Monday, 31 July 2017

Random Observations: July 2017

Hopefully this post should be a light relief from all the intense service changes that have been happening recently, we'll be reporting on those again from next week though!

Abellio London 8880 pauses at Brentford Station on route 195. What's missing?
 The 195 is pretty long for a London bus, taking an indirect route between Brentford County Court and Charville Lane Estate, travelling through Boston Manor, Southall and Hayes in the process. It's heavily used and hopelessly unreliable, with Abellio London struggling to improve service quality since they took over operation of the route in April 2017. After persistent unpleasant experiences, it's become one of my most hated routes in London and I try to avoid using the service as much as possible, but it's usefulness means that sometimes I have to simply put up with the crowds and long gaps as there is often no alternative. Recently, I needed to catch a train from Brentford Station and rather typically, the 195 was the first bus to show up, but my growing passion for Enviro 200 MMC single deckers made the journey slightly more bearable, plus this particular vehicle was an oddity. Originally, I dismissed the missing front logo as this is a fairly common problem seen on the London bus network, but when I stepped inside I noticed that the bus lacked any iBus equipment (meaning that there were no announcements) and the screen that usually conveys information about the destination and next stop of the bus was also absent. There was no CCTV in operation and it seemed like this vehicle had simply been rushed into service, without any London features added, which is very unusual. I've noticed that the bus has been off-road for a few days, so hopefully the necessary equipment has been installed, to provide an adequate journey for commuters who rely on this important technology!

Arriva London T163 on stand at Thornton Heath Pond, preparing for another 64 journey in South London.
Since Go-Ahead lost the 64 contract to Arriva London, the route has been slammed for its poor service reliability, and the positive comments the 64 received under the old service simply diminished in an instant, with a vehicle catching fire within the first week of operation not helping either! Although the route is no longer praised and respected much in the enthusiast community, the service seems to have improved slightly and I was willing to try out the route a couple of weeks ago. I was pleasantly surprised by my fast Enviro 400, which seemed to tackle the challenging hills in Selsdon with ease and was capable of reaching high speeds, especially around the rural parts of Addington Village, contrary to reports by other enthusiasts that Thornton Heath (TH) garage has persistent poor maintenance. Whether this vehicle is able to keep up its healthy state is another matter, but my first experience on one of their buses was positive, and the routeing is pretty interesting too. Starting off in Thornton Heath, the route travels through urban Croydon, before quickly leaving the town centre and diving into some of the wealthier residential areas of South London, before taking a circuitous route around the extensive complex of Addington, in an attempt to serve as much housing as possible. Although I'm generally not a fan of residential routes, this one stood out because of the sheer variety of areas it passed through, from the hilly upper-class section in Croham Valley, to New Addington, where rural fields and dense tower blocks were seconds apart. I highly recommend this route if you're in the Croydon area and hopefully you get a decent bus like me!

London United MCL30306 on route 203 to Hounslow Bus Station.

Running from Staines-Hounslow Bus Station, the 203 has always been popular in linking the two shopping districts, passing through lots of residential housing in between. This fairly quiet route is now well-known to the enthusiast community, as it's allocated the only Mercedes Citaro buses in the London United fleet; in my opinion they're also some of the best examples in London, capable of high speeds along the Great South West Road, which the 203 serves. Having said that, reliability has always been an issue with these vehicles and I'm slightly worried about the future of them, especially as the equally unique Optare Tempo buses based at Hounslow (AV) garage are at risk of withdrawal. Hopefully the 203 will continue to be a significant, substantial single deck route, rather than an irrelevant residential bus that runs at out of Hounslow less frequently than it deserves, which unfortunately was the sorry state of the route before 2011.

Stansted Express 379018 awaits departure at Tottenham Hale, bound for London Liverpool Street.
I've never been particularly fond of Greater Anglia, due to their ageing, worn-out class 315/317 trains that make up the majority of the fleet, and also tend to work most suburban rail routes in London. Some of the limited modern kit can be found running between London Liverpool Street and Stansted Airport every 15 minutes, with 8 coaches that often carry fresh air! Typically, all three "airport express" services run empty for the majority of the day, with only a few trips that justify the elongated trains. The Stansted Express is unique because you can use your oyster card on this service, as they do stop at Tottenham Hale, providing a handy fast link into Central London for those residents, on a luxurious Electrostar. Thankfully, there's a bright future ahead for the Greater Anglia franchise, as the entire fleet will be replaced with brand new trains by September 2020, hopefully making those occasional trips into NE London slightly more bearable.

Abellio London 8569 pauses at Ealing Broadway Station on the E1 to Greenford.
Due to a severe vehicle shortage at Hayes (WS) garage, the E1 was downgraded to partial single deck operation last Monday, with two Enviro 200's fulfilling these rather embarrassing duties. As this was an unexpected circumstance, neither of the vehicles were blinded, so some paper was stuck in the window and the buses took various trips ferrying the poor passengers between Greenford and Ealing in the evening peak.  I was concerned about how these vehicles would cope in rush hour, especially as I've been on double deck vehicles that have left people behind on this route! Thankfully, these buses haven't returned to the E1 and hopefully commuters will permanently have their much-needed second deck. Personally, I would've sent the single deckers out onto the E9, as this route is generally quieter in rush hour, but I have a feeling that the punishment would be much more significant if these vehicles were sent out onto my preferred route as the contract was renewed much later and only given DDs recently.

A Stagecoach London E200 is seen during a blind change, showing this rather ambiguous destination.

When I first saw the destination 'Five Ways, Green Lane' on a 314 blind change, I was completely baffled as Stagecoach don't run any routes that pass the infamous 'Fiveways' junction in Croydon. However, I later found out that there is a similar crossing in South-East London also notorious for heavy traffic,  specifically in New Eltham, which the 314 passes through towards the end of its tedious journey from Addington. Blind specificity has been a controversial issue recently, with some being far too vague such as this example on the 314, where I had absolutely no clue where the bus would've been terminating if this was the actual destination, and others being inconsistently specific, like the new 266 blinds that display "Hammersmith Bus Station", which isn't shown on any of the other 10 routes terminating there. Additionally, there are actually two bus stations in Hammersmith, making this blind even more confusing and pointless! If bus nationalisation did take place, this would be one resolved issue, as all blinds would be ordered by the same people!

