Saturday, 16 June 2018

Quiet Routes, Loud Routes

April was a surprisingly quiet month within the enthusiast calendar, having only two contract changes in its entireity. There were lots of bus rallies out in the country to keep people busy, but I'm not really into those events, which meant for one particular change I was one of the only people who bothered. Chronologically, the first contract change occurred on Saturday 7th April 2018, consisting of two community routes within the Barnet area being offered to a different operator.

Go-Ahead London SEN23 is seen at The Spires on route 389 to Barnet, Western Way.
I've already written about the nature of the 389 and 399 in a commendable amount of detail here, so this post will focus more on the actual differences between the old and new contracts. The 389/399 are easily some of the quirkiest routes in London, sharing a bus between them to operate the two circular routes in Barnet which both take no more than twenty minutes, allowing an hourly service to operate between 1000 and 1500. Whilst in rush hour the Enviro 200 would work the 299, from Cockfosters it would morph into a 399 further down the road until The Spires, where the bus changed its blind to become the 389 and go around Underhill, before completing the 399 loop again and this practise continued until around 1500 where the last 399 ended at Hadley Wood Station. Go-Ahead London ran the service from Northumberland Park (NP) garage, usually with an SEN-class Enviro 200 but occasionally single door Wright Streetlites would appear on the service. The regular passengers who use this service were very friendly with the Go-Ahead crew, who even provided biscuits for them during their last day driving the service, Friday 6th April 2018. Even though there is no rush hour crosslink on Saturdays, the buses still only run in the middle of the day, whilst there is no service at all on Sundays.

Sullivan Buses SL96 is seen in Hadley Wood working the first ever 399 journey under Sullivan Buses.
The loss of these two routes wasn't particularly surprising given that the 299 also went to Sullivan Buses earlier in the year and the custom of using its allocation continues for the new contract, albeit in the form of a relatively new batch of Wrightbus Streetlites. These vehicles are based at South Mimms (SM) garage, although the crosslink comes instead from the 298 service between Potters Bar and Arnos Grove. As I had nothing better to do on a Saturday morning, I decided to make the journey up to Hadley Wood and catch the first ever service run by Sullivan Buses, mainly because it worked out conveniently for my later plans and didn't involve getting up at the crack of dawn. After stepping off the Great Northern service at Hadley Wood Station, which is very sparsely used, my walk to the first virtual bus stop consisted mostly of admiring the huge mansions that dominate this area - most places of residence have at least four or five cars in the driveway. After confirmation from the postman, I was successful in finding a suitable place to flag down the vehicle, SL96, which came by surprise seeing as there were issues with calibrating the iBus system. What I found rather lovely, however, is that in addition to the driver a member of the Sullivan Buses team was out there supporting him and essentially offering a welcome party to all the regular passengers, in an attempt to get to know them better for the next few years, who were delighted by the new bus and fancy moquette, a stark contrast to the Go-Ahead interior scheme. In total, we only picked up around five people before the bus morphed into the 389, although it was nice to be back in this rather extravagant part of London once again. Two bus enthusiasts, who also decided not to go into the depths of Kent, snapped my vehicle as it pulled into The Spires and surprisingly, even though we were heading away from the shops, a few more people boarded and started chatting to the new driver. I bailed at High Barnet in order to take a Northern Line, although I really enjoyed my experience on the two routes and it seems that Sullivan Buses are pulling out all the stops and embracing the nature of these two routes very nicely, which hopefully results in the communities who use them being just as satisfied as with the old operator.

