Monday, 4 September 2017

Five Changes For The Corresponding Corridor

When TFL attempt to conduct improvements to services, they don't simply work with individual routes and identify the problems from there. TFL analyse corridors, viewing the number of buses per hour and the number of passengers who use them. Then, they can work out whether the corridor is over-resourced or under-provided. An example of this is the "5 corridor", stretching from Romford Market to Oxford Circus. It consists of four routes, the 5, 15, 115 and N15, and the first three all overlap to make one long chain across Central and East London, whilst the N15 is a combination of all of them and can get extremely busy due to the large catchment area in East London it serves. Previously, Stagecoach London operated these four routes, but a rather surprising tender result confirmed that Go-Ahead London had taken them all, from their massive River Road garage.

Stagecoach London 17885 pauses at Barking Station in the middle of a route 5 journey to Romford. This Trident ALX400 could be seen regularly on the 5 under the previous contract.
Being the 11th busiest route in London, the 5 is certainly one of the more well-known buses in the enthusiast community. It runs from Canning Town-Romford Market, via East Ham, Barking and Becontree Heath, taking up to 90 minutes to complete in rush hour. Due to its crowding issues, the EL2 was diverted away from Ilford Station to follow the 5 up to Becontree Heath, in order to relieve this oversubscribed corridor. Running at a six minute frequency at times, the Peak Vehicle Requirement is for 30 buses, which mostly consisted of Trident ALX400 vehicles found at Barking (BK) garage under the old contract. However, there were also daily appearances of "classic" Enviro 400s and the MMC variant, making it the most varied route out of the four in terms of allocation. Some of the late night/early morning trips were covered by Bow (BW) garage due to the crosslinks with route N15, which allowed Enviro 400 E40H hybrids to sneak onto the route at times. It was certainly one of Stagecoach's flagship routes and they were gutted when they lost this major service to the rival company down the road. As the 5 is an incredibly difficult route to run, reliability wasn't always perfect, but Stagecoach certainly made a good effort and complaints about the service have been few and far between. The 5 is well-suited to enthusiasts who like a little bit of everything, with an urban high street environment towards the Western end of the route, a residential section between Barking and Becontree Heath, and a rural fast-paced interlude on the outskirts of Romford. Even though I find the middle section a little boring, the 5 has always been one of the more interesting routes in East London and I was intrigued to see how Go-Ahead London would get on with operating such a difficult service.

Stagecoach London 18206 is seen at East Ham, Central Park at the last stop of a route 115 journey.
The 115 runs between Aldgate and East Ham Central Park, via Limehouse, Poplar and Canning Town. Unlike the 5, this route is pretty short and is covered by the other two routes for most of the journey, apart from one section between Blackwall and Canning Town, where there is a lot of demand. The 115 is also well-used, but is nowhere near as busy as the 5, providing some much needed relief between East Ham and Canning Town. Its allocation at West Ham (WH) garage was very strict, with Trident ALX400 buses making up the full Peak Vehicle Requirement 95% of the time. Occasionally, a Scania OmniCity would stray from the 262/473, but appearances remained rare and I didn't manage to catch one on my travels. The 115 is also a fairly interesting route, remaining urban throughout its modest journey, with the view of the Olympic Park from East India Dock Road being particularly scenic. Due to the close proximity to the Blackwall Tunnel, the 115 route is often traffic-filled when the (almost) daily closure takes place as its roads are often part of the diversionary route, which resulted in a fairly unreliable service under the previous contract, with frequent gaps and common curtailments. Having said that, the route was still popular under Stagecoach London and lots of enthusiasts were disappointed to find that another batch of fast Trident ALX400 buses would be leaving the city, although this would've happened regardless of the outcome, as the 115 contract required a full allocation of brand new Hybrid buses. I was sceptical that Go-Ahead would be able to control this unpredictable service, especially as the former garage was in a much more advantageous position for running the route, but my prediction can only come true until Go-Ahead had settled in on the route.

A rare appearance of a Scania OmniCity on the 15 back in 2015. Embarrassingly, I don't have any adequate pictures of the former allocation of E40H MMCs...
The 15 is one of the most famous London bus routes, having an interesting history and a heritage counterpart using AEC Routemaster vehicles. Seven years ago, it was the full package, running between Paddington Basin and Blackwall, passing various tourist attractions at an appealing frequency. The 15 was extremely popular with sightseers and it certainly fulfilled the almost quintessential task of viewing the city from the top deck of a London bus. However, due to the ever-growing reliability problems this route was facing, in 2010 the 15 was cut back to Regent Street, missing out some key destinations such as Oxford Circus and Marble Arch. Due to roadworks in the Regent Street area, the 15 was "temporarily" curtailed to Trafalgar Square in 2013, although the route still hasn't returned and the cut back was officially made permanent on Saturday 26th August 2017, the same date Go-Ahead London took over the route. The routeing certainly isn't as interesting anymore, with the only significant tourist attractions being the Tower Of London and St Paul's Cathedral, with the former generating most of the current patronage due to its poor connectivity to the rest of the bus network.