Tower Transit MV38238 on route 58 to Walthamstow Central.
 Interestingly, this particular vehicle has been accused of "stalking enthusiasts" lately, with a large number of people reporting to have ridden this bus on several occasions, or significantly more than the rest of the batch. After catching MV38238 on the 308 back in May, I was surprised to find this on stand at East Ham Central Park on the 58 last Saturday, even though appearances on the route aren't too common. The 58 has always been hated by the enthusiast community, being traffic-filled, unreliable and pretty overcrowded, providing many useful links across North-East London but also  avoiding Stratford Town Centre, which is the main reason for its popularity. Nevertheless, I attempted to ride the 58 on a Saturday morning and found the actual routeing pretty decent, passing through a wide variety of residential areas and urban high streets, with occasional glimpses of nature like Wanstead Flats. My bus was very busy and some roadworks in Upton Park meant that my journey was anything but fast, although I still enjoyed my experience and hopefully this route shall remain in my good books, which definitely relies on me avoiding it during rush hour! 

London United LT85 on Oxford Street.
Unusually, my number 10 bus was curtailed to the Royal Albert Hall recently, which is a fairly common curtailment for route 9, but not seen much on its sister route. The 10 has had a tragic downfall since the introduction of Wrightbus New Routemaster vehicles, with it's high rating simply vanishing after these horrid buses infested the route. Since its re-route to Russell Square, it's been made even more useful and unfortunately I haven't been successful in avoiding the service, which was my initial plan for all 'LT routes'. With the Oxford Street Bus Reduction Plan in full swing, I've begun to question the future of this route, especially with the alternative routes being largely duplicated by other buses, namely the 9 and 390. An obvious suggestion would be to divert the route via Shaftesbury Avenue between Hyde Park Corner and Tottenham Court Road, although this would match 75% of the routeing of the number 9, and perhaps the aforementioned iconic bus route will be withdrawn, with the 6 being diverted via Pall Mall. Although his extreme change is unlikely to happen due to the sheer number of complaints TFL would receive concerning the "loss of number 9", it would save them a lot of money...

Go-Ahead London LDP183 stands at Kennington Lane Tesco on free bus route 877.
In order to promote Kennington Lane Tesco, a free, commercial bus route numbered the 877 was set up to provide a link for residents living near Vauxhall, specifically in the Black Prince Road area. It runs every 20 minutes in a loop format, with Go-Ahead London running the service with a solitary cream-coloured 9.3m Dart Pointer, which ironically used to work on route 360 that also serves the area. Only operating on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 10am-3pm, this route acts as a lifeline to many elderly residents, who like using their free bus service which prevents them from having to face a tedious long walk to the shops. Apparently, the route will be withdrawn from September, which is a real shame as London loses another completely unique bus route, that happens to be well-used too. As usual, it seems that Tesco's introduction of this bus service wasn't entirely altruistic and was simply a method of raising awareness of the opening of this superstore; they're perfectly aware that these residents will continue to visit Tesco after the bus withdrawal, albeit via a less convenient mode of transport. I absolutely loved my ride last Tuesday, passing through some ridiculously tight narrow roads (requiring a very experienced driver whom I most credit) and some unique areas which mainstream London bus services simply don't serve. It goes through some of the most run-down areas of inner South London and is almost like the antithesis of the famous 399 from Barnet-Hadley Wood Station, serving completely different areas but for the exact same purpose. Unfortunately, variety on the London bus network seems to be disappearing rapidly, so if you want to make the most of it make sure that you don't neglect this wonderful service; it's free too!

ADE40308 terminates at Cromwell Road Bus Station, on a rare appearance working route 411.
The 411 is the only bus route that serves West Molesey, a middle-class residential area located on the outskirts of South-West London near the River Thames, in close proximity to Walton On-Thames and Hampton Court. The route only takes 25 minutes from start to finish, but it's very popular due to the cheaper fares that TFL provide, compared to the Abellio Surrey commercial services. An extension of the 411 beyond West Molesey would certainly be welcome, but unfortunately cross-boundary services are being withdrawn rather than instated, so the 411 will always remain a single deck route that has potential to be more useful. Due to the sheer popularity of the service (and some loose allocations at Epsom garage), the 411 occasionally uses a double deck vehicle from routes 406/418, which was certainly justified on my trip, where almost 50% of seats on the upper deck were taken. If TFL weren't on such a tight budget, I'm sure this route would be investigated for full-time double deck operation, and West Molesey residents would be very grateful for their new-found extra capacity, which might even make the service more attractive. Despite the short length, I really enjoyed the 411 and hopefully I won't ever have to experience a crowded single deck journey on this excellent route!

Thanks for reading and stay safe!

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Busageddon: SD Major Model Change Catch-Up

The ADL Enviro 200 MMC has been very popular with many London bus companies, who have consistently ordered this vehicle type for their new contracts since its debut in late 2015. This post will focus on London United and Abellio, who have pushed these vehicles into service on routes 70, 464, R68 and R70 over the past couple of months, so you may notice that most of the buses illustrated in pictures look pretty similar!

Tower Transit DML44315 on route 70 to Chiswick, Business Park.
The 70 is one of the longest single deck routes in London, taking a very indirect routeing from South Kensington-Chiswick Business Park, via Ladbroke Grove and East Acton. It gets reasonably busy with single deckers and some enthusiasts have requested a double deck conversion of this route, which would make it much more enjoyable! However, the recent extension to Chiswick Business Park hasn't been particularly successful, with buses rarely carrying more than 1 or 2 passengers beyond Acton Town. Tower Transit previously operated the route with a dedicated batch of ADL Enviro 200 buses from Westbourne Park (X) garage, and it didn't receive any odd workings as it was the only single deck route based at that garage. Considering how challenging and long this route is, Tower Transit operated the route pretty well, with occasional hiccups but a generally reliable service, providing much-needed support to the 7 for the majority of the route. However, when the tender results were published many enthusiasts were surprised to find that London United had won the route from Shepherd's Bush (S) garage, being the fourth operator to run this route within five years! Specifically, Metroline ran the 70 for the first half of 2012, but the contract was awarded to First London. However, they sold their London operations in June 2013 and Tower Transit took control for four years until 2017, and now London United are attempting to operate the service, hopefully for more than a couple of years this time!

