Sunday, 2 April 2017

Random Route: The 521

If anyone asks if I can think of a unique route in Central London, this is the first one that comes to my mind. The 521 runs from Waterloo-London Bridge via Holborn, crossing the River Thames twice in a very short period of time. The route only runs on Mondays-Fridays and in the Northbound direction, it uses the Strand Underpass and misses out Aldwych completely, despite being a key interchange point! The route has a full allocation of electric buses and runs every 2 minutes at peak times, but only every 10 minutes during the day and has no service on weekends! It is also one of the only routes in Central London to use single deck vehicles, often running along a corridor full of DD routes. I've ridden the route end to end many times, so I've randomly selected my most recent journey on the BYD ADL E200 MMC electric vehicles that currently work the route.

One of the new vehicles on the route.
 In Waterloo, the 521 stands by the Hole In Wall pub near Tenison Way, at the back of Waterloo's main bus station, where every route that crosses the river stops. However, the 521 hogs an entire bus shelter, due to the crowds that pour out of Waterloo Station that need this route to get to workplaces in the City. I often sit in this shelter on weekends, as it's always empty compared to the others! When I rode this route, there were only a few electric vehicles out, although my patience allowed a 30 minute wait to pass by quickly, after a walk around Waterloo Bus Garage.

A line up of buses at Waterloo, with the Shard providing a lovely backdrop.
Eventually, SEe5 rocked up and thanks to the open boarding, I managed to get my favourite seats on the bus, the second row on the elevated section on single deckers. The one disadvantage of open boarding is that these routes are subject to fare evasion and I counted three people succeed on my journey alone. The new buses have an extremely detailed iBus screen, showing the ETA for the next few stops, a route map of key locations en route, the direction the bus is travelling, London Undergound status updates, South West Trains departures from Waterloo and the time. These buses also have USB charging points at every seat, so you can charge your phone on the move, which is incredibly useful for all of my Central London bus trips! However, there are only a few seats on these vehicles as they are allocated to commuter routes, which need as much capacity as possible at rush hour for short trips to the station. I felt very privileged to have a seat as the quiet vehicle accelerated around the IMAX roundabout and onto Waterloo Bridge, my favourite river crossing in London, due to the length and stunning view of Docklands with the water.

A staggering 21 routes serve the Waterloo Bridge/South Bank stop, which is fairly popular for tourists. After a few more people miraculously found seats, the electric vehicle got up to its maximum speed, a dismal 20mph, as the bus entered the far lane on Waterloo Bridge, something that only 521 buses achieve. The bus dipped into the Strand Underpass, which is always a lovely experience, especially with the underground twists and turns the bus has to navigate under Aldwych. The journey time difference is fairly significant, although most of the time I find that the tunnel is closed for works, so travelling through it is a rare treat! The bus re-emerged on the Kingsway, where the next stop was Holborn Station. Lots of people alighted here, but an equal number joined, giving me time to admire the unique architecture on this road. Due to a complicated one-way system around Holborn, the bus had to overshoot High Holborn and turn right onto Theobolds Road for a couple of seconds, before heading back South again on Procter Street, where four 98's were taking a break from the tedious journey up to Willesden.

These Irizar electric prototypes left the route recently.
Before turning left, the 521 paused under an office block at the traffic lights, where I spotted a trio of 25's heading towards Oxford Circus. Along High Holborn tall office blocks dominated the view, with a mixture of restaurants underneath, which were mostly healthy places around the Brownlow Street area. A few lucky people boarded the bus here, who had managed to escape from work at lunch time, which was where the last seats were taken and some workers were forced to stand. Three minutes after passing Holborn, another Central Line station presented itself, which is also incredibly busy at rush hour. Around Chancery Lane, the "healthy trend" ground to a halt as a Greggs emerged, just a few meters after an Abokado. The junction at Grays Inn Road added four more routes to the mix, although three of them bail at Holborn Circus. The offices thinned out as the road became slightly more elevated as it morphed into the Holborn Viaduct, which offers a panoramic view of Farringdon Road. The next point of interest was City Thameslink, where lots of passengers alighted for fast services to most corners of London. Due to space constraints, the station is found under an office block, which is definitely an efficient use of space.

To the left I glimpsed St Bartholomew's Hospital, the terminus of 2 routes outside a phone box containing hundreds of letters to Sherlock. I do hope it's still there. Another array of coffee shops appeared on King Edward Street, before St Paul's Station emerged in the background. Another one way system forced the bus to take the long route through Angel Street, which then allowed the bus to break free from the Central Line corridor and onto New Change. Lots of people boarded the bus outside the Shopping Centre, which also contains a splendid view of London on the roof garden. An array of tourists admired St Paul's Cathedral as my bus waited at the traffic lights to turn left, through more workplaces in Mansion House. Less than 60 seconds later, another District Line station presented itself. Cannon Street is a busy station, offering Southeastern services which can't fit inside Charing Cross, as well as onward connections on the tube. It only opens for half a day on weekends, because it really isn't needed then. The bus passed the umpteenth Pret A Manger before Monument Station, the penultimate station that this route serves.

The sun decided to shine just as the bus crossed the River Thames, offering a brilliant view of Docklands and Westminster; I also spotted another 521 crossing Waterloo Bridge, at the start of a 30 minute journey around the City. Most passengers alighted on the bridge itself, although the 521 continues for one stop into London Bridge Bus Station, conveniently located just before the NR station, where I took a break and admired the new, confusing concourse.

I love the 521 for it's unique character and features and I strongly recommend that you take a ride on it if you have some spare time. For me, it's the second best single deck route in London, only beaten by the glorious C10 from Victoria-Canada Water.

Thanks for reading and stay safe!

p.s: There have been a lot of bus changes recently and I'm covering all of them in the next week, so expect a flurry of Busageddon posts from now on!