Tower Transit VNW32430 is seen near Swiss Cottage on route 31 to Camden Town.
The contract change of route 31 on Saturday 28th April 2018 was a well-attended event, partially because the route is much more significant compared to the Barnet shuttles. It is one of my favourite services in the city, originating at White City and taking passengers on a lovely tour of inner North-West London to Camden Town, via Swiss Cottage, Maida Hill and Notting Hill Gate, with so much variety between the different places it serves. The night element of the 31 doesn't branch West to serve Shepherd's Bush, but instead goes via Kensington, Earl's Court and Battersea to terminate at Clapham Junction - this route also changed hands. Route 31 also a very useful service, not really paralleling any rail services for a substantial amount of time, particularly at the Camden end where buses are often very busy. Even though this route does enter zone 1, its allocation under First London and later Tower Transit certainly wasn't modern, predominantly using 04-reg Wrightbus Eclipse Gemini B7TL vehicles and I can't actually remember when they were first introduced onto the route as they've been the main allocation for so long. The buses were based at the temporary Atlas Road (AS) base during the Crossrail works which reduced the space at Westbourne Park (X) garage dramatically, but during the final few months the allocation has returned to the home garage. Despite the variety at this site, workings of other buses were infrequent on the 31, with only Gemini 2s occasionally appearing on the night service. Even though the former garage weren't really praised for running services well, the 31 had always been very secure, although during the past year the route suddenly became very unreliable and on the last day due to some sort of road closure the service was in pieces - at one point ten buses were bunched up at Notting Hill Gate! Despite the 31's decline, I was still upset that the route was changing hands - I've always associated the route with Westbourne Park (X) garage and the B7TLs and even though I'm sure the route is in capable hands, when something you grew up with changes it's not always easy to overcome.

London Transport RTW467 is seen on the last day of route 31 under Tower Transit.
Bus enthusiasts, especially those interested in vintage vehicles, were in for a treat on Friday 27th April, where Sir Peter Hendy decided to send out an RTW along the 31 service for a couple of hours in the late afternoon, as a sort of farewell to the route being operated out of Westbourne Park (X) garage. Although a ride on this vehicle was not possible, I'm really happy to have a photo marking this event as it certainly will be one to remember in a few years time and I must thank everyone who organised this road-run as I'm sure it was treasured by many people. However, the old contract did have a rather bitter conclusion, given that many enthusiasts who intended to ride the last ever 31 under Tower Transit ended up stranded at Camden Town as it didn't pick up any passengers for some reason (I don't know the full story), suggesting that the former company were a little resentful at losing the route. Nevertheless, Metroline kicked off just minutes after the final Tower Transit bus pulled in, with the first N31 service beginning just before 1am on Saturday 28th April.

Metroline Travel VW1385 is seen at Shepherd's Bush on route 31 to Camden Town.
Initially, Metroline were expected to receive brand new MCV B5LH EvoSeti vehicles for the 31, although these have been diverted to route 43 at Holloway (HT) garage, which is probably for the best seeing as none have entered service yet. The 31 uses existing vehicles instead, in the form of three batches of Wrightbus Gemini 2 B9TL vehicles, sourced from a variety of garages. Some of them are from Holloway (HT) and Willesden (AC) garage, which were made redundant following the introduction of brand new Gemini 3 hybrids, having 62/13-reg plates. The rest of the allocation is actually made up of vehicles already found at Perivale West (PA) garage - where the 31 is now based - with this being in the form of 11-reg Gemini 2s officially allocated to the 105, although these will be made redundant following the loss of the route to London United in the coming months. Naturally, the transfers now appear on all other Perivale West (PA) garage routes due to the generally relaxed allocation system there, although none of the Scania Olympus double deckers have appeared on the 31 yet due to the absence of blinds for the service. Although the allocation for this route is a little messy for my liking, the fleet is still an upgrade from the worn out B7TLs that were used before and hopefully the rest of the VWs receive a well-earned refurbishment sooner or later.

Metroline Travel VW1186, a refurbished 11-reg example, is seen at Chalk Farm.
Interestingly, Metroline decided it would be necessary to add the qualifier "Bus Station" to the White City blind, which gives even more discrepancies as no other service displays this. On the first day, the company did struggle to run a good service at times, although curtailments were sparse and it was certainly far better than the wreckage on the last day of Tower Transit. Since then, there are still occasional hiccups, which is understandable for a route that is said to be a "nightmare to control" by staff, although the future does generally look positive for this service and there are days with no issues whatsoever. Unfortunately, as Metroline settle into the contract they will be faced with some difficulties as the 31 will be receiving another frequency cut in a couple of weeks, which I think is completely absurd given that the buses I've seen recently are already very well-loaded, especially at the Camden end, so it will be interesting to see if this has any bearing on the reliability of the service. However, with a reduced peak vehicle requirement perhaps the operation might become slightly easier, so even with overcrowding the service should be tolerable most of the time.

Thanks for reading and stay safe!

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