would take around 5-10 minutes instead. Both of the roads used here that cross the Thames are incident-prone and are frequently closed, these being the infamous Blackwall Tunnel and Dartford Crossing. Going from Thamesmead-Barking Riverside via Purfleet or Poplar just doesn't sound right. Google maps also think that using the Woolwich Ferry would take even longer (by 11 minutes), partly due to the queuing system.

Cycling between the two isn't particularly fast either.
The cycling route is much more direct, using the Woolwich Foot Tunnel. However, bikes can't travel as fast as cars so it still takes slightly longer, although in rush hour this method might actually be quicker, even though you'll be risking your life cycling along the dual carriageway. Walking between the two takes 3 hours and creates a diversion through Barking as walking along the A13 without a pavement isn't going to end well, so that's not a sensible option either. That leaves good old public transport.

Step 4/5, the 238 to Barking.
Taking the bus takes nearly 3 hours and involves 4 changes for the quickest route, which is far from ideal. Currently, you have to ride the 472 all the way to North Greenwich (taking over 40 minutes at times), then use one of the most unreliable bus services in London for three stops through the Blackwall Tunnel, the 108. After that, it's a short hop across the road to the 115 to East Ham, then a 5/238 to Barking, followed by an EL1 to Barking Riverside, which will be free soon thanks to the introduction of New Routemasters, encouraging fare evasion. Taking 3 hours to cover a distance of around a mile is a waste of life, so you can rule out that option.

Take the train, or not...

If buses aren't your biggest fan, then the most logical thing to do is the train. However, Barking Riverside doesn't have a train station and walking from Dagenham Dock is going to take around 35 minutes. Abbey Wood, the closest station to Thamesmead, is also a 40 minute walk away from some of the houses there, so using the rails is eliminated as well. How about a combination of both?

Escaping Thamesmead.
From the top of my head, the quickest route is to take a 472 bus to Woolwich Arsenal, a DLR train to West Ham, c2c rail service to Barking and then catch the EL1 to Barking Riverside. This still takes over an hour, so we can conclude that traveling between the two is a nightmare, thanks to the Thames.

There are four solutions to this problem, all of them fairly effective and also very expensive. Here they are:

  • Build a road bridge from the Riverside to the Thamesmead, allowing cars and buses to travel between the two easily, making connections between South and East London much easier. The EL1 could be extended through to Woolwich, which would be incredibly useful for Ilford and Barking residents. 
  • Extend the London Overground from Barking Riverside to Thamesmead. This wouldn't be as useful as a road bridge, but would still allow cross-river travel fairly quickly and is probably one of the cheaper options, seeing as its going to Barking Riverside anyway.
  • Extend the DLR from Beckton to Barking Riverside, down to Thamesmead and loop down to Woolwich Arsenal, creating a circuit and clockwise/anti-clockwise services. Other than confusing passengers, this would work very well, but is the most expensive option out of the lot.
  • Extend Thames Clippers through to Thamesmead and Barking Riverside. This would require another vessel and two new piers, but this would attract quite a few passengers from the Riverside. Having said that, they cost a fortune and not everyone living in these areas will be able to use them regularly. Bang goes that theory...
This solution should've been solved a long time ago, but here are my suggestions. They may not be great, so if you have any ideas of your own, drop a comment on my flickr page or something. Thanks for reading! I've also updated the tenders page again, with a new feature that will be more detailed soon.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Busageddon: Hounslow Edition

I apologise for the non-existent post last week, I spent my time upgrading the tenders page, which looked really messy before and was a nightmare to maintain, especially as imported the bullet list from Google Docs. Let's not go into detail...

Recently, the area of Hounslow was flooded with enthusiasts, who travelled from all over London to capture the first service change of the 2017, the contract change of route 235, one of the busiest single deck routes in the whole of London. Guess what, it stayed single deck, despite having no DD restrictions. Here I will document the change and the progress the route has made under Metroline, seeing as I use the route every week. Oh yeah, the H20 also got new buses, but that change was pretty much forgotten by all enthusiasts....

Abellio London 8141, an 8.9m E200 MMC, makes a rare appearance on route 235 at Brentford, Market Place.
The service under Abellio was average for this type of single deck route. On the whole, the route was prone to bunching and very large gaps, however these are notorious for a route which deals with crowds all the time, as well as traffic in Hounslow/Feltham Town Centres. In terms of allocation, the route wasn't exactly treated as superior to anything else at Twickenham (TF), despite being the busiest of all of the routes based there, and the main allocation consisted of old Dart Pointers and Nimbuses, which were hanging on for dear life towards the end of the old contract. Despite their age, they were certainly nippy vehicles and I remember having extremely fast rides on Saturday mornings, with the driver absolutely flooring the vehicle up London Road. A less fond memory of these buses were the horrid urban 90 seats found on these vehicles, which had no padding and were absolutely freezing on a chilly weekend morning at 9am! Having said that, the Nimbus vehicles were rare types for London, with only a couple of other batches running around at the time (I think there are none left in London now) and I will miss riding them frequently.