 In 2015, the 15 was converted to New Routemaster operation, with this batch in particular reaching some absurd temperatures, and the incredibly small windows meant that sightseeing from this route became even more difficult. The 15 used to triumphantly soldier through so much of Central London, now it merely runs between Trafalgar Square and Blackwall, providing some relief to the Commercial Road corridor and ferrying tourists to and from the Tower Of London. Once the 23 is diverted to Wembley, the once inseparable pair of routes will run in completely different areas of London, with the 15 being pretty irrelevant in Central London. Stagecoach London have also operated this route for a long time, but I suspect this loss was fairly insignificant to them due to the downfall of the 15 over the years. The service at Bow (BW) garage was pretty reliable, even if the New Routemasters allocated to the route were quite the opposite! If the 15 was still such a tremendous route, running with brilliant buses, I'm sure the tender result would've upset me. However, I was pretty emotionless when they were published, further emphasising how this service is no longer one of Central London's prized possessions, it's now one that I deliberately avoid! 

Go-Ahead London WVL454 on route 5 to Romford Market.
The new contract for the 5 warranted a mixture of new and existing vehicles, with E40H MMCs and Wrightbus Gemini 2 B9TLs being selected for the service. However, three different batches of existing Gemini's have been drafted in to cover the service, which made snapping them on the first day quite difficult! The latest existing vehicles (WVL483-495)  have been drafted in from Northumberland Park (NP) garage, where they used to work the challenging route 19. They will be receiving a refurbishment in due course, but thankfully this batch are in a presentable condition for the time being. WVL451-454 were built in the same year, although these buses previously worked the East London Transit routes, so they are still found on familiar turf! Unlike the ex-19 vehicles, these have received a refurbishment and the seats have gained a substantial amount of padding, which is comfortable enough for the long distance trips often made on the 5.

Go-Ahead London EH144 is seen at Rush Green towards the end of a journey to Romford Market.
The 5 has also received a partial allocation of brand new buses and these are shared with the 115, in the form of Enviro 400 E40H MMC Hybrids. A limited number have appeared on the route since the contract change, but these buses are undergoing a leisurely introduction into service, which means  they're not as common as expected for the time being. As the 115 (just about) enters Central London, these buses mainly appear on the aforementioned route, although the 100% Hybrid operation achieved on the first day has been broken, with some Wrightbus Gemini 2 vehicles straying from the 5. As there are still a number of new buses missing, some loan vehicles have been transferred from other garages temporarily, although they were expected to have returned to their homes earlier than this!

Go-Ahead London WVN28 is seen at Rush Green on route 5 to Romford Market.
Since the loss of route 259, the WVN-class Wrightbus Gemini 2 B9TL vehicles formerly allocated to the route have been travelling around London, covering any last-minute replacement services or loans, such as the Waterloo-related 77 extras and the temporary route 563 in North London. A small number of these buses have been transferred onto the 5 from Northumberland Park (NP) garage and some of them have received a deep refurbishment. However, buses such as WVN28 (illustrated above) are still carrying around their First London seat moquette from when they were owned by the company, which almost brings them back to the Barking area! The unrefurbished buses are incredibly worn out and some members of the public certainly weren't impressed when they boarded the bus last Saturday, so hopefully these vehicles won't be around for too long. All of these loans have significantly increased the number of different seat moquettes found on the service, with 5 unique examples currently roaming around on the route. Some other loaned vehicles include E137 (an E40D E400) and WVL345 (a former East London Transit Gemini 2 that's still fully branded).

Go-Ahead London E137 pauses at Romford Station on the last leg of its journey to Romford Market, making a rather pompous appearance on the first day of the new contract, emphasising that a new company have taken over.
E137 has transferred North of the River from Bexleyheath (BX) garage to cover for the missing E40H MMCs and is an oddball because it still contains the traditional Go-Ahead London grey skirt (this was banned from all new vehicles shortly after this one entered service) and is the only example proudly displaying the full GAL livery on the 5. However, this type of bus could be seen regularly on the 5 under the previous contract, so some particularly observant members of the public might notice that the engine and body are fairly similar, with the only distinct differences being the livery and extremely uncomfortable seats found inside, a stark contrast to the Lazzerini type found on Stagecoach's examples. The other loaned vehicle, WVL345, has migrated from Croydon (C) garage after a brief stint on route X26 and is still fully branded for the East London Transit network, which is centred around the Barking area. Coincidentally, the 5 covers a lot of ELT territory, so the sighting of a branded vehicle is nothing unusual for residents of the Barking area, but I'm sure they'd be rather unhappy if they ended up at the wrong destination by relying on the branding alone. Additionally, some 59-reg Wrightbus Gemini 2 B9TL vehicles (WVL346-349) are now officially allocated to the 5 after seven years on the East London Transit network, although these have received an intense refurbishment and no longer contain the ELT branding. Like the previous contract, the 5 has some vehicle crosslinks with the N15 (which is now allocated New Routemaster vehicles), so some early morning and late evening trips are worked with these controversial buses that are normally found in Central London. However, Barking (RR) garage managed to sneak one into service last Saturday from 10am-1pm, which will probably have some harsh consequences! Unfortunately, these vehicles have escaped my camera and are the only type of bus on the 5 I haven't snapped yet.

