Saturday, 24 March 2018

Go Away, Give North London Independance

Amongst the excitement on Saturday 3rd February 2018, two routes in North London had their contracts awarded to different operators whilst a third gained new buses for a retention. Although they don't all meet at any single point, all three serve the bottom chunk of the London Borough of Enfield and Go-Ahead London were the losers here, giving up routes 299 and W4 to independent operator Sullivan Buses and the much more substantial Arriva London respectively.

Go-Ahead London SEN17 is seen at Southgate on route 299.
Originating in Cockfosters, the 299 is predominantly a quiet residential route, serving the back streets of the outer London suburb Oakwood before dropping off travellers to the urban town centre of Southgate. After this, it generally sticks to main roads but the nature of the surroundings still remains fairly monotonous, with the only points of interest being a steep hill on Alexandra Park Road, crossing the North Circular Road near Bounds Green Station and the pretty Broomfield Park. I was left disappointed after my end-to-end ride on the 299, as the routeing itself is pretty dull and all the houses pretty much looked the same - in fact, the only riveting sections were the somewhat rural approach to Cockfosters and the high street at Southgate and I honestly think there are much more interesting routes in this part of North London, especially since the new buses have taken over. Of course, this is subject to opinion and some enthusiasts will like  Wrightbus Streetlites, but there's more on them later.

One advantage of the 299 is its fairly short length, taking no more than 40 minutes to cover the six miles between Muswell Hill and Cockfosters. A modest 15 minute frequency is generally suitable for demand and the route soaks up seven buses at rush hour. Under Go-Ahead the 299 used dual door 2011-plate ADL Enviro 200s, which were inherited from First after they sold Northumberland Park (NP) garage, although occasionally other types including the endangered Marshall Capital would appear. Generally, there were no real complaints regarding the reliability or buses provided by Go-Ahead, with the loss being overshadowed by the gain achieved by Sullivan Buses ; the 299 is now their fourth mainstream TFL service and it prompted the first batch of Wrightbus Streetlites for the company.

Sullivan Buses SL90 is seen along Alexandra Park Road on route 299 to Muswell Hill.
As usual, SL90-97 carry the personalised number plates which Sullivan Buses always order for new buses, in addition to the TFL-spec interior livery and the buses have been used on the other two single deck routes at South Mimms (SM) garage, the 298 and W9, with the former being used as a testing ground for the new vehicles a few days before the 299 takeover. Generally, I'm not a fan of Wrightbus Streetlites, especially the longer variants, because their interior layout just makes it so unncessarily difficult to enjoy the view outside, having ridiculously small windows towards the rear along with loads of glass barriers in front of the seats which even distort the view outside of the front windscreen. They feel cramped and this sensation is particularly noticeable on the 299 examples, as they are 9.7m in length and are therefore shorter than the standard examples but still have two doors. This made the entire journey feel very uncomfortable, preventing any sense of appreciation for the 299's routeing - it definitely isn't top 10 material but I found that the vehicle detracted from my enjoyment significantly. However, lots of enthusiasts have praised this batch as apparently they can reach high speeds, although if you're a strong advocate of that theory I'd suggest trying SL93 first as that bus was truly awful, having no power and refusing to leave first gear, which ultimately resulted in an end-to-end 299 journey that didn't exceed 10mph. The bus wasn't even overreving badly, as that at least provided some amusement to when I had an E200 stuck in first gear on the 143 a few weeks ago. Therefore, in general I'm not too happy about the 299 change, although my opinion on the bus model should really be inferior to the views of the general public and Sullivan Buses' service delivery so far, which is the focaliser of the next paragraph.

