Sunday, 22 October 2017

10 Unique London Bus Routes

If you're not interested in the mainstream Central London tourist routes on offer in this city, there are a wide range of slightly less prolific, but much more fascinating (in my opinion) routes scattered all across London. In this post, 10 of the weird ones that particularly stand out for me will be documented briefly, in the hope that you'll be able to find one of these routes appealing.

Go-Ahead London SEN23 pauses at Barnet, The Spires in between trips.
I'm not going to venture into too much detail here, as the 399 (almost) had an entire post to itself, where I gave a proper route review. Therefore, this paragraph will teach you the basics and if you're still not convinced, you can read my in-depth analysis which has been linked above.

The 399 is the least busiest route in London, running between Hadley Wood Station and Barnet The Spires, without really travelling through any other places of interest. It essentially operates in a massive one-way loop as soon as it enters the gated premises, in an attempt to serve all the housing in this isolated area. There are only six trips per day on the 399, with only four serving the complete loop, as the first and last buses start in the middle of Hadley Wood rather than Barnet, which is close to Cockfosters. The 399 leaves Barnet The Spires at hourly intervals, from 1045 until 1445, on Monday-Saturday only, normally using an ADL Enviro 200 found at Northumberland Park (NP) garage. After turning off the main road in Barnet, the entire route is operated on a Hail and Ride basis, which is convenient for most of the residents as they can be dropped off directly outside their household.

However, this unappealing frequency isn't the only eccentric characteristic of the 399's operation; it actually shares its solitary bus with another route. After a morning peak hour stint on the regular route 299 (Muswell Hill-Cockfosters), the bus changes its blind and does a trip on the 399, before flipping its blind again to become a 389, and after that rounder is complete it goes back to being a 399. The process of alternating between the two routes repeats for 5 hours, where the last 399 terminates in the middle of Hadley Wood before travelling to Cockfosters to start an evening peak journey on the 299. Both the 389 and 399 are so short that the one bus can comfortably work both routes within 60 minutes, although I found the latter route much more interesting.

Hadley Wood is an upper-class residential area found on the outskirts of Greater London and it remarkably has a regular (up to every 10 minutes) train service into Central London, although the 399 is the only bus route serving the area. Most of the houses have multiple cars parked in the front garden, so its no surprise that bus usage isn't very high. However, there is some demand and the community nature of the route is something rarely found in London, with the majority of passengers greeting each other and the driver as they board, and giving newcomers some suspicious looks! The conversations I listened to were very fascinating, including one debate on whether placing a sun dial in the front garden would be effective, emphasising that residents of Hadley Wood almost live in an entirely different world to people like me! Nevertheless, the routeing is also intriguing, passing through huge mansions 90% of the time, something you don't see every day. If you want a proper look into one of the most affluent and upper-class areas found in London, make sure to ride the 399, you'll certainly be impressed.

Go-Ahead London WVL335 loads up at Heathrow Central at the start of a lengthy trip to Croydon.
The X26 is the longest bus route in London, running between Heathrow Central and West Croydon on a limited stop basis, travelling through Kingston and Sutton in the process. It is one of three express routes found in London and was recently converted to double deck operation with existing Wrightbus Gemini 2 B9TL vehicles, based at Go-Ahead London's Croydon (C) garage. If you love sitting on a bus for a long period of time, then the X26 is certainly for you, as some of the trips can take up to 150 minutes to complete! The routeing is also pretty cool, offering a spectacular perspective of Heathrow Airport and landing planes, views of the River Thames in Kingston, residential sections and urban high streets, along with the Croydon Flyover, which provides an alternative view of the bustling town centre. Even though the X26 only runs every 30 minutes, it's still an incredibly popular method of travelling across South West London, and now you should be able to find a seat and actually enjoy the journey.

Interestingly, the WVL-class vehicles allocated to the service are receiving an extensive refurbishment, which involves the removal of East London Transit branding and the second door (which means that these vehicles will be the only DD buses in London with a single door), to pave the way for a massive luggage rack downstairs. However, this process takes an awfully long time to complete, so only a handful of vehicles have received the treatment so far. The X26 might not appeal to all of you, especially if you can't bear travelling on a bus for more than 60 minutes, but if you're comfortable with staying on a bus for over 2 hours then I would definitely recommend the X26. It offers a well-rounded view of South West London, passing through the major town centres and the fascinating suburbs between them, as well as two rather unique sections at either end. Additionally, the buses themselves will all be special to this city soon, with the removal of the second door being a particularly striking, but controversial, decision.