On the first day of the new contract, an ADL Enviro 200 MMC stands at Chiswick Business Park.
Due to increasing pollution levels in Central London, which this route serves, the contract was awarded with electric single deckers, which will arrive next year in the form of BYD Enviro 200 MMCs, which are essentially the electric equivalent of what currently runs on the route. As the electric buses aren't scheduled to arrive for a while after the contract change, a temporary allocation of Enviro 200 MMCs were ordered as a stop-gap until the new vehicles eventually arrive. These MMCs will then transfer to route H22 to replace older stock after their short stint on the 70. Having ridden on these vehicles twice, I can confirm that (in my opinion) these are some of the nicest Enviro 200 MMCs in London, with a welcoming, comfortable interior and excellent potential for speed. My only criticism is the annoying stop-start feature which pointlessly wastes time at bus stops and traffic lights, but unfortunately this is becoming a normality for all new vehicles. It will be a shame to lose these excellent buses from a local route, but the prospect of electric vehicles roaming around West London is certainly exciting.

The only vehicle to appear on route 70 since the new contract that isn't part of its allocation, DE20096, awaits departure at Acton Town.

London United have been fairly strict with the allocation of route 70, with only one odd appearance since the contract change, in the form of DE20096, which is currently allocated to the C1. In terms of reliability, the route was troublesome for the first few days with some nasty gaps and bunching, although since then London United have developed their understanding of this difficult route and can now operate it better than Tower Transit did for the previous contract. Due to space constraints at Shepherd's Bush garage, the 272 was shifted to Stamford Brook (V) garage, with the 419 moving from there to Hounslow (AV) garage, one of the only London United garages with space after their recent losses. Personally, I think the 70 has a bright future ahead, with even more new vehicles, and hopefully a reliable service if London United can keep up their excellent start. I wish them luck for the next five years and maybe they'll actually retain the route for the next contract!

Abellio London 8171 arrives at New Addington, ready for another 464 journey to Tatsfield.
One of the quieter single deck routes in London is the 464, running between Tatsfield Village and New Addington via Biggin Hill, on the edge of South-East London, acting as a lifeline for residents living on the border with Surrey. It's one of my favourite single decker routes in London, passing through some very rural areas and offering some spectacular views of the countryside that are pretty unique for a TFL bus service. The route only takes 20 minutes from start to finish and contains a mixture of residential and rural thrash sections, but in general it's a very fast-paced route and well-suited to all enthusiasts who prefer non-London bus services; it even tackles a hill with a 15% gradient! This particular road is also the reason why it's impossible to increase the frequency of this route; the buses simply can't meet each other on Saltbox Hill and the route has a special timetable with a "do not proceed" rule for the Northbound vehicle; it simply has to wait in Biggin Hill until the Tatsfield-bound bus has departed.  It has a peak vehicle requirement of two vehicles and runs every 30 minutes during the day from Monday-Saturday, and hourly for evenings and Sunday, although there are special school trips which between Biggin Hill and New Addington during term time which are timetabled very closely to the normal service.

8171 waits at the rural terminus at Tatsfield Village.
Previously, the route was run by Go-Ahead London from Orpington (MB) garage, with a general allocation of Mini Dart Pointers, although any vehicle small enough could appear, such as ADL E200s or even Optare Solo's from the R8. They had lots of experience with running this route and many enthusiasts were gutted when the route was lost to Abellio upon contract renewal, who were expected to have a difficult time in getting to know the 464. The route is now based at Beddington Cross (BC) garage and three brand new Enviro 200 MMCs entered service on time, although a couple of buses from the 367's allocation have strayed onto the route since then. In terms of reliability, there have been no issues apart from on the first day, where one of the buses (8172) was experiencing difficulties with the infamous stop-start technology, which caused some delays. Naturally, the new drivers struggled with the route for the first few days, not being aware of the need to accelerate sharply before attempting Saltbox Hill, therefore causing the buses to struggle with the steep incline. Stop-start technology will never be ideal for such a fast-paced route, but thankfully the drivers can simply by-pass this annoying feature by leaving the handbrake on at bus stops. The local residents are certainly appreciative of their new vehicles and hopefully Abellio can run the service well for the next five years, with the teething troubles ironed out as they get to know this very quirky route!

Abellio London 8878 stands at Kew Retail Park preparing for departure on route R68 to Hampton Court.

The R68 is one of two "Richmond prefix" routes, running between Kew Retail Park and Hampton Court via Teddington and Twickenham. It can get extremely busy with many visitors to Hampton Court Palace liking the service which conveniently transports them to a wide variety of areas in South-West London, providing some unique links. Abellio have always run the route well, providing a reliable service even with some of the capacity issues this route faces; a frequency increase would certainly be welcome. Nevertheless, brand new Enviro 200 MMCs were ordered for the new contract and they've slowly started to enter service at Fulwell (TF) garage, where the route is based. However, a common user pool arrangement also involving routes 350 and 195 means that the R68 vehicles spend most of their time away from their allocated route, and the majority of vehicles found on the R68 are still the former allocation, which will still be used at the garage to eventually replace older stock.
Abellio London 8881 pauses at Richmond Station en route to Nurserylands.

The R70 has also been retained recently with ADL Enviro 200 MMCs, but these vehicles haven't entered service yet. However, some of the existing MMCs at the garage have already worked the route, so I can already give an accurate representation of the future! The R70 can also get quite busy, linking the dense residential area of Nurserylands and Richmond quickly and efficiently, operating in a one-way loop to turn around at the end. Like the R68, the former allocation of Enviro 200 vehicles will be used to replace older stock, namely Dart Nimbus and Dart Pointer vehicles which are somehow still roaming around the garage. Hopefully, residents of Hampton and Richmond will enjoy their new vehicles and I wish Abellio good luck for the next five years in running both these routes. This change concludes the recent single deck contract renewals, but there will certainly be more to come as the successful Enviro 200 MMC becomes even more common in London. Thanks for reading and stay safe!