Sullivan Buses SL93 is seen near Muswell Hill on the 299 to Cockfosters.
The first day of operation presented some challenges for Sullivan Buses, although in general the service levels were deemed acceptable and this has remained the case since then, apart from the occasional lapse in rush hour. Unusually, the reliability most commonly deteriorates late in the evening, particularly after 9pm, where sometimes the buses run around in pairs despite the 20 minute frequency - normally the punctuality of bus routes improves in the late evenings as road traffic conditions are much clearer. My personal conspiracy theory for this bizarre matter is that the route isn't actually being controlled or overlooked by anyone at the depot during the evening - Sullivan Buses only opened up their iBus room very recently and perhaps they couldn't recruit anyone for the night shift yet. However, you can probably take this with a pinch of salt as it's just something that came to me the other day out of the blue. So far, there have been no odd workings on the 299 under the new contract, although there is always the possibility of existing Enviro 200s if they are reblinded. In conclusion, with my enthusiast mindset the 299 change can be viewed as disheartening, with the introduction of those horrible Wrightbus Streetlites which simply irritate me to the point I can't enjoy the journey. However, unless you concretely share my views on this type it might be worth checking out the route anyway, in case there are some hidden gems within the initially dry routeing presented on my journey. Just avoid SL93 as that was unbearable. I wish Sullivan Buses the best of luck with maintaining the Streetlites and their immaculate interior presentation, as well as running a satisfactory service for the 299 - it's a positive start and if they can work on the punctuality of the last few trips the standards will easily match those provided by Go-Ahead.

Go-Ahead London SEN10 is seen at Wood Green on the W4.
Some bus routes in London may initially look tedious from map studies or reports from other enthusiasts, although the W4 proved exactly why it's always worth trying something out, on the off-chance that your expectations are exceeded significantly. Both termini of the W4 are very unusual and I started my journey at Oakthorpe Park under the new contract - the first stop is just alongside a dual carriageway with not much to see elsewhere bar a crusty footbridge which can offer some decent views of the passing traffic underneath, although the noise of traffic constantly roaring past provided some much-needed entertainment during my wait. After this the W4 weaves through the back streets of Palmers Green on a hail and ride basis, although the occasional park or public house do provide some balance between relentless residential property.

Before any sense of boredom became apparent, the W4 returns to a main road and travels right through the heart of Wood Green, something which is quite fun to do on a mini single decker - usually this route underneath the shopping centre is associated with important double deck routes like the 29, 123 and 141, so traversing it on a very different model was certainly an interesting experience. After this urban replenishment, the W4 becomes residential yet again, serving some extremely narrow streets in the West Green area, although arguably the most interesting section is here, where the W4 undertakes a one-way loop to serve the expansive Broadwater Farm Estate, being the only route to do so.
Arriva London ENN41 is seen on the W4 to Oakthorpe Park.
The contrast between white terraced housing and the countless towering apartment blocks is quite mesmerising, with each tenement having a unique characteristic, whether that being a ziggurat structure or the somewhat admirable graffiti art. The other factor which impressed me was the sheer size of the area, it looked like it stretched out for miles at the W4 stop underneath a link bridge, adjacent to some community shops providing essentials to local residents within a short distance. There are indeed negative connotations surrounding this estate and perhaps the conditions are still quite unpleasant for the tenants, but exploring these parts of London is eye-opening and allows us to reflect on matters such as inequality, but also the architecture of this huge complex - it's brutally beautiful. After here, the W4 serves some more sections of terraced housing before entering the hustle and bustle of Bruce Grove and Tottenham High Road, along with the recently developed retail parks. Tottenham Hale Bus Station is a busy interchange where most routes terminate, although the W4 soldiers on for a few more minutes, serving the Ferry Lane Estate.

This is nowhere near as vast as Broadwater Farm and there is definitely evidence of this area being formerly industrial, although it's in a very odd location, marooned between the Greater Anglia rail line to Cambridge and the Tottenham reservoirs, so all the housing is contained in this very short space with no room whatsover to expand outwards. It's a very odd terminating point, being an isolated and quiet area which is so close to the thriving Tottenham Town Centre, although it feels as if it's one hundred miles away. Within the tranquility an unsettling tone was also created - perhaps the dire state of the construction site next to the train tracks partially contributes to this, along with the occasional lack of pavement if you choose to walk out of the estate. Yes, I have deviated significantly from the aspect of route changes, but hopefully I've been able to convey how much the W4 surprised me, being one of my favourite single decker routes of North London for offering such an enthralling insight into an area I thought I was familiar with, although this clearly isn't the case.

