38, the morning after I took a ride on a bendy 38 yesterday, just to see if it would be as awful as everybody had predicted. It was.
Joan the grey-haired trainee bendy bus driver started up her brand new vehicle and tried hard to ignore the instructor perched in the front passenger seat beside her. She edged oh-so-carefully (and oh-so-wide) round the first corner at the top of Clapton Pond, staring intently at the road lest she might accidentally hit some parked vehicle. Six potential passengers stood waiting at the first stop - or at least what had been the first stop until it was converted overnight into an extra 'stand' to provide additional parking space for the new 18 metre monsters, and so was the first stop no more. So Joan drove straight past them, even the lady with the suitcase, even the man with the walking stick, even the mother with a pushchair, and crept out ever so slowly onto the main road. The traffic was bad and the bus lane was blocked, so I was able to join Joan's driving lesson at the next stop, and I stayed with her all the way to Victoria.
The bus slowly filled as we slunk south towards central Hackney. Two parents with a bulky pushchair relished their first opportunity to board the new accessible 38. The baby's elder sister, clad head to foot in rainbow coloured knitwear, seemed rather less impressed. I wondered whether the giant bendy bus would be able to negotiate the Narroway (the road is well named), but Joan took her time and successfully manoeuvred her craft round the sharp turn at the entrance and on down to the bus garage. An inspector poked his head in with a traffic update - "117's broken down at Holborn station, no gears" - before Joan pulled away. At the bottom of the road the bus paused, waiting for a gap in the traffic, its huge length completely blocking pedestrians trying to use the busy zebra crossing there. A bearded shopper stopped to look at us with a mixture of horror and disdain.
Joan turned every corner cautiously and with trepidation, as if she might just be about to steer us into the nearest crash barrier. This was always a distinct possibility. "It's lucky we're not in any hurry today," said the lady sat behind me, somewhat impatiently. At Mare Street a smiling Transport for London lackey (sporting a red "New bendy buses on Route 38" baseball cap) was handing out over-positive leaflets to waiting passengers. One couple boarded but decided a couple of stops later to get off again and take the much nicer non-bendy 242 into town instead. Never let it be said that bendy buses are a fare dodger's transport of delight, however. At Dalston Junction a crack team of (two) inspectors boarded, waved their paperwork at Joan and then proceeded to check our tickets, travelcards and Oysters. I don't think they caught anybody, but the rear of the bus was so far behind me that it was impossible to be sure.
Our snail's pace speed meant that large crowds were waiting by the time we reached Angel. Some were still queueing to use the ticket machine on the pavement as the bus pulled away. There are only 49 seats on a bendy bus, a third less than on the old Routemasters, so now there were a considerable number of people on their feet. On reaching Sadler's Wells the front of the bus was so packed with bodies that old ladies with walking sticks stood trapped at the front of the bus, unable to reach those willing to give up their seats behind. We hadn't quite reached the official standing capacity of 100 (very squashed) people, but I suspect the pushchair invasion had made this an unattainable total. So full was our 38 that Joan drove straight past those waiting patiently at Gray's Inn Road, silently thankful that nobody had wanted to get off. And this was a Saturday morning. Imagine the hell to come tomorrow morning during the vehicles' first rush hour.
We pulled up at the traffic lights outside Holborn station, our bus taking up the same amount of road space as the two old Routemasters I had seen on this very spot on Friday evening. And then, just before we got to Centre Point, Joan's worst nightmare came true - the road ahead was closed. She had to divert off the designated route, veering wide into Shaftesbury Avenue to join a queue of jammed traffic. It soon became apparent that, for several passengers, this was their worst nightmare too. Previously they'd have been able to hop off the Routemaster's rear platform and walk up to Oxford Street in no time at all. But no more. The doors of the new nanny-state bus stayed firmly closed, for safety reasons, and not even increasingly agitated ringing of the bell would open them. "Are you going to let us off!" yelled the angry citizens of Islington, not used to having their personal freedom curtailed, but Joan was unable to comply. It wasn't until we reached Chinatown, a fretful quarter of an hour later, that the bus half-emptied and the long walk back to the shops began.
As Piccadilly Circus approached, an elderly couple rose carefully from their seats and edged towards the doors. They should have sat tight. Joan's cornering skills still hadn't improved and, by the time she'd rounded the next bend, the traffic lights ahead of her had turned red. Even a milk float could have made it through in time. The same red light delay happened again at a second corner, and the old couple also enjoyed a rather too close-up view of one particular road sign in Jermyn Street (thankfully not quite damaged) before their four minutes of purgatory standing by the exit doors was complete. Personally I found it very hard to come to terms with the presence of bendy buses down Piccadilly. Not much more than 18 months ago every service down this historic street had been run using Routemasters, and now not one remained.
Our bendy journey was now nearly at an end, but unfortunately there was one last traffic jam to come because the roads around Victoria were absolutely jammed with barely-moving traffic. Initially it was hard to tell that Joan had slowed down. A five year-old girl then scudded down the pavement beside us on a tiny silver scooter, overtaking us with ease. Again, there was no longer any means of escape for those trapped on board. Eventually, after fifteen minutes of slowly edging forward, Joan was finally able to pull up (unofficially) at a non-38 bus stop to let frustrated passengers disembark. There were now just six of us left on board, each taking up the equivalent of three metres of road space. With a second 38 immediately behind us and a third a few cars in front, a not insignificant proportion of the jam was being caused by the bendy buses themselves. Even when we reached the head of the queue of traffic at Victoria Street, Joan was unable to edge further forward without the great length of her vehicle obstructing the yellow box junction. The third time the lights turned green she risked moving onward, but there wasn't quite enough space for our bus on the other side of the road and she trapped a waiting number 82 bus unable to pass through our rear section.
One last painfully cautious left turn saw us arrive safely (just) into Victoria Bus Station. "That's it" said the instructor to Joan, reassuringly, as she pulled into the final stop a full hour and fifty minutes after setting off. One of the few remaining passengers hobbled out of the front doors with the aid of her walking stick, lighting up an urgently needed cigarette at the earliest possible opportunity. A couple of bus company staff stood gossipping in front of the bus station's tiny orange kiosk. One nodded towards Joan, still sat in the driving seat, and remarked "She's so slow and nervous it's unreal". Personally I was impressed that a lady who'd been used to driving nippy, manoeuvreable Routemasters had managed to transfer her skills to these lumbering, cumbersome, articulated behemoths. I even felt sorry for her as she sat there preparing for the long journey back to Hackney, but I decided the return trip wasn't for me. Good luck to Joan, and all who sail in her.