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Busageddon: Orpington "Roundabout" Changes

One of the biggest changes of 2017 has been the Orpington "Roundabout" routes reshuffle, where a large proportion of buses in the town centre were changed in terms of their routeing and in some cases, were given new buses. TFL released a consultation on these proposals last year and made a few minor changes due to the large volume of negative feedback received by respondents all over London for specific proposals . By clicking on the link above, you'll be able to access the consultation itself, which includes maps and a detailed report about issues raised, as well as the proposed changes, which I'll also outline here.

  • The R1 has been re-routed between Sevenoaks Road and Orpington Town Centre, to serve Tower Road and Orpington Station, instead of double-running to the station from the war memorial, with a frequency decrease during the daytime to every 20 minutes.
  • The R2 has been curtailed at Orpington Walnuts Centre, no longer serving Amherst Drive and Petts Wood.
  • Initially, the R3 was meant to be re-routed to serve Amherst Drive in Petts Wood rather than Poverest Road and re-routed from Orpington Station to terminate at Orpington Hospital via Tower Road, rather than double-running and continuing to Chelsfield Village. However, the extension to Orpington Hospital was cancelled and it's now curtailed at Orpington Station with no extension, although the re-routing in Petts Wood did go ahead.The frequency has been increased to every 20 minutes from Monday-Saturday and to every 30 minutes on Sunday.
  • The R7 has been extended from Orpington Walnuts Centre to Chelsfield Village and was meant to be extended from Bickley Aquilla to Chislehurst War Memorial, but the large number of complaints about missing the high street means that the R7 has been sent to Chislehurst Sainsbury's instead. An hourly Sunday service has been introduced and the Monday-Saturday daytime frequency has increased to every 30 minutes.
  • The R11 has been re-routed away from Foots Cray Tesco and was meant to be sent away from Orpington Hospital, but this link has been retained following negative consultation feedback. Frequencies have been increased to every 12 minutes from Monday-Saturday and to every 20 minutes on Sunday.
As well as the route changes, new contracts commenced for a large number of the R-routes involved and a large fleet shuffle has taken place at Orpington (MB) garage. With the changes taking place on April 1st 2017, I've had three months to evaluate the success of them and on the whole they've been beneficial to the local community on the edge of South-East London.

Go-Ahead London 173 serves Orpington High Street before commencing the new routeing via Tower Road.
The R1 was retained by Go-Ahead London and its main allocation now consists of ADL Enviro 200 vehicles which were already at the garage. It runs from Green Street Green to St Paul's Cray, via an indirect routeing through Chelsfield, Orpington, St Mary Cray and Poverest. The new routeing through Tower Road has made it slightly less complicated and trips from Orpington Town Centre-Chelsfield are much quicker and some additional housing has been served along Tower Road. Even though the frequency decrease initially seemed disappointing, the route isn't severely overcrowded and it's better that the resources are provided where they're needed, so overall this is a positive change.

Go-Ahead London SE215 stands at Orpington Walnuts Centre, before attempting another R2 journey to Biggin Hill Valley, Melody Road.
The R2 has always been one of the quieter, lesser-known routes in Orpington, providing an additional link from Biggin Hill Valley and it used to serve some housing in Petts Wood, however this section of the route has been withdrawn under the new routeing, with the R3 now serving the residential area of Amherst Drive instead. Now, the R2 has even lower patronage levels and many enthusiasts have started to question the usefulness of this service, bearing in mind that Orpington already has a link to Biggin Hill, covered by the slightly quicker R8. The R2 essentially follows the more frequent, double deck routes 353/320 for 95% of its route, before serving one residential area on Melody Road, to the South of Biggin Hill Valley, which is restricted to single deck operation. Apart from providing round-the-corner links from Leaves Green-Locksbottom (which are still pretty underused) and serving a few houses along Melody Road, the R2 doesn't have much of a purpose rather than carrying fresh air along the 320/353 corridors. Personally, I would keep the route running as some of these links are important (such as to Princess Royal University Hospital in Locksbottom) even if they are not used in high numbers, although with TFL's excessively tight budget it's no surprise that many people have thought that this route should be withdrawn. However, there is no suitable replacement route for the Melody Road area as the 320 (which terminates around the corner) needs to be run with double deck vehicles due to high loadings in the Bromley area, and the R8 (also running between Biggin Hill and Orpington, albeit via Downe and Green Street Green) physically can't run more frequently than every 90 minutes due to the narrow country roads it uses, and that is considered to be an inadequate level of service for linking the two centres. So the R2 still soldiers on, albeit with no more than 3 or 4 people on board usually.

SE215 stands at the rural terminus at Melody Road. 
Following the curtailment of route 100 to London Wall, four ZF gearbox Euro 6 ADL E200 vehicles transferred down to Orpington (MB) garage for the new R2 contract and these arrived towards the end of April. So far, their appearances on the route have been sporadic, due to one being involved in an accident and some questionable maintenance, which has resulted in these vehicles frequently spending time off-road and longer buses having to step in. When I rode the route last Saturday, SE215 was making some worrying screaming noises and barely made it up Stock Hill; this batch of buses are also notorious for their over-revving upon acceleration. However, the R2 is certainly an interesting little route, running past Biggin Hill Airport and through the countryside in Leaves Green, even if finding a full bus is a rare sight. Overall, since the cutback the R2 is now even more irrelevant in Orpington Town Centre and is struggling for survival with its low patronage, only having physical restrictions to keep it going. Whilst the vehicle change has made the allocation much more interesting, the service will be less reliable and vehicle breakdowns might become a common occurrence, which isn't ideal for a low frequency route!