Go-Ahead London operated the W4 from Northumberland Park (NP) garage, using a batch of SEN-class ADL Enviro 200s which were almost identical to the 299 examples, apart from the lack of a second door with the W4 buses. Occasionally, Wrightbus Streetlites would appear on this route and even some of the longer vehicles ventured out onto the W4 from time to time, although how they navigated some of the tight turns in West Green is beyond me. A peak vehicle requirement of 14 buses satisfy the 10 minute frequency, which may sound quite high for a single deck route but is entirely inadequate for the W4 - almost every area it passes through has very high bus usage and this means that the short E200s are almost always filled up, with my bus being packed up to the driver's cab on the approach to Wood Green at 11:30 on a weekday. In terms of their service and vehicle provision, Go-Ahead weren't viewed as particularly awful on this route - the reliability was patchy but that is to be expected for a route like the W4, which serves traffic hotspots as well as tight residential streets where buses often get stuck. Enthusiasts were quite happy with Arriva taking over the operation of the W4, given that the change is a homecoming as this company ran the route before First took over a few years ago (which then became Go-Ahead after First sold the garage).

Arriva London ENN39 is seen at Ferry Lane Estate at the end of a W4 journey.
Arriva London ordered sixteen ENN-class 9.0m ADL Enviro 200 MMCs for the W4, which entered service promptly and subsequently no other types have been used on the route since the new contract. The route is based at Wood Green (WN) garage which is conveniently right in the middle of the route and the Enviro 200 MMCs themselves are quite nice vehicles, not having an overpowering interior colour scheme, although a potentially powerful engine is also apparent, which is rather satisfying to listen to even at low speeds. Unusually, Arriva seem to have reverted to using yellow poles for the interior livery of these new vehicles, rather than the cream-coloured ones which were used on the previous MMCs Arriva ordered for the 377. Day one of Arriva operation coincided with roadworks in Wood Green, which completely wrecked the service and caused gaps lasting well over 40 minutes and a countless number of curtailments, especially in the afternoon, although since then the route has been performing well, which can perhaps be explained by the fact that Arriva already have experience with the W4 in its current form, bar the slight diversion in Tottenham which occurred a couple of years ago with all the gyratory works. I still don't properly understand what's changed other than that the bus station was rebuilt and now all the roads are two-way. There's still some form of development going on with the train station as accessing the platforms is it a bit of a mess at the moment - even the oyster barriers are outside!

Arriva London ENN43 is seen near Muswell Hill on route 184.
Even though the W4 hasn't seen any other bus types, nothing has stopped its allocation from spreading their wings onto the challenging route 184, between Barnet and Turnpike Lane. Its own batch of longer E200s have clearly been having problems recently, with the route having to borrow both the W4 vehicles and occasionally double deckers from the 29 on an almost daily basis, with the former option not being ideal for the oversubscribed 184 service. As this particular section has lingered on for ages now, a summary should hopefully assist you in consolidating the W4 change ; the route was lost from Go-Ahead to Arriva with new MMCs and the service levels are decent so far. It's also a really fascinating route which is honestly it's a brilliant way to spend your time if you like exploring different areas of London and getting to know this diverse city, beyond all the tourist traps in zone one.

Arriva London ENS39 is seen at Southgate on route W6 to Edmonton Green.
No, this is not another example of the W4 buses straying, although the only immediately obvious difference is the appearance of a second door, although even that isn't very clear with this contemptible picture - unfortunately Southgate Station is an absolute pain for snapping buses and I completely forgot to try again after alighting, mostly because the driver decided to let me off a whole 30 seconds after I pressed the bell on a hail & ride section, which meant that I got distracted in trying to find a more appropriate walking route. The W6 was retained by Arriva on Saturday 3rd February and it was simply a matter of displacing old Dart Pointers with the more modern equivalent - Enviro 200 MMCs. They entered service very prematurely, some of them as early as November and I'm sure regular commuters are relieved to finally have new buses on this short, but overcrowded service. Running between Edmonton Green and Southgate at a 10 minute frequency, it's a handy method of linking the two town centres, in addition to serving some housing alone, all within half an hour. The new buses are based at Enfield (E) garage and haven't strayed onto any other single deck routes there, as they are too long for the 377 whilst sending one out on the 313 would be entirely inappropriate given how busy it gets. The service levels provided by Arriva have always been adequate and hopefully this continues for the next few years.

Thanks for reading and stay safe!

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