Note: If you're dedicated to waking up early on a weekend morning, there are some early trips which only take 80 minutes end to end, so if you're determined to ride the X26 end to end, but don't fancy wasting 2 hours of your day sitting on a bus, then head down to Heathrow Airport or Croydon and catch one, ideally before 8am. I think it will be worth it.

A type no longer found on the 521 is the Electric Irizar single decker.
On the surface, the 521 might seem like an average single deck commuter route in Central London, but there are a number of quirky characteristics about the service. The allocation consists of electric vehicles only, specifically a batch of 50 ADL Enviro 200 MMC BYD vehicles shared with the 507, which were introduced in August 2016. These buses are based at Waterloo (RA) garage, which is home to the "Red Arrow" routes only, as their high combined PVR takes up all of the limited space. The 521 runs from Waterloo to London Bridge, via an indirect route which involves crossing the River Thames twice at either end, serving Holborn, St Paul's and Cannon Street in between. Even in the height of rush hour, the 521 only takes 30 minutes from start to finish, which is very surprising as it doesn't leave the traffic-filled Central London.

Something else that's quite odd about the 521 is the sheer difference in frequency between rush hour and midday. During the morning/evening peak the service runs every 2-3 minutes, providing 26 buses per hour for commuters coming to and from the two mainline stations. However, during the day there are only 6 buses per hour, at a dismal 10 minute frequency. The buses also have an open boarding feature, which means that passengers can board or alight from the centre door too, although this does mean that there is a high amount of fare evasion on the 521.

Although the peak frequency looks much more attractive, I would strongly recommend that you travel outside of this time, as every single bus is rammed full of commuters from start to finish. There are only a limited number of seats on these vehicles, in order to cram in as many standees as possible, and travelling when the service is quiet guarantees a much more leisurely ride. You can even use the USB sockets conveniently provided on these vehicles. The iBus screen is also unique, providing much more information than what's found on normal vehicles, including real time train departures from Waterloo, London Underground status updates, as well as an ETA for the next few stops en route. The routeing towards London Bridge is also quite eccentric, as it skips the bustling hubbub of Aldwych in favour of the Strand Underpass, which is always an enjoyable experience, so I recommend that you complete the route in this direction.

The 521 is probably one of the easiest routes to complete, due to the convenient location and the decent frequency, with the only disadvantage being the lack of service on weekends. The quirky electric buses, unique Central London routeing and the fascinating operation technique easily make the 521 the most interesting route in Central London, and if you're looking for something odd to complete that isn't too difficult to get to, then the 521 is perfect.

Metrobus 255 starts a journey at Orpington Bus Station on route R8 to Biggin Hill.
Another infrequent bus route is the R8, running between Orpington and Biggin Hill via the village of Downe. The Peak Vehicle Requirement is only for 1 bus, which comfortably completes the loop within 90 minutes, something that's essential for the next trip to run on time. The route used to be home to the shortest vehicles in London, although these buses have sadly been withdrawn and now longer vehicles are used instead, which can result in some gripping experiences on the narrow country lanes! The routeing is very odd for a TFL service, spending more time in the middle of green fields rather than picking up any passengers. The countryside views are spectacular and the whole route is really fast-paced, enabling a "thrashy" journey for speed-loving enthusiasts. The 8.9m E200s and Dart Pointers that regularly work the service are struggling on the route, with parts of the bus falling off on a regular basis, and some really tricky situations involving passing cars on the tiny roads, where the bus simply can't fit. The R8 turns around in Biggin Hill using a loop via the housing area of Aperfield, so technically you can enjoy a 75 minute round trip from Orpington if you love the route, rather than being dumped in Biggin Hill, which is very poorly connected. The R8 is actually quite popular with locals, despite the unreliability of the service, mostly due to nature rather than traffic!

There are no stops along the country lanes, so most of the service is operated on a hail and ride basis, which is rather ironic as there are literally no safe places to pause in the countryside. Something I'd love to do is ride the R8 at night time, as there are no lamp posts or light sources anywhere along the country lanes, so it would certainly be an eye-opening experience. However, if you simply want to appreciate the brilliant views from a TFL bus, then it's best to consult a timetable and track down the journey suited for you, something I had to do twice as the bus broke down on my first attempt at riding the route! The main reason why the R8 features on this post is due to the narrow, country lanes that are pretty much unique to this London route, which you can experience twice for £1.50!

Note: I've heard that the R5/R10 in Orpington are also very similar to the R8 and spend even more time in the countryside, but I still haven't ridden those yet so I can't confirm that they will be as good.