Go-Ahead London 160 drops passengers off at Orpington High Street on route R3.
The R3 is one of the most indirect routes in Orpington Town Centre, taking over 40 minutes to travel between Princess Royal Hospital and Orpington Station, a trip the 353 covers in 5 minutes. However, it is popular with local residents of Petts Wood and Poverest and has been re-routed to serve even more housing in Amherst Drive. The removal of the Chelsfield Village section has made the route much more reliable than before and the frequency increase to every 20 minutes has made it more attractive for local residents, meaning that the service has become much busier even with the additional bus per hour. Overall, this routeing change has been a success and the main purpose of this route can be achieved more successfully, with other sections being more suited to other routes.

Go-Ahead London WS5 arrives at Orpington High Street following a trip "around the houses" from PRU Hospital.
The R3 was also retained by Go-Ahead London and the original plan was to use existing ADL E200 vehicles that were already found at Orpington (MB) garage. However, the recently refurbished Wrightbus Streetlite vehicles (transferred from Barking garage following the loss of route 462) that were initially destined for routes R4 and R6 were unsuitable for the former route, so an allocation swap has taken place and the R3 has essentially been upgraded to newer buses, even though I would prefer to ride any single decker apart from these ones! Apart from a few reliability issues at the start and their very late introduction into service, their performance at Orpington (MB) has been pretty consistent and they are a suitable replacement for the ageing Dart Pointer vehicles, some of which are still clinging on at the garage.

Metrobus 271 at Orpington Bus Station on route R4.
Due to the physical restrictions en route, the R4 has been deprived of its refurbished Wrightbus Streetlite vehicles and is now stuck with existing Enviro 200's, as well as a few Dart Pointer's which are somehow still in service at Orpington (MB) garage. The R4 serves a decent amount of residential housing alone and provides some valuable links across Orpington Town Centre, such as from Princess Royal Hospital to St Mary Cray, even if it's not completely direct. Currently, I feel that the route has the potential to be much more popular than it currently is and a frequency increase will certainly make the R4 much more attractive to the large number of locals living on this route. A 1bph service on Sundays is definitely inadequate compared to the rest of the Orpington network and I think that this route and the R6 have been neglected in the tendering results with all the other changes and their poor Sunday service has been overlooked and should be sorted, these two routes could be a lifeline to some people!

Go-Ahead London WS3 on Orpington High Street, working route R6 to St Mary Cray Station.
The R6 is one of the shorter "Roundabout" routes, running between Orpington and St Mary Cray through a small amount of residential housing alone. It provides vital round-the-corner links for residents in Crockenhill and the route is fairly well-used despite the short length and lack of unique residential sections. This suggests that the route is very popular in Crockenhill and the current frequency perhaps isn't adequate; maybe an increase to 3bph from Monday-Saturday and 2bph on Sunday would be justified for such a busy section. Unlike the R4, refurbished Wrightbus Streetlite vehicles are suitable on this route and the R6 has been using them consistently since their arrival, allowing more Dart Pointer vehicles to be withdrawn for the new contract.

Stagecoach London 36620 pauses at Orpington High Street on route R7 to Chelsfield Village.
The R7 has received the biggest individual route upgrade, being extended at both ends and having its frequency doubled to every 30 minutes, as well as the introduction of a brand new Sunday service. The route now takes around 60 minutes from start to finish and is very complicated, having to tackle various double runs and tight turns, especially in the Petts Wood area. Initially, the buses were running around empty whilst the locals were made aware of their more frequent service, although in more recent times the route has started to become popular as an easy method of travelling to the high street. The Chelsfield Village section was fairly busy from the start as this was previously covered by the R3, but some useful links to Petts Wood and Chislehurst have been created following the R7 extension. The original part of the route, between Orpington Walnuts Centre and Bickley Aquilla (also including Crofton Lane, Petts Wood and Oxhawth Crescent) was never too popular with the previous 70-minute frequency, but locals have now been made aware of the service and more people in these residential areas have switched to the R7, relieving the busy number 208 bus in this area. Even though the brand new Chislehurst-Bickley section was quiet for the first couple of months, people are now taking advantage of this handy new link and some buses are leaving Sainsbury's with multiple shopping bags from my recent observations, which is good in some ways!

Even though the late evening service is still underused, TFL have certainly been successful in upgrading this route from one of the quietest in Orpington Town Centre to a fairly substantial and useful bus providing some excellent N-S links. However, due to the one-way loop in Chelsfield and fairly low frequency causing an awkward schedule, buses are timetabled to depart from the same stop on Orpington High Street at the same time in both directions, which has caused some confusion due to the similarity in wording of "Chislehurst" and "Chelsfield" and unfortunately various elderly residents have ended up on the wrong bus due to this difficult scheduling. As the R7 currently undertakes a double run in both directions and serves stops on Orpington High Street on both sides of the road, I would change this so only Chislehurst buses served the Northbound stop and only Chelsfield buses served the Southbound stop, ensuring that everyone boards the correct bus; even if they have to cross the road it'll be much quicker than ending up at a completely different destination! However, on the whole this change has been largely successful. Four existing ADL E200s were drafted in to cover the PVR increase and these can be found on the route alongside newer E200 MMCs technically allocated to the 336.

Go-Ahead London 101 on the R8 to Biggin Hill.
 Until April 2017, the R8 was one of the more well-known routes in the enthusiast community, due to its allocation of Optare Solo single deckers, which were the shortest buses in terms of length in London, at just 7.1m. However, these were too old for another contract and during their final months in London their unreliability intensified, with both of them off-road for a long period of time during February. As a result, longer vehicles had to be used on these occasions and the trial was successful, even if some of the narrow country lanes were quite difficult to navigate! This removed the need for ordering an expensive, new, narrow vehicle for the contract renewal and now the route simply uses any spare 8.9m vehicle found at Orpington (MB) garage, usually a Dart Pointer or Enviro 200.

