Sunday, 15 April 2018

District Line Strike - 13/04/18

On Friday 13th April 2018, the District Line was faced with severe delays and a reduced train service as staff members based at Acton Town depot were on strike throughout the day. Although trains were running, the timetable was in disarray (I saw an Ealing Broadway train at Edgware Road of all places) and eventually the section between Barking and Upminster was almost abandoned completely. However, as usual with significant industrial action on the transport network, extra buses were provided to bolster some routes which commuters would naturally take as an alternative route to the District Line. Although some additional vehicles ran on routes 93, 156 and 391 in West London, only the former route saw any exotic types, with this being in the form of Volvo/B7TL Presidents and commercial Go-Ahead E400s. Most of the excitement was in East London and this is where most enthusiasts, myself included, decided to spend their time. The additional buses ran between 0530 and 0900 in the morning peak, as well as from 1600-1900 during the evening rush and I decided to head out for the second shift, which was very popular with the enthusiast community - I must've seen well over 50 during my three hours of travelling.

An Ensignbus BCI is seen on route 145X to Ilford.


Routes 62, 145, 248 and 252 had the most amount of additional buses in East London, although some rogue extras include a couple of Scania Olympus vehicles on the 5 and a "Vantage Hybrid" B7TL ALX400 on the 370, which bizarrely ran on a limited stop basis between Upminster and Hornchurch Station, even though the main route doesn't actually serve the latter destination. Although I didn't see any of these oddities on my travels, I managed to observe the four mainstream strike services quite well and chronologically, the 62 is first.

Stagecoach London 18217 is seen in Becontree on one of the less interesting 62X workings.
A substantial chunk of the 62 was given extra buses, with this being the middle section between Barking and Chadwell Heath, serving Upney and Becontree en route. The 62 was chosen because it serves three District Line stations (it is in fact the only bus service to Upney), but it also provides alternative rail links into Central London at both ends (Barking for c2c, Chadwell Heath for TFL Rail). The extra buses on the 62 provided the most even service out of all the routes, with vehicles generally turning up every 12-15 minutes, quite often behind the normal 62s! Out of all the supplementary services, the 62 was definitely the most popular with enthusiasts, presumably because of the large presence of Routemasters on the route, understandably bringing about lots of nostalgia given that these buses formed the main allocation of the service in the late 1970s. In addition to the two or three red "RMs", an RT complete with greenline livery was also out and about during the morning, but unfortunately it mysteriously vanished and was nowhere to be seen in the evening, therefore I have no photograph. Indeed, the 62 is famous for being the last route in London operated with RTs, so I must congratulate anyone who managed to catch it in the morning. A Wrightbus B7TL Gemini was also found on the service, previously found with Go-Ahead London, although I managed to avoid this one too. In addition to the older kit, some almost new Ensignbus BCI Excellence (dual axle) and Enterprise (tri axle) vehicles worked the route in both peaks, also bringing back some memories as the company did run the 62 service for a while, albeit with a very different vehicle allocation! Stagecoach London, the current operator of the 62, also used some spares in the normal allocation to boost the service, like the Trident ALX400 above on a short working to Chadwell Heath, with an unusual running number "901" confirming that it was an extra.

Ensignbus RML2258 is seen at Fair Cross on route 62 to Chadwell Heath
After a brief spotting session at Fair Cross, I was over the moon when I saw a Routemaster in the distance, heading in my preferred direction too. Before the bus had even started moving, I was already loving the enthusiasm of the driver and conductor, who were obviously having the time of their lives on the extras yesterday. The condition of the vehicle was immaculate and it was surprisingly empty too, perhaps because the evening peak hadn't properly kicked in yet, with the whole upper deck being devoid of passengers for most of the journey. Even though my trip only lasted around 15 minutes, it was easily my favourite element of the day, mainly because of the familiar growl of the Routemaster being put to the test along some of the faster sections of the 62, along with the famous double bell ring and service provided by the crew - at every stop they advertised where the bus was going to waiting passengers and urged them to board, even if some of them were suspicious and waited for a normal 62 instead. Even the people who did get on eventually were baffled when the bus first turned up at the stop, perhaps unsurprisingly so given the stark contrast between the Routemasters and the fairly new E400 MMCs which normally work the service. The 62 route was filled with bus spotters throughout the day and my bus was 'snapped' every couple of minutes or so and when my ride came to an end I was almost tempted to stay on and forget the other extras, although I will always treasure this wonderful ride on a Routemaster, which was easily the most enjoyable ride of the year so far, even on a dull route like the 62!