A Metroline Enviro 400 arrives at Whitestone Pond on a route 603 journey.
One way to describe the 603 is bizarre. There are only four trips per day, making it the least frequent route running 5 days as week all year long. The elusive journey's are only at school times, 2 towards Muswell Hill in the morning and 2 towards Swiss Cottage in the evening. Additionally, the '600 series' routes are nearly always school services, with the only other exception being the 607 in West London, numbered like this for nostalgic reasons. So, you might think that the 603 is a school route and that it has no place here, although I'm pleased to say that this isn't the case. The 603 runs on Monday-Friday throughout the year, meaning that it runs during school holidays too, which is very odd considering it simply carries fresh air during this period. So technically, the 603 is just a normal route running at extremely inconvenient times for no apparent reason, other than to transport school children. The routeing is actually very interesting, passing through the middle-class leafy suburbs of Hampstead Heath and East Finchley, and some sections such as Fitzjohn's Avenue normally only see single deck routes. Some of the links created are very useful, and it's a shame that TFL would like to withdraw the holiday trips soon, which would just make the 603 another tedious school route. So, if you want a guaranteed empty double decker running on a school route during the holidays, then ride the 603 as soon as possible, before it disappears from the list of unique bus routes here. This week (23rd-27th October) is half term, and the 603 should be running during this period, as there has been no formal withdrawal announcement, but whether the route will operate during Christmas is uncertain.

Go-Ahead London SE234 pauses at Moorgate on the final stretch to London Wall.
The 100 is one of the shortest routes in London, only taking 30 minutes from start to finish. The route has constantly been fiddled with over the past few years, with a diversion to Blackfriars and a recnt large-scale curtailment, withdrawing the route from St Paul's and Elephant & Castle. This part of the route sometimes took as long as the current section, turning the 100 from a useful Central London bus into an irrelevant single deck route that serves housing in Wapping but doesn't do anything useful after. However, this cut back has made the 100 even more quirky. The routeing is very unique, travelling down the cobbled streets of Wapping and passing a large number of docks and riverside pubs, making this last section of the route reminiscent of the Victorian era! The Central London part is also enjoyable, because the large office blocks can appear rather daunting as they tower over the small single deck vehicle. The ADL Enviro 200s allocated to the service also have the ZF gearbox, meaning that they really overrev upon acceleration! However, the main reason why the 100 features in this list is due to the section in Wapping. I can't think of any other London bus route that spends so long in such a unique area; although the D3 does briefly serve Wapping, the route is really busy and the section from Bethnal Green to Whitechapel is quite grim, so the 100 wins by a mile. Since the curtailment, the 100 isn't that useful to the locals, so you're pretty much guaranteed a seat on this short, but sweet route.

Go-Ahead London WVL471 stands at the isolated terminus of Dagenham Dock.
The first section of the EL2, between Becontree Heath and Barking, is very dull and simply involves travelling along a main road with houses on either side for 20 minutes. However, the next section consists of something completely different...

The EL2 is one of London's newest routes, replacing the 369 to Thames View Estate in 2010, with a dedicated batch of Wrightbus Gemini 2 B9TL vehicles that worked the route until February 2017. The route is part of the "East London Transit" scheme, which involves reconnecting the isolated area of Barking Riverside to the rest of East London, with branded vehicles and a number of bus priority measures to speed up journey times. One of those is the use of Ripple Road in Barking Town Centre, which involves cutting straight through the middle, rather than using the slow and inefficient loop that just scrapes along the edge of the high street. The East London Transit branding involves painting the buses in a unique colour scheme, and adding some swirls to bus stops along the routeing. All of this seems a little unnecessary to me, but this sort of project is the only example in the TFL network.

All three "ELT" routes were converted to New Routemaster operation in early 2017, which is very odd as these 'Central London bound' vehicles are now found on routes that don't get any closer to the City than Zone 4. The usage of these vehicles on the EL2 is particularly confusing, as the last few minutes are spent travelling in the middle of nowhere in an industrial wasteland, which is exactly why the EL2 features on this post. After serving the Thames View Estate, the EL2 travels down Choats Road, in the depths of a bleak landscape with absolutely nothing to stare at other than marshes, something I absolutely love. This road is fairly lengthy and eventually pylons start to emerge as the EL2 terminates in the middle of nowhere, home to a few factories and nothing else. The oversized bus station at Dagenham Dock only contains one route and even though there is a train station, the dismal frequency of every 30 minutes instantly puts people off. In the long term, there will be residential housing along this desolate stretch of land, and the appearance of fancy New Routemaster vehicles will make sense. However, at the moment the usage of these high-profile buses, which have connotations of Central London and tourists, in the middle of nowhere, is particularly baffling, and is something I love about the EL2. If you absolutely hate the idea of staring at warehouses, then don't bother riding this one, but this section alone made the EL2 memorable and lovable, even though the rest of the route was really boring.