Metrobus 255 arrives at Orpington Bus Station, ready for another journey to Biggin Hill.
The R8 has been the best "Roundabout" route I've ridden so far, due to its very unique routeing between Green Street Green and Aperfield. Some of the narrow country lanes it uses are ridiculously tight and some of the scenery is stunning, with the bus simply travelling through the middle of nowhere. It only runs every 90 minutes due to the physical restrictions preventing buses from passing each other in the countryside and there is a strong sense of community along this route, with many passengers greeting each other as they board. It's also very useful, providing a fast link between Orpington and Biggin Hill, even if the service isn't exactly 'turn up and go'. Despite my first attempt of riding this route e2e failing (part of the front door flew off minutes away from the terminus  meaning that it couldn't close properly), I was thankful that I had a second opportunity to ride the route and I managed to catch one of the unique Optare Solo single deck vehicles before they left, which was a lovely experience. Even though the allocation is much more mainstream now, the route is still spectacular and I recommend that you give this one a try if you love countryside views!

Go-Ahead London SEN22 works route R11 to Green Street Green.
  The most controversial change has been TFL's attempt at making the R11 more direct, by effectively removing all of the double runs to serve valuable facilities such as Orpington Hospital and Foots Cray Tesco. Even though the former change didn't go ahead, a worryingly large number of residents in Grovelands have now lost their link to Tesco and instead have to endure a 10 minute walk through industrial wasteland, making the service far less popular at the Northern end of the route. Although TFL's intentions to make the R11 more direct were sensible given the long-distance links that this route provides from Orpington Town Centre, the lack of replacement to Foots Cray Tesco is ridiculous, the St Paul's Cray area needs a bus service to their local superstore, especially when there are no sufficient alternative transport methods. Personally, I would cut the R11 from Foots Cray Tesco, but extend the R1 from St Paul's Cray along the previous R11 routeing to Tesco, ensuring that the majority of the Grovelands still has a link to Tesco, even if the frequency is slightly less appealing. The R11 was also given a frequency increase and some ADL Enviro 200s were refurbished and transferred from Northumberland Park (NP) garage following the loss of route W16 for the new contract, these are a nice addition to Orpington Town Centre. Overall, this hasn't been a successful change, but hopefully TFL read this blog and discover that extending the R1 won't be so harmful after all!

The "Roundabout" network in Orpington has grown considerably over the past few years and these changes have made it prosper even more; with a couple of small issues that can easily be ironed out soon. Thanks for reading and stay safe!

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Random Route: The 215

The 215 runs from Walthamstow Central-Lea Valley Campsite, passing through Crooked Billet, Chingford Mount and Yardley Lane, acting as a relief route for the busy 97, but also providing links from the Yardley Lane Estate to Walthamstow Town Centre. It runs every 20 minutes from Monday-Saturday and every 30 minutes on Sunday, running from Stagecoach London's Leyton (T) garage, with existing ADL Enviro 400 vehicles. It can get quite busy if the 97 doesn't show up, but generally the route is fairly quiet along the busy corridors it serves. I rode this route back in April and loved it for the unique experience it provided at the Northern end, but also due to the somewhat interesting external surroundings on the more mainstream section in Walthamstow.

Stagecoach London 10116 stands at Lea Valley Campsite.
I arrived at Walthamstow Bus Station with five minutes until my 13:19 departure was due to leave and a surprisingly low number of people boarded the bus, with only two other travellers making it upstairs. The bus eventually left the busy Walthamstow Bus Station and turned left twice onto Hoe Street, which was thriving with shoppers visiting the various independant retailers, which weren't considered to be upmarket enough for exhibition in The Mall Shopping Centre. A large number of bus services run along this particular stretch of road, so the traffic was fairly heavy, but my bus continued to move at a decent pace through the shopping street. Eventually, the bus crossed Bell Corner, an important junction which leads to Tottenham in the West and Woodford in the East, but the 215 continued straight on into Chingford, where suburbia revealed itself and a seemingly endless array of terraced housing stretched out into the distance, but eventually the road twisted and turned and revealed some charming green space which was aesthetically pleasing, even if it formed a college rather than a recreation ground. A brief array of restaurants and local convenience stores followed shortly, just before a rather daunting roundabout, where the 215 paused at the traffic lights for some time, before embracing Crooked Billet.

The number 34 in front raced down the North Circular Road, but the 215 continued heading North and met an unusually large traffic jam, which appeared to be for the Sainsbury's superstore to the left. However, this gave me more time to admire the stunning view of the former Walthamstow Stadium site, which used to be a greyhound racing track, but unfortunately the builders were present and it seems more flats will magically appear as a replacement for this unique site. Less than a few minutes away from Sainsbury's, a Morrisons appeared in the middle of the next residential segment, before the next cluster of local convenience stores, which seemed to be marooned just outside of the fairly substantial high street of Chingford Mount, consisting of all the local necessities (such as Boots & Shoe Zone), but nothing too fancy, as that requires a trip to Walthamstow!

Chingford Mount seemed to be centred round an obelisk, which is incidentally found in the exact location of the bus stand for routes 158 and W16, which was getting rather overcrowded as my 215 went past. Eventually, the high street came to an abrupt halt when the 215 was forced to negotiate a very steep hill (and we were pretty successful in doing so), before the next residential section of North Chingford, which contained a mixture of detached and semi-detached housing, being slightly more affluent than the previous areas. The next roundabout determined the pathway of my bus, where it finally split off from the 97 into what initially seemed like deciduous woodland, although the iBus announcement revealed that the sudden influx of trees was due to Mansfield Park, which is different to the estate in Chessington and the novel by Jane Austin!

The highlight of the trip was at this moment, where I absorbed a breathtaking view of the William Girling Reservoir and the industrial factories of Brimsdown on the other side of the water; despite the experience only being momentary; I will still treasure that image for many years to come. The 215 then descended down Mansfield Hill at high speed, before joining the traffic queue to join the A110, the first reservoir crossing for some time. However, my bus decided to buck the trend and continue heading out of Greater London, into the depths of Yardley Lane, where the main road divided the residential housing and the valley on my left, where the pylons of North London could be seen in the far distance behind the grass. The bus reached some very high speeds along the A112, in the middle of the deserted area of Sewardstone, until the lay-by of Yardley Lane, where the 215 used to terminate in Winter months, although the route now runs to Lee Valley all year long.