Ensignbus 145 is seen in Becontree on route 62 to Barking.
My snapping session in the middle of a residential road in Becontree was pretty unsuccessful, given that the only bus which showed up in 20 minutes was one I'd already ridden earlier! Nevertheless, my high spirits returned when I saw an Ensignbus BCI Excellence coming around the corner, a type which no operator in London has opted for so far (although a tri-axle example will visit the X68 soon) and until the strike I hadn't sampled this type at all. There seemed to be a lot of these vehicles out and about today, perhaps because the strike coincided with the school holidays and they very much feel like a coach, especially with the high quality interior and extended length on the tri-axle vehicles. Nevertheless, one thing I instantly noticed was the surprisingly quiet pullaway for a diesel bus - the engine isn't very loud at all, although thankfully it is not completely silent especially when travelling at high speeds, which my driver wasn't afraid of achieving. On Valence Avenue, the acceleration provided by the BCI was truly superb and within seconds the bus was travelling incredibly fast for a residential area, but the vehicle was expertly driven and the ride was incredibly smooth. I felt very satisfied upon arrival at Chadwell Heath, having sampled two absolutely brilliant types on the 62 within the space of an hour, with both the Routemaster and BCI having wonderful features of their own to admire, despite the difference of almost 50 years in age!

Stagecoach London 18498 is seen at Ilford working the first Eastbound extra journey of the day.
Route 145 was just as appealing as the 62 to many enthusiasts, mainly because of the scheduled appearance of Metrobuses and DM-class Leyland Fleetlines, along with some BCIs and other types. The 145 itself is a really long route, so even though the extra buses took up to 40 minutes to complete one trip, they were doing less than half of the complete routeing. In essence, the additional vehicles ran between Ilford (for TFL Rail) and Dagenham East (District Line), serving Fair Cross, Martins Corner, Becontree and Dagenham Heathway on route (the last two are also District Line stations), although there was some confusion in regards to the terminating points at both ends, so in reality vehicles ended in the middle of the Heathway and East stations (shown by the Dagenham Village blinds on the Trident ALX400 above), whilst in Ilford buses only started at Hainault Street and stood in a large variety of places, none of which were particularly helpful for giving passengers a link to the railway station! In terms of service consistency, the 145 was by far the worst route out there, with there sometimes being no buses for over 30 minutes, although at the start of the evening peak four turned up to terminate at Ilford within a minute, three of them being Ensignbus BCIs and none of them having more than two or three people on board! The 145 was the first route I covered and although the extras allegedly started at 1530, the first bus didn't turn up for another 25 minutes and by this point I was considering giving up and getting on a normal 145 to Becontree in an attempt to try another service. However, a Trident ALX400 eventually rocked up and even though this is part of the 145 allocation, it had blinds for Dagenham Village, an unusual running number (902) and it was devoid of passengers at Hainault Street, which pretty much never happens on a busy route like this. Although this was rather boring in the sense that it was the normal allocation, I'm honestly glad it turned up as if it wasn't for this I would've left Ilford altogether and missed out on catching one of the truly brilliant vehicles out there.

Ensignbus M1 is seen at Fair Cross on route 145 to Dagenham East.
Before I continue, I must give credit to "londonbuses72" of the London Connected blog, as if it wasn't for their observations I would have missed this bus as it was heading the other way whilst I was on the aforementioned Trident extra. This bus formed the first extra vehicle in service heading to Ilford and even though I only managed to catch this one for two stops, I still loved my time on board. The vehicle was in pristine condition and it seems like a very powerful bus, with the growling engine being so satisfying to listen to even in the congested outskirts of Ilford Town Centre. Thankfully, this bus makes regular appearances at bus garage "open days" or "vintage bus tours" so hopefully I'll be able to sample this one properly again as it does seem like a wonderful vehicle. The other interesting vehicle out and about, DM2646, unfortunately broke down before entering service in the evening peak and as I wasn't aware that it was standing at Pioneer Point, I wasn't able to photograph this one! However, hopefully it is repaired soon and I can see the bus again soon as it looks like a brilliant motor. Even though I was deprived of riding it on Friday, I was delighted with the replacement vehicle, despite it lacking such a great reputation within the enthusiast community.