Go-Ahead London WVL346 is seen at Barking Station working a short journey towards Canning Town.
After many months of campaigning, the 5 has also been re-routed in the Romford area, to serve Queen's Hospital rather than the residential area of South Street. This will undoubtedly be extremely popular in the future, as a large number of residents living on the Eastern side of the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham previously didn't have a link to their local hospital, with the 5 covering the majority of these homes now. The section along South Street wasn't very well-used before the contract change and that area will still have the 248 and 252 to pick up the remaining residents and give them a link to Romford Town Centre. On the first day (Saturday 26th August 2017) some drivers were confused about stopping arrangements at Queen's Hospital, with some having to circle the Bus Station there until they figured out where the correct stop was! However, I'm sure the drivers are used to the new routeing by now and hopefully visitors to Queen's Hospital can enjoy their brand new bus service.

Go-Ahead London WVL454 is seen at Romford Station en route to Canning Town Station.
Surprisingly, reliability has been decent since the first day, with no real nasty gaps and only a small handful of complaints from other enthusiasts, although these teething issues should be ironed out over the next few years. Although bunching is quite regular, the high frequency of this service ensures that a good level of service can be maintained, which is very important as this route is still exceptionally busy. Curtailments are few and far between (I was lucky to catch one last Saturday) and it seems that Go-Ahead London have embraced this challenge very well, even if the E40H MMCs are taking an unusually long time to hit the road! The level of service has exceeded my low expectations and I'd like to wish Go-Ahead London good luck for the next 5-7 years, and hopefully they can keep up their promising start!

Go-Ahead London EH151 is seen at Canning Town Bus Station on route 115.
Since the contract date, route 115 has seen a large number of its E40H MMCs, sometimes achieving 100% Hybrid operation, which should occur all the time on paper, although the relaxed allocation system at Barking (RR) garage means that some Wrightbus Gemini 2s (including the loans) from the 5 have appeared, as well as the solitary E400. I was blessed with the opportunity to sample these new vehicles on Monday 28th August 2017 and I'm pretty impressed with them, having lots of power and a comfortable and welcoming interior. I'm hoping that these brilliant buses are maintained well, but I'm slightly worried as Barking (RR) garage certainly don't have the best reputation in the enthusiast community for keeping buses healthy! The air conditioning was extremely helpful on the incredibly warm day and hopefully 115 users are happy with their massive upgrade from the worn out ALX 400s. 

Go-Ahead London EH150 is seen at Aldgate.
Service levels have been questionable since the new contract and I've noticed a worryingly high number of curtailments recently, suggesting that Go-Ahead London are struggling with running this shorter route. I've seen some nasty gaps on my travels and this confirms that short routes aren't always easy to run, with Stagecoach London also struggling on this service. Perhaps the close proximity to the Blackwall Tunnel has some bearing on the service quality, or maybe this route has been neglected with the much more prolific 5 and 15 service changes also taking place. I also noticed that the route has been given lots of running time, with buses regulating at stops every few minutes, resulting in some painfully slow trips and a lot of irritated bus users. These loose schedules are becoming much more common on the network and longer journey's might partially contribute to the recent falling bus patronage, which has affected lots of services particularly in the Central London area. Hopefully these service issues are only temporary and Go-Ahead can prove that this service can be operated well, but it seems that the 115 can be a surprising challenge for anyone who attempts to operate the service.

A panoramic shot of LT407 opposite Charing Cross Station.
These existing New Routemasters have settled in at Barking (RR) garage quite nicely, especially as the depot currently has some similar examples running around on the ELT network. The two batches can intermingle, resulting in some East London Transit branded buses roaming around Trafalagr Square on the 15, but there have been no conventional vehicles on the service since the new contract, apart from a couple of trips that crosslink with the N15. The night variant of this service has converted to NRM operation since the new contract, using any vehicle found at the garage. However, some E40H MMCs have strayed onto the service, similar to the ones found at Bow (BW) garage that worked the route under the previous contract. The N15 has also been extended to Oxford Circus in order to try and serve the Soho area, which will be popular with late night travellers. So far, the service on both of these routes has been decent, with no identifiable issues so far, which is quite surprising as the distance between the termini and the garage is quite concerning, especially as it involves using one of London's most traffic-prone roads in the process! At the moment, buses are running around without any logo's, Stagecoach's ones were removed around two weeks ago whilst the Go-Ahead London ones are yet to appear. Hopefully, Go-Ahead London can keep up the excellent work produced so far on the 5 and 15, and maybe they'll improve the questionable service on the 115. 

Thanks for reading and stay safe!

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