©LondonBuses72 - do not use without their permission
The H3 is another route that can be categorised as truly bizarre. It runs from Golders Green-East Finchley, turning around using a one-way loop at the Northern end. There are only seven trips per day, one at around 7am for commuters, and from 9am it runs hourly until 2pm, where the service stops completely. There also isn't a Sunday service. The route also uses some of the shortest buses in London, in order to navigate the extremely tight turns of Hampstead Garden Suburb. At Golders Green, it shares its tiny bus station with the H2, which is the much more frequent service to this part of Hampstead. The H3 starts off by running through the fancy Hampstead Way, part of the Garden Suburb, with some upper-class detached houses accompanied by the Hampstead Heath extension. As the H3 soldiers on, the houses just get bigger and soon electric gates begin to appear, and even more cars pop up in the front gardens. For any travellers who find this overwhelming, there is a brief interlude in the middle where the H3 stops at Kenwood House, providing an interchange with the 210 and the aforementioned 603.

However, the most fascinating point of the journey is when the H3 turns onto The Bishop's Avenue, often known as Billionaire's Row, home to an assortment of mansions among the most expensive in the country. New, 8-bedroom houses, sell for prices as high as £50 million, whilst most of the 66 houses along this road have been unoccupied for many years. Oddly, the houses aren't particularly satisfying to look at, with metal gates preventing you from peering inside these palaces, but the excitement of travelling down such an iconic street in a luxurious part of London on a bus makes this route so special. The fact that a bus route travels down here, even though I'd be surprised if anyone has boarded the H3 on The Bishops Avenue for many years, is pretty cool, and this road alone can justify the H3's place here. In addition, the tiny buses, half-day operation and unique routeing, make the H3 a must-do for people wanting to explore the wealthiest parts of this city.

Arriva London VLA106 stands at Western Road on the 375 to Passingford Bridge.
The 375 runs every 90 minutes, on Monday-Saturday only, between Romford Station and Passingford Bridge. The service was launched in 2008, in order to serve the village of Havering Atte-Bower, found on the border between Greater London and Essex. Even though the loadings barely justify a single decker, double deck vehicles found at Grays (GY) garage are used occasionally, and this makes the experience even better. After a residential start, the 375 offers some spectacular countryside views, but there are a number of routes like this in London, and the termination point is the only reason why the 375 features on this post. After serving the hamlet of Stapleford Abbotts, there isn't anywhere to turn around the bus, so the 375 soldiers on through the countryside for no apparent reason, until a roundabout emerges at Passingford Bridge, the termination point of the 375. However, when enthusiasts are dumped at the last stop (I don't think any civilians actually come to Passingford Bridge), there is literally nothing to look at apart from a main road with cars whizzing by, and greenery. If you're lucky, you might find a puddle to stare at for a couple of minutes, but other than that, the 375 literally turfs you off in the middle of nowhere, with absolutely nothing to do. Normally, bus termini are associated with urban high streets, or at least a built up residential area, so Passingford Bridge is the complete opposite of what anyone would expect. There is also a scheduled ten minute break there, so if you do try the 375 you can admire the greenery and try to find anything else to do in order to waste time - if you are successful then please notify me!

In conclusion, the 375 is a decent countryside route, with a unique and eccentric termination point that simply can't be beaten.

A yellow minibus pauses at Bridport Place in between trips on the 812.
Although the 812 isn't a TFL bus service, it is one of a couple of commercial routes that run entirely within the Greater London Boundary, with this one sticking to Zones 1 & 2. The 812 runs between Hoxton, Bridport Place and Old Street, in a loop format which involves travelling via Essex Road, Islington Angel and Barbican in the process. It is run from the CT Plus Ash Grove (HK) garage, with a dedicated fleet of Volkswagen Bluebird Tucana minibuses. The 812 runs every 20 minutes, on Monday-Friday during shopping hours, acting as a lifeline to residents living along roads which aren't served by mainstream bus routes. The 812 is pretty successful for a route tendered and subsidised by  Islington council, and the routeing around the Barbican area is wonderful, giving you an insight into some interesting back streets which you'll miss from simply travelling to the Barbican Centre, or by the 153 bus. There is a £1 flat fare, which is much cheaper than TFL services, and you can pay by cash on this hail and ride service. Although this service isn't run by Transport For London, it's certainly unique and is one of the more accessible services in this list.

Thanks for reading, and hopefully you've found one you'd like to try!