Ensignbus 116 is seen at Fair Cross on route 145 to Dagenham East.
Even though many enthusiasts despise these buses and they are certainly not vintage (despite their fairly sparse presence in and around London), the Olympus is still my favourite model still in regular service and I don't think any modern double decker will be able to beat it. The massive front windows are just perfect for appreciating the surroundings a route has to offer and the interior feels so spacious and inviting - they also look so sleek for a 10 year old vehicle. Indeed, they are notoriously unreliable and once a bus breaks down it's unlikely you'll see it again for another year, but every single Olympus has character and that's something no brand new double decker will be able to provide. Even though the 145 isn't the most exciting of routes and my ride was brief, it was so nice to be able to have an empty bus and appreciate the genius behind the design of the windows in particular (the side ones at the front even slant downwards for optimal views) and the surprisingly powerful engine - they are slow off the mark but eventually I had some nice speed down South Park Drive. Although all of you are probably questioning my praise of this vehicle when there are other beautiful heritage vehicles out there, I really don't get to ride my favourite type often and especially not from the front seats - the route I use them on regularly, the 297, is really busy and often the bus is too full to have a good seat so I was thrilled when this turned up at Ilford and hopefully I'll be able to catch that lovely DM another day. This concludes the 145 extras - it was definitely the most varied and unreliable extra service, although it also provided two thoroughly enjoyable rides.


Ensignbus 114, another Olympus, is seen in Hornchurch on route 248X to Upminster.
We now move on from the Becontree area, to Romford and Hornchurch where the other two extra services predominantly ran. The first one of these is the 248X, which ran between Upminster Station and Romford Station, only missing out the last couple of stops to Romford Market and the final 10 minutes or so to Cranham, where the stand is coincidentally directly opposite a District Line depot. The 248 was given extras because it serves Upminster Bridge and Upminster stations, although the former is one of the least used on the network and I did question giving this route extras in the first place, as people from Upminster already have an alternative route into Central London courtesy of c2c rail, when they're running properly. Nevertheless, I really like the 248 as a route so I was looking forward to having some exotic types on it during the strike day. The service was pretty consistent, although it was very infrequent, with some 30 minute gaps at times and the vehicles themselves were really empty - I didn't see one with more than three or four people on board. Ironically, this service was selected for a predominant allocation of high capacity tri-axle BCIs, although one of these was missing in the evening. As well as the aforementioned Enterprise vehicles, an Ensignbus Olympus along with a blue Metrobus ran the service.

Ensignbus 192 is seen upon arrival into Romford Station.
 I almost missed this vehicle as I was engrossed in conversation across the road, although thankfully the traffic lights worked in my favour and I still managed to bag the front seats despite boarding last. Ensignbus have also kept this vehicle in an impeccable condition, with a stylish blue moquette which is mimetic of the exterior livery. This bus was just as enjoyable as M1 on the 145, having a similar growl and surprisingly powerful engine, which was opened up along the faster section of the 248 between Roneo Corner and Hornchurch. I've come to realise that Metrobuses really are some of my favourite vintage buses out there and I'm now going to make a conscious effort to get them more often if I ever bother with a garage open day or vintage bus tour - I'm not really in the loop for those events and never remember to check until it's too late. Along with the interesting surroundings on this part of the 248, this was another superb bus ride on a brilliant bus, with a surprisingly clear run despite it being the height of the evening peak. Funnily enough, the poor frequency of the 248X was proven by this bus travelling to Upminster and back before anything else turned up on the route at Hornchurch, in either direction.