I was surprised to find my fellow companions upstairs still on board, suggesting that the link from Walthamstow to the Campsite is fairly popular, or they might've been fellow enthusiasts. The twists and turns in between the peaceful green fields didn't prevent my driver from thrashing through the countryside and the reservoir revealed itself once more, enabling me to digest the stunning panorama visible from the top deck. The view lasted for much longer this time and the road was completely empty, apart from a couple of ramblers walking below, but the experience ended far too soon, when the 215 turned left into the campsite, terminating just outside the various caravans and cottages located in this part of Rural Britain. This stand is one of the most unusual in London, found in a remote settlement amongst boundless, never-ending green space.

Even if the start was a little repetitive, I loved my experience on the 215; it's certainly one of the most unique double deck routes in London, providing some fabulous views that can only be seen from the top deck of a bus. If you like a mixture of urban settlements and rural countryside, this route is perfect for you and I highly recommend you try it out, preferably sitting upstairs "at the front, on the left", the typical enthusiast seat. This route has been awarded 8/10 and placed at number 51/256 on my revamped route ratings page, which has been converted to a linked spreadsheet, ranking every bus route in London I've ridden in addition to the ratings I previously provided. I've also added a new poll on the main page about Oxford Street buses, please vote!

Thanks for reading and stay safe!

Note: I apologise for the delay in the Orpington Changes post, my bus trip yesterday was cancelled unexpectedly, but I hope to publish this next week.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Busageddon: Hounslow & Hackney: July 2017

Routes 110, 120, 236, 254 and 394 have gained (mostly) brand new vehicles, as a result of contract changes/renewals that have taken place recently. All five of these routes enter the areas of Hounslow and Hackney and consequently they've been invaded by bus enthusiasts from all over London to take pictures and ride some of the newest buses in this city. Chronologically, the Hackney routes changed first, so we commence in the heart of North-East London, specifically on Hackney Community Transport.

CT Plus 1279 stands at Homerton Hospital, in between duties on route 394.
The 394 is one of the lesser-known single deck routes in zone 1, heading straight out of Islington Angel to terminate at Homerton Hospital, through an assortment of residential back streets in the areas of Hoxton and Hackney, taking a fairly indirect route between the two town centres, serving Hoxton Street Market, Hoxton Overground Station, Geffrye Museum, Haggerston Park, London Fields, Broadway Market and a large number of housing estates in the process. It runs every 12 minutes for the majority of the week and every 20 minutes on Sundays and it can get pretty busy, ferrying people to the shops from their houses. Due to the extremely narrow roads and tight turns this route negotiates, the 394 used to be allocated narrow Dart Nimbus vehicles that could cope with travelling along the route, nicknamed "Caetano Slimbuses", although these are no longer available and on the most recent contract renewal standard 9.0m single-door MMCs were ordered; these are based at Ash Grove (HK) garage which the route passes. They entered service at the end of April and have strayed onto routes 153 and W5, but they mainly stick to the 394 as it requires a specific allocation. Having said that, I once saw a 9.6m E200 on the route at Islington Angel, whether it made it to Homerton Hospital without a few parts missing is another matter!

CT Plus 1272 at Homerton, displaying the new-style Islington Angel blind, which looks rather ugly.
The 394 is certainly a quirky little route, serving some unique areas that the mainstream DD routes that radiate out of Central London simply can't reach. It's certainly a community route with various residents greeting each other on my trip, perfectly suited to CT Plus (Hackney Community Transport), who run the route pretty well from their Ash Grove base. I rode the route from Homerton-Angel yesterday and I enjoyed the experience: even with a few boring sections of relentless tower blocks, the number of interesting, new areas I passed through was superb, especially around Broadway Market, which was thriving in the Saturday evening sunshine, with London Fields and Regent's Canal just around the corner. The journey was quiet (another 394 was a few minutes in front) and it wasn't too long either, meaning that I wasn't fed up after reaching the terminus, unlike some residential SD routes.  There were also some random quirks, such as the unnecessarily long trip around the entirety of Angel to reach the bus stand, which is always a bonus for me. The wider new bus frequently became stuck in the narrow roads, although some careful and professional driving ensured that I had a safe journey through to Angel, and it's certainly one of the more interesting residential single deck routes out there, equipped with decent brand new MMCs. Hopefully CT Plus can maintain their excellent service for the next five years and I wish them luck in doing so!

Tower Transit WV46212 works route 236 to Hackney Wick.

London gained its first new Streetlite vehicles of the year with the contract renewal of route 236, running between Hackney Wick and Finsbury Park Station, via Homerton, Haggerston, Dalston and Newington Green. It's not particularly direct, but does offer some crucial links for local residents and runs at a high frequency of every 8 minutes to cater for the popularity of this service. Many enthusiasts were hoping for a double deck conversion of the 236 upon contract renewal, but new Streetlite vehicles were ordered instead by Tower Transit, who are running the route from their Lea Interchange garage. The 236 used to be one of a small number of single deck routes that ran 24/7, although this is no longer the case and it now starts early (0355) and finishes late (0141), leaving a mere two hour gap without service. The contract renewal date was Saturday 29th April, although the new Streetlite vehicles only started to enter service at the end of May and yesterday was the first time a full allocation was achieved, which was perfect for snapping the route's brand new buses. The fairly new E200s that used to work the 236 have now returned off-lease and the 17-reg vehicles are occasionally supplemented by one of the older examples at LI, which are allocated to the 444. I've never been a huge fan of Streetlite vehicles, finding them pretty boring, very hot in summer and not ideal for viewing external surroundings with the narrow windows at the rear of the vehicle. However, I enjoyed my brief experience of WV46212 yesterday, especially with my fast driver behind the wheel, who took advantage of this nippy vehicle, eventually overtaking the busy 236 in front. The colour scheme was effective in providing a comfortable, bright atmosphere and I'm now looking forward to riding this route end to end. These are the first Streetlite buses to contain "stop-start technology", but for some reason it's not as noticeable as on ADL Enviro 200 MMCs and doesn't occur as frequently. Even though the service has always been a bit unreliable, hopefully Tower Transit can up their game for the next five years, especially with these wonderful new vehicles.