An unallocated 08-reg Enviro 200 arrives at Brentford High Street.
The 235 had quite a lot of standard E200's ploughing up and down the route every day, especially towards the end of the contract. There was a period of time where the route was 100% Enviro, because the residents of North Brentford Quarter complained about the Nimbuses leaking oil on the bus stand. Unfortunately, 8.9m buses became quite common towards the end of the contract, which was bad news for a route that struggles with 10.8m buses and has over 5m annual ridership. The route itself is fairly short, running from Sunbury Village-North Brentford, via urban Feltham and Hounslow. It is one of only two routes directly linking Feltham and Hounslow town centres, with the other running every 20 minutes (the frequency of the 117 needs to be increased, that route struggles too). Although the double decking of routes E8 and 116 has helped the route between Brentford and Hounslow Heath, the service is still struggling today, as this route provides many unique links, which TFL's "corridor scheme" overlooks. As a result, enthusiasts were fuming when the new contract was awarded to Metroline with new single deckers, with no frequency changes. It seems that TFL haven't monitored the route closely enough to figure out that the decking of two other routes isn't enough to sort out the 235's issues and for the next five years SW London residents will continue to cram themselves onto packed buses in the peaks and shopping hours.

A Metroline Enviro 200 MMC departs North Brentford, on the first day of operation.
I wasn't exactly looking forward to the new contract, although any local service change interests me, so I actually bothered riding the route on the first day. The operation on the first day was terrible (as usual), with drivers getting lost and lots of bunching and gaps, partly due to delays in Hounslow. Lots of vehicles were having door faults and the number of buses curtailed to Sunbury Cross was higher than ever before, but I accept that this was the first day and these are never smooth! However, having three buses leaving Brentford within 8 minutes on a Saturday morning isn't exactly acceptable and the service hasn't improved much since then. The route is still the same as it was, albeit with a different operator and brand new buses.

As I arrived at North Brentford Quarter I was surprised to find two other enthusiasts already there, even though it was early in the morning. The North Brentford area consists of very dense housing, which should be an ideal place for a frequent bus service, but the 235 will move out of there very soon (more on that later). There were two buses on stand, but whilst I was admiring the ambience of the area, one of the Enviro 200 MMC's pulled away and left me behind. The other two enthusiasts were chatty with the driver of the remaining bus (another pulled in afterwards) and decided to muck about with the blinds, which proved to be quite useful later on.

Condensation meant that the blinds were a bit steamed up in the morning. Nevertheless, here is DEL2252 at North Brentford.
If I hadn't hurriedly caught the vehicle behind, I would've been able to get a picture of one of these SDs blinded for my local, the E2, although I wasn't aware that the driver would scroll through more "exclusive routes". The buses themselves are a decent batch of MMCs, with comfortable seats and nice acceleration noises. The only downside is the stop-start technology, which startles everyone on the bus thinking that the vehicle has broken down! Other than that, it's nice to have new vehicles on a weekly commute full of the same, dreary Gemini 2's. The service change was surprisingly popular among enthusiasts for a far-west SD route, but it was the first contract change of 2017, so that could be the reason why (the date wouldn't make a difference for me!). I managed to spot 6 enthusiasts within 15 minutes at 9:30 in the morning, so I suspect the route was full of them in the "peak." For your information, if you want to avoid bumping into fellow enthusiasts on a first day service change, travel outside 1-4pm. However, I can't guarantee that this will work, I apologise in advance. On the other hand, if you like socialising with fellow "bus geeks", then feel free to cover the route in snappers rush hour.

DEL2252 displays the incorrect destination for North Brentford Quarter, although this will be accurate in a few months time...

The residents of North Brentford aren't grateful for their frequent bus service, so a new stand is being fitted on Ealing Road, just outside the development, which makes the extension from County Court a bit pointless now. However, the barrier outside Great West Quarter keeps breaking so the bus service doesn't make it to the quarter on a regular basis anyway! The allocation of the 235 has been fairly strict so far, with a couple of standard E200s and an Evolution appearing over the last month. Overall, the service has been about the same as before and the route is still crowded, so not much has changed on the poor old 235.

Abellio London 8158 in Hounslow on route H20.
The H20 also received a brand new batch of E200 MMC's, which actually strayed onto the 235 towards the end of its contract. The H20 was a forgotten service change, I was actually the first person to snap the change, even though I caught it over a week after the new buses entered service. The buses themselves look fine and I'm sure the residents of Whitton and Ivybridge are pleased with their new buses.

Thanks for reading, next I have a rather unique post planned...