Ensignbus 401 is seen at Hornchurch Town Centre on route 248 to Romford.
This illustration should demonstrate the use of tri-axle vehicles on the 248 service, such as 401 above. Although I had already sampled a BCI on route 62 earlier, my bus had been a dual axle version and a last minute decision ensured that I caught one of these vehicles on the 248X, which was in fact the penultimate journey of the evening and it seemed that this service was completely finished by 1901. This bus was just as powerful as the last one on the 62 and sitting at the rear upstairs made the extra length noticeable - I was the only person upstairs for the entire journey although I'm sure on busy routes like the 25, 207 and 18 these longer buses would be incredibly useful. Cruising through the quiet streets of Upminster Bridge on this was incredibly relaxing, with the coach-like interior making sure I was comfortable throughout. Alighting at the rail station marked the end of my strike day riding, although I absolutely loved every second of it and it's been really eye-opening in terms of discovering new types and being re-united with lovely old ones. Watching this long vehicle tackle Upminster Station Forecourt was certainly amusing, but after a couple of attempts it managed to get out and head back to Ensignbus in Purfleet, presumably to work some awful school service when term time begins next week. This company also used to run the 248 service, bringing about some nostalgia especially with the Metrobus that worked the route on Friday. Even though the 248X wasn't frequent, it was nice to see lots of blue vehicles on it again and my two rides were just as pleasurable as all the others.


 WVL19 is seen at Hornchurch before working the last inbound 252X journey.

Like the 248, the supplementary 252X service ran along most of the main route, with the missing section being the short stretch from Romford to Collier Row, which probably wouldn't have had any increase in passenger numbers during the strike. Extra buses started at Romford Station like the 248 and terminated at Hornchurch Town Centre, although the difference between these two routes is that the 252 serves much more housing and takes a longer route between the two suburbs, also passing Elm Park and Hornchurch District Line stations and linking their catchment area to the TFL Rail service at Romford. In general, the 252 seemed like one of the more popular extra services, with all the buses carrying decent loads during the evening peak, although it was certainly not the most reliable - in the space of a minute I saw three Volvo B7TL Geminis in a convoy, along with a Routemaster not far in front. No buses appeared for a significant amount of time afterwards. This extra service also finished very early, with no more vehicles leaving Hornchurch after 18:30 and typically during my two snapping sessions along the route it was the exact same vehicles which showed up and some of the more interesting ones avoided me completely! Generally speaking, the selection of buses on the 252X wasn't as interesting as on the other routes, with almost all of them being in the form of ex-Go Ahead London WVLs, which does bring a new type to the 252 although it's not like these aren't still commonplace within the capital.

Ensignbus RML2405 is seen arriving into Romford, closely pursued by the equally iconic Spirit Of London E400
Additional buses which weren't initially advertised as being rostered for the service include an Ensignbus Routemaster and a Metrobus (the company this time) Scania OmniDekka, although the latter vehicle avoided me during my time in Hornchurch. Similarly, the quirky Scania Metropolitan MD60 vehicle, which I would've loved to ride, was nowhere to be seen in the evening, although whether it came out at all is another question as the only photographs of it are during the am peak. However, the B7TL Geminis did dominate after all and due to the lack of vintage buses compared to other routes with a similarly large PVR, I decided not to ride the 252X service given my lack of time during the evening. In addition, most of the route is isolated from other supplementary services and the bit the extras were covering isn't particularly interesting either, with most of it being residential. However, it was still a pleasure to see the extra vehicles around, especially the Routemaster where it seemed like the crew were really enjoying themselves, just like almost everyone who attended this strike day.

"Hire your transport" WVL44 is seen approaching Romford at the rear of a triple bunching on the 252X service.
In conclusion, I'm really glad I decided to attend the District Line strike day - sometimes I find these events quite underwhelming but the relaxed atmosphere and sheer variety of buses meant I was always busy and some of the vehicles I experienced were absolutely brilliant. This event has also encouraged me to attend more events with vintage buses - they can be held at inconvenient locations and it's not always easy to obtain decent photographs when everyone else with their flashy cameras are snapping at the same time as you, but it will give me a chance to discover some more excellent types which I feel I've overlooked recently.  I'd also recommend strike days for everyone here - it might be an absolute pain for regular commuters but the strong presence of fellow enthusiasts and quite iconic vehicles on otherwise mundane routes is really satisfying to be a part of. Unfortunately many recent ones have been during term time so I could not attend, although if there is ever anything else during the holidays I'm definitely going to try and come back, perhaps for both shifts next time as even though I set aside 3 hours and got a considerable amount done it was nowhere near enough time for sampling everything I wanted to. Another bonus with the District Line strike was that a 60% service was still in operation, so even though the extra buses were still running they weren't too busy and the roads were clear too - it was easily one of my most enjoyable bus trips in ages.

Thanks for reading and stay safe!

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