Arriva London VLW153 on route 254 to Holloway, Nags Head.
The 254 is one of London's busiest bus routes and has been operated by Arriva since its creation, when the 253 was split into two routes, with the 254 taking the Southern section between Hackney and Aldgate and sharing the busiest middle part between Holloway and Clapton. It runs at a high frequency of every 6 minutes and its previous allocation was a dedicated batch of Wrightbus Eclipse Gemini B7TL vehicles and other types rarely strayed onto the route. (Un)fortunately, many routes in Central London destined for New Routemaster operation contained restrictions, meaning that some LTs essentially had to be dumped on other routes and the 254 was one of the victims, despite it barely reaching zone 1, terminating at Aldgate Bus Station which is just outside Central London. Its sister route, the 253, converted last year, so it made sense to standardise the whole corridor and dedicate another 33 of the three-door vehicles to the 254. The contract was retained by Arriva London and even more LTs arrived at Ash Grove (AE) garage, in addition to the examples currently taking over route 48. Shortly after Saturday 3rd June, they debuted on the 254 and the Wrightbus B7TL Gemini's are disappearing quickly, so make the most of penultimate examples of them in the Arriva fleet before it's too late!

Arriva London LT467 works the 254 at Hackney.
However, the LTs allocated to route 137 (running from Oxford Circus-Streatham) were inadequate for the Streatham Hill Low Emission Corridor, so the 254's new buses were diverted to Brixton (BN) garage and can now be found roaming around South London. As a result, the older New Routemasters are slowly transferring to Ash Grove (AE) garage and are the main allocation of the 254, along with some extra buses drafted in from the curtailment of route 73 to make up the numbers. I'm not a fan of these buses and I haven't sampled the vehicles on the route yet, but hopefully some residents will be happy with their new allocation, especially as they have now gained the option of free bus trips with open boarding in place!

London United DLE30047 on route 110 to Hounslow Bus Station
The 110 has always been one of the quieter, more indirect routes in Hounslow Town Centre, that has undergone multiple route changes in recent times to try and boost patronage. The successful part of the route runs between Hounslow Bus Station and Twickenham, offering relief for the 111 and linking residents of Powder Mill Lane and Hanworth to Twickenham Town Centre. However, TFL seem to obsessed with terminating this route at West Middlesex Hospital and a few years ago the 110 was extended there from Hounslow Bus Station, through Isleworth and Busch Corner, but it was very unpopular and TFL made the right decision and removed the route from the London Road corridor. However, TFL thought it would be a good idea to extend the route from Twickenham to "relieve" the 267 and terminate at, you guessed it, West Middlesex Hospital! This extension has also been a failiure, with buses rarely seeing more than 2 or 3 passengers on this superfluous section of route. Having said that, the route has always been very reliable and this extension hasn't had an impact on the popular part of the 110, who have been blessed with brand new Enviro 200 MMC vehicles. These arrived much later than the scheduled contract date of Saturday 29th April and finally debuted at the end of May, but this small batch of 8 vehicles entered service quickly and all of the dedicated Dart Pointer vehicles have gone. The buses are decent and will provide a sufficient new allocation for this local U-shaped route, even if they occasionally stray onto the more prolific H37 and H98.

London United "lowheight" SP40014 on route 120 to Hounslow Bus Station.
The 120 is an extremely busy trunk route, running between Hounslow and Northolt, via Heston and Southall. It runs every 10 minutes (which isn't frequent enough) and London United lost the route to Metroline, to the disappointment of many enthusiasts, with a batch of brand new Wrightbus Gemini 3 B5LH vehicles. The combination of crowds and congestion make this route very difficult to run and it's never been particularly reliable, although London United provided a decent service for such a challenging route. There was always a wide variety of vehicle types on offer, sourced from the common user pool at Hounslow (AV) garage, which included ALX 400s, Enviro 400s and Scania OmniCity vehicles, with both common N230UD examples and the much rarer "low-height" N94 vehicles, with only 9 of them left in service in London following the 120 loss. I always loved the mix of types found on the 120 and I was saddened by the loss of this route, especially with such boring buses taking over.

Metroline VWH2266 at Southall Station on route 120 to Northolt. Unfortunately, this bus has been involved in an accident since I took this photograph.
The Wrightbus Gemini 3 B5LH vehicles arrived prematurely and started to enter service at the end of May on other routes at Perivale West (PA) garage, including the 297 and 90, which aimed to iron out any "teething" troubles prior to their introduction into service on route 120. The contract change took place on Saturday 24th June and the service quality simply deteriorated throughout the day. The decent service I encountered in the morning disappeared by mid-afternoon, partially due to the heavy traffic in Southall Town Centre, that the service controllers perhaps weren't expecting. Some rare curtailments were pulled out very early on, with sightings of buses curtailed to "Northolt, Target Roundabout" and "Norwood Green", and since then the service hasn't improved much, with very large gaps and bunching being concerningly common. Having said that, Metroline do operate other routes in the Southall area, such as the 105, so hopefully these reliability issues are temporary and I'm sure they will be able to provide an adequate service in due course. There has only been one rare working under Metroline, which took place on Thursday in the form of VW1188, a Wrightbus Gemini 2 B9TL currently allocated to the 90.

Metroline VWH2272 departs Ealing Broadway on route 297.
Appearances of these vehicles on other routes has rapidly decreased since the 120 takeover, although that didn't stop VWH2272 from sneaking out onto route 297 last Saturday. The buses themselves are decent for Gemini 3 vehicles, being very smooth and quiet and containing a decent amount of power for the Norwood Green "thrash" section. The blind specification has also changed following the contract change, with the new vehicles displaying "Northolt Station" rather than "Northolt", the destination shown under London United. The 120 is a very interesting route, running through a wide variety of areas, including the thriving town centre of Southall and rural Heston and I strongly recommend you take a ride on it soon, but make sure that traffic conditions in Southall aren't too bad, as that will definitely hold up your journey. I wish Metroline good luck for the next five years, and hopefully all of these issues will be sorted within the next couple of months to maintain it's strong passenger growth rate.

I hope you enjoyed this post summarising some of the more recent contract changes- next week we'll be evaluating the success of the controversial Orpington route changes that took place in April. Thanks for reading and stay safe!