Overground replacement bus service: Hampstead Heath → Stratford And finally, the granddaddy of TfL rail replacement buses. This one's been running so often over the last few years that local residents must think it's a permanent service. Rest assured it won't be around forever - the engineering works on the old Silverlink line are scheduled to end in May, heralding an improved, more frequent Overground service. But in the meantime, sorry, orbital rail passengers face four-wheeled double deckers for several more weekends yet. They really ought to have arrangements perfectly sorted by now, you'd think. You'd think.
I arrived at Hampstead Heath by Overground - the driver having urged everyone to get off one stop early for the rail replacement bus. Now all I had to do was find one. A poster in the ticket hall told me to go to Bus Stop A in Constantine Street, which was no help, and included a map, which sort of was. I attempted to match the map to my mental image of the surrounding area, and rushed off down the hill. I'd probably have spotted the blue directional signs attached to lampposts quicker if it hadn't been dark. I then had to run the last bit because the bus was about to leave. Some idiot had scheduled the replacement bus to depart almost immediately after the train arrived. Only by being the first person off the platform, and the first person out of the station, and the first person round the correct corner, had I managed to board it on time. Some further research later revealed the reason for this lunacy. Eastbound Overground trains arrive at Hampstead Heath every 15 minutes, but eastbound rail replacement buses depart Hampstead Heath every 20 minutes. There is bugger all attempt to synchronise the two services to assist through-travellers, just two disparate systems existing in mis-timed silos.
I wasn't looking forward to this particular journey because I've made it before. My enduring memory is of battling through the treacly backstreets of Islington trying to get close to a station nobody really wanted to get off at. Good news, TfL have streamlined the route. No jobsworth regulations here insist that buses must stop outside stations. Instead we missed Gospel Oak by seven streets, Kentish Town West by 300 metres and Caledonian Road & Barnsbury by a full mile. Brilliant for those of us passing through, it speeded up the journey no end - but not quite so good for those at bypassed stations attempting to work out where the scheduled bus stop was.
It being dark, and with windows steamed up, it was often quite difficult to work out where the bus was. To assist passengers our driver yelled out the name of each station as we reached it, and the sound just about carried up the stairs. He yelled in a language resembling English, but I was eventually able to decipher "Keshdownwet" and "Durlstenking" after a few seconds thought. Meanwhile the electronic iBus display at the front of the top deck was firmly switched off. Over the last few years we Londoners have got used to being spoilt by instant scrolling displays announcing the name of the next stop, and here it would have been exceptionally useful. I know that not all rail replacement buses have this system fitted but, for those that do, would it really be so difficult to program the route and turn it on?
One thing that struck me was the number of people on their mobiles uttering the immortal phrase "I'm on the bus". They were apologising to friends, mostly, because when they'd set out on their journey they were expecting to be "on the train". But no, they'd completely missed the fact the Overground was suspended until it was too late, so found themselves rumbling slowly towards social events they were going to arrive late for. TfL do try hard to invite travellers to check for service disruptions, especially at weekends, but most people obviously don't. These days there are far too many planned engineering works for even the hardiest geek to remember, so what hope for the general public? They still wander round clutching paper maps of the weekday network, so lengthy bus detours always come as a surprise.
I wish the girl who sat behind me at Dalston Kingsland had been using her mobile for a late apology. Instead she seemed to be having some sort of emotional breakdown, by phone, in public, with someone who was no longer her beloved. By Hackney Central she'd told the top deck how her plans for motherhood were wrecked, by Homerton she was considering pissing off abroad for six months unable to cope, and by Hackney Wick she was blaming it all on her au pair. You don't get this kind of comedy soap opera on trains. I was semi-delusional by this point, so was more than pleased when we finally reached Stratford station. And then, alas, drove straight past it to the official alighting point, so that everyone had a two minute walk back again. Even at the end of ten and a half hours of rail replacement purgatory, there's always one last unpleasant extra. Hampstead Heath → Stratford: normally 32 min, rail replacement bus 76 min (+140%)
Lessons learned 13) On railway lines with a less frequent service, it shouldn't be rocket science to synchronise the replacement buses with the trains. 14) After dark, if the bus's destination is only written on a small piece of cardboard in the front window, that's not very useful is it? 15) If there's a 'next stop' display system aboard a rail replacement bus (and I know there isn't always), please switch it on. 16) Many of the problems here aren't the fault of the bus companies providing the service, they're the fault of whoever it is at TfL that writes their contracts. 17) Those "planned engineering works for the week ahead" posters on display at tube stations are misleading. They show an amalgam of Saturday's and Sunday's closures, not the closures in effect today, which makes them less than practical for instant use. One day in the far future these maps will be on an electronic screen, not a sheet of paper, and that'll help no end. 18) However much TfL tell people there's rail replacement work coming up, people still aren't listening. 19) People of London - if you're travelling at the weekend, always check for planned engineering works first. There's probably a quicker way to get around them if you plan ahead. And, really, you don't want to get stuck on the bus. 20) If anyone ever suggests riding every rail replacement bus in London to see what it's like, query their sanity.