38, de-bendied Boris's election pledge to remove the bendy bus from London's streets took a major step forward yesterday with the reintroduction of 'normal' double deckers on route 38. Major improvement to services, or total waste of money? I took a ride to investigate further.
At Clapton Pond, a man with a brush is busy sweeping leaves and rainwater into the gutter. Hopping aboard a dry double decker feels like a very good idea, and there should be a 38 along soon now that its frequency of service has been increased. The Saturday timetable at the bus stop promises "every 3-6 minutes", but it's been 8. Several buses have passed in the opposite direction, imminently terminating at the bendy-sized bus stand in the middle of the Clapton roundabout. But it takes a while for a Victoria-bound 38 to appear, with entrance today via a single door, and we all bundle inside.
The top deck smells artificially (and not pleasantly) new, but that'll pass once the floor's seen its first week of chip wrappers, spilt drinks and kebabs. There are no adverts above the windows, nor indeed yet on the outside of the vehicle. No disembodied voice yet screeches "38 to Victoria" every couple of minutes - the front-mounted electronic gubbins isn't switched on yet. And, most deliciously of all, there are actually seats! 70-odd on board each double decker as opposed to 50-ish on the old bendies, so there's far less likelihood of having to stand. Given how long my backside is going to be plonked atop the blue moquette, that's just as well.
We skim through rainswept Clapton. Our driver parks (slowly) in a large puddle outside Hackney Baths, avoiding a watery fate for those waiting alongside. Up on the bus stop a yellow square still reads "38 Buy tickets before boarding", although the 38s elsewhere have been replaced, gleaming on each sign like a freshly-polished tooth. The on-street ticket machines are going too, beheaded and covered over by fluorescent protective covers. Hackney's winding Narroway is noticeably easier to negotiate in a double decker than a bendy, as are several other of the sharper bends along the route. Umpteen shoppers pile aboard downstairs, although the top deck won't be full for several stops yet.
A lengthy detour through Dalston is necessary to avoid Overground-induced roadworks. By the time we reach the Balls Pond Road, half of the timetabled 44 minutes for the entire route have already elapsed. The back seat is claimed by what looks like a stereotypical group of boisterous teens, although they keep their voices down and fail to turn up their mobile R&B to maximum volume. Meanwhile an unfortunate pushchair user fails to squeeze aboard downstairs - there's far less buggy space aboard these DB300s than was the case on the former Citaros.
The Essex Road is perfect for people watching, increasingly middle class as Islington Green approaches. We top-deckers also get to look down our noses at fellow travellers still unfortunate enough to be riding bendy aboard a 73. Never mind, their day will come. Then, at Angel, a surprise. A semi-uniformed official strides up our stairs, waves his 'official' metal badge and demands to see our "tickets and passes". This would have made sense the day before, with unchecked entry a faredodgers delight, but today we've all had to touch in as we boarded. There are muted sighs as we reach for our Oysters and everybody aboard gets the (predictable) green light.
A stormy Saturday is keeping many Londoners indoors, but we're protected from the whirling leaves behind the rain-splattered front window. It's plain sailing down half-empty Roseberry Avenue, but then the Lord Mayor intervenes. His parade may be a mile away but the backed up traffic is clogging Kingsway, which is clogging High Holborn, which is clogging Theobald's Road. A new bus lane ought to speed us through to the next lights, but we're unable to reach it across a stream of selfishly immobile car drivers. The bus edges forward, rather too slowly, and the lady sat beside me with a dripping umbrella audibly tuts.
By the time we divert off down Shaftesbury Avenue my bus journey is a full hour old, with yet another half hour still to go. A one-legged wino in a wheelchair decides at the last minute not to try to scoot on board, much to the relief of the driver, but we do gain an even more unlikely passenger. It's another official walking up the stairs to check our "tickets and passes", to the incredulity of everyone who's been on board since Islington. When questioned, he explains that there are 50(!) inspectors riding the 38 today because it's the first day of the new double decker service and they're trying to get a message across. Yeah right. Yet nobody aboard this bus has been caught out, twice, so surely their time would have been better spent catching chancers on London's remaining bendies.
Nearly there. Piccadilly Circus requires a five minute detour because a brand new road improvement scheme isn't quite ready yet. The removal of certain one-way restrictions means that future 38s will be able to sail past Eros rather more directly, and then they'll enter a new two-way bus lane in Piccadilly (with bus stops planted on a narrow island in the centre of the road). We follow a Routemaster plying route 9 - a reminder of the rather more characterful doubledeckers that used to service the 38 in the pre-bendy era. Alas all we've gained in the last four years appears to be a bigger front window and a rear platform you can't escape from at whim.
On past Green Park, where a fallen plane tree has been encircled by red and white tape, and then the opportunity to peer over the Queen's back wall and eye up her tennis courts. You didn't get that view from a bendy. And, having ridden all the way to Victoria on the first day of both the new and the old services, I know which I prefer. Give me a 'normal' double decker any day. A seat, a view, and that special feeling of not being treated like cattle prodded aboard a box on wheels. Whether the expense of swapping 47 bendies for 68 doubledeckers is a good use of TfL's money is highly questionable. But, now that the exchange has occurred, I suspect the fare-paying residents of Hackney will be well pleased.