diamond geezer

 Sunday, January 23, 2011

Rail Replacement Safari (part 1)

Every weekend, rail travel in the capital is blighted by "planned engineering works". We all know it's essential, but that doesn't make it any less bloody annoying. This weekend three entire Underground lines are closed, four others curtailed, and the DLR and Overground substantially buggered. TfL ran as many as ten rail replacement bus services yesterday, from Harrow in the west to Dagenham in the east. I thought I'd entirely waste my Saturday by travelling on every single one of them, from end to end, to see how dreadful the experience was. My rail replacement safari took me ten and a half hours, so I think you can guess how much fun it wasn't. But hopefully I've learned some useful lessons along the way, which you (or maybe TfL) should take to heart.

District line replacement service B: Mile End → Barking
No trains were running, so buses up the Mile End Road were busier than normal. This seemed odd, because most people were crammed aboard buses that cost money, rather than hopping aboard the freebie rail replacements. Fancy travelling to Stratford for nothing, hop on. They don't have Oyster readers on rail replacement buses because it would be too much additional hassle, which is brilliant, because at weekends you can ride all over London for free. OK, so you're supposed to have a valid ticket before boarding, but I rode ten different freebie buses yesterday and wasn't challenged once. Even better, rail replacement buses are express buses. They don't stop everywhere, so you get to sail past normal buses halting every few hundred yards and get to your destination even faster. I hate to think how slow this bus would have been if we'd stopped everywhere. Our driver seemed afraid of exceeding 20mph, occasionally ambling up to green traffic lights just in time for them to turn red. But we still saved time by not going to West Ham, which was a shame because we could have caught a faster c2c train there. And we saved even more time by not going to Plaistow, which TfL cruelly deemed unworthy of any replacement service whatsoever. Free buses aren't for everyone, it seems.
Mile End → Barking: normally 17 min, rail replacement bus 38 min (+120%)

District line replacement service C: Barking → Dagenham East
Once, when a long strip of tube line was closed down, TfL used to run just one rail replacement bus service. Not any more. Now they split the closure into sections and make you change from one to the other partway. Here the main split was outside Barking station and, I have to say, was appallingly handled. The driver dumped us off the bus from Mile End with no clue as to where to go next. Nothing on the bus stop, no staff waiting helpfully, bugger all. Erm. Eventually I spotted three blue tabards huddled in the station entrance across the road, and managed to attract their owners' attention. I was duly directed down the street to a home-made bus stop with a tiny "rail replacement" sticker on it, where the next bus to Dagenham had just left without me. Another bus soon turned up, but with its destination blinds blank and no helpful route card in the window. "And you're going to...?" No, back to Mile End. Rest assured I made it to Dagenham eventually (at roughly the same speed as the 70 year-old cyclist we got stuck behind). But come on TfL. If you're going to force us to change buses mid-replacement, at least tell us clearly how to do it.
Barking → Dagenham East: normally 9 min, rail replacement bus 22 min (+140%)
Mile End → Dagenham East: normally 26 min, rail replacement buses 1hr 10 min (+170%)

Catching the rail replacement bus isn't usually the quickest way to get to your destination. At Dagenham East, for example, some whiteboard scribble strongly recommended catching the tube all the way out to Upminster and then the fast c2c train back the other way. So I tried that, and it took just as long to get to Barking as it had done on the slowcoach bus. Getting beyond Barking, however, proved much much faster, which was good. I was even able to confirm that planned engineering work was indeed taking place at several places up and down the line. Track maintenance at Upney, a trainful of ballast further along, and early construction of the Olympic passenger footbridge at West Ham. Londoners, your weekend travel pain is not in vain.

DLR replacement service C: Canary Wharf → North Woolwich
They don't want you to catch a DLR replacement bus from Canary Wharf. A sign at the station suggests you hop on the Jubilee line to Canning Town instead and catch the buses there. That's great if you're going further, but no help if you want to head to a station inbetween. I had to guess which Dockland stop the replacement buses were leaving from, five minutes walk away, because directions were non-existent. Thankfully I guessed correctly. The bus took the most ridiculous detour at East India simply to get as close as possible to the station, which involved driving through two security barriers and round a deserted private estate. At Canning Town I was surprised to see as many as ten members of weekend-only support staff hanging around the bus station, although most of them were chatting to each other rather than helping the public. I also spotted a one-carriage test train running on the new bit of DLR they haven't opened yet, which is why half the network was closed to passengers. The remaining two miles of replacement bus after Canning Town seemed unnecessary because there's a perfectly decent scheduled bus, the 474, running along precisely the same route. But it appears that real buses confuse the train-using public, who'd feel lost and cheated if they didn't have a special dedicated parallel service of their own. Is it important to run a "474 Express", or is it a waste of money?
Blackwall → King George V: normally 12 min, rail replacement bus 28 min (+130%)

DLR replacement service B: Beckton → Canary Wharf
At Beckton bus station, more hopelessness. The replacement bus stood empty, door invitingly open, but with absolutely no members of staff around to help. Several of them were sat across the road in a cosy blue bus having tea, or reading the paper or whatever, while a confused huddle of would-be passengers gathered by the bus stop. One lady asked me where the bus was going, because the information on the front wasn't at all clear. One bloke was waiting to swipe his Oyster because he thought he'd get fined otherwise, and there was nobody there to tell him not to. Only by going over to enquire of a driver on his fag break did one enterprising traveller finally confirm the bus's destination and departure time. No brownie points for customer service here, none whatsoever. At least the journey, when it finally began, was mercifully swift.
Beckton → Canning Town: normally 14 min, rail replacement bus 17 min! (+20%)

District line replacement service A: Canning Town → Liverpool Street
The District line doesn't go to Canning Town, so who in their right mind would think of catching a replacement bus here? Nobody, which is why I was the only passenger on board for the first bit of the journey. From Canning Town to Bromley-by-Bow in six minutes flat was a fantastic service for an E3 local, if alas only temporary. We sped on, unhindered by the traffic that often blights the Mile End Road. There were hiccups in Whitechapel, however. A lady in a woolly hat had made the mistake of waiting at the bus stop nearest to the station, which is precisely where you might expect a rail replacement bus to stop, but no. Next stop, by the hospital... where our driver was harangued by a posh lady with a suitcase. How dare this bus go to Liverpool Street not Tower Hill, I mean, what sort of District line replacement bus service does that? Point taken, except there were no trains at Tower Hill to connect to, and this was technically a Hammersmith & City replacement bus. By the time the argument had finished the lady in the woolly hat had caught up and clambered aboard, which made me smile. And we still reached Liverpool Street almost as fast as the train would have done, which was damned impressive.
Bromley-by-Bow → Liverpool Street: normally 15 min, rail replacement bus 20 min! (+30%)

Lessons learned
1) Every weekend, TfL and local bus companies throw hundreds of staff out onto the streets to assist passengers using rail replacement buses. Some are wonderful, but far too many just stand around passing the time without being of any help whatsoever. Cull them, it'd save money.
2) The weakest link when travelling by rail replacement bus can be trying to find the correct bus stop in the first place. A generic "rail replacement bus service stops here" sign is often inadequately non-specific. Which bus, in which direction, to where? Don't always leave us to ask a member of staff.
3) If TfL want to force people to change replacement buses halfway through their journey, they need to explain how to do it. Don't just dump people somewhere unfamiliar and leave them to work it out for themselves.
4) Just because TfL's laid on a rail replacement bus service, don't act like a sheep and assume it'll be the fastest way of reaching your destination.
5) Some replacement buses are distressingly snail-like, others are expressly speedy. Learn to use the latter and avoid the former.
6) People of London - stop thinking of rail replacement buses as annoying hassle, and start thinking of them as a free way to travel around town.

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