diamond geezer

 Friday, June 24, 2011

Today's the last day that bendy buses will run on route 25. They've been running two days short of seven years, these articulated people carriers, but they won't be running tomorrow. Boris has got his way, and they're all to be replaced by bog standard double deckers. This is a political, not practical, decision because the bendies have a lot more life in them yet. But the entire fleet is to be pensioned off early and sent to the big red bus park in the sky, allowing 'normality' to return to the streets of the East End.

Debendification costs, not just in terms of new vehicles purchased but also number of vehicles required. Until today a fleet of 44 bendy buses have been shuttling between Oxford Circus and Ilford, but from tomorrow there are going to be 59 double deckers in an attempt to match passenger capacity. Good news, that's more seats. Good news, that's a bus every 3-4 minutes rather than every 5-6. Bad news, that's actually less capacity overall because there'll be far fewer places to stand. And that's another nail in the coffin of Ken's articulated revolution, which is either good or bad news depending on your point of view. By the end of the year there'll be no more bendy buses left on London's streets - one mayoral pledge achieved and with four months to spare.

I thought I'd take one final ride on a bendy 25, commuting home from the West End to Bow in the rush hour, to soak up the experience one last time. And what do you know, the journey was perfectly pleasant. But only because I hit the jackpot - I got a seat.

Get on the bendy 25 early enough and there are plenty of seats. It's only the poor buggers later on, in the middle 80% of the route, who are going to have to stand. Today I don't have to wait too long, although that won't be the case next week when the daytime frequency west of Holborn Circus will be reduced. Every alternate 25 will turn back early rather than running ahead to clog up Oxford Street, which means a less frequent service for anyone hoping to travel all the way.

Ah, that familiar hydraulic hiss as the vehicle's primed to leave. Mind your jacket in those slamming doors, mate, but don't worry, they're soft-edged enough to pull your arm safely out. It's cavernous on board, like a train carriage on wheels only longer. But it doesn't take long for the interior to fill up. A mum with a pushchair enters and shoves her daughter wheels-first into the space opposite the door. She's blocking clear passage down the centre of the bus, but who cares - she continues chatting oblivious. Everybody wants a front-facing seat, it seems, so much so that a bloke nips out of his back-facer when the lady beside me alights prematurely. I shuffle up.

It's standing room only as we negotiate through the City. An elderly Bangladeshi man boards, very obviously doddery and slow, but chooses to stand in the pushchair zone rather than negotiate his way further back to a potential seat. Out of the window I see high finance and wealth, but when I turn my eyes inwards the demographic shifts. There are no obvious bankers on board this 25, nor even anybody wearing a tie, but plenty are heading home from a job or appointment elsewhere. Almost everybody's non-white, an assembly of typical East End residents, sailing beneath the skyscrapers in an out-of-place bubble.

I count more than 30 standing by now, although it's hard to be sure, with both central doorways now scrummages on entry and exit. Slam - the doors shut in another would-be passenger's face, because it's not especially easy for the driver to see precisely what's going on back here. Leadenhall Street permits a rare chance to speed up, and the two halves of the bus rock together and back in a wavelike motion. Hang, jolt, swing... it's good exercise holding tight, if not especially fun. A second pushchair boards, then a third, which nobody'll manage to squeeze next week into a mere double decker. The fourth pushchair proves more challenging, because the assembled straphangers really don't want to move, but when they see it contains a cute-looking cat they relent and make space.

You might have assumed that the bendy 25 is a bastion of fare-dodging youthscum, but today you'd be wrong. There are schoolkids and gabbling teens and a couple of girls who say "innit", but there's no evidence of mass evasion here. Whatever will the swoop squads of ticket inspectors and Met Police do next week when there are no unswiped Oysters to check? Up Whitechapel High Street our 25 pulls in beside a crowded bus stop only for everyone to rush to catch the double decker 205 behind. Why squeeze aboard the meatwagon when there are plenty of seats on the proper bus instead? Next week that choice won't be there, there'll be seats all round, but only so long as the double deckers aren't crammed to capacity and impossible to enter.

Traffic's slow, so we end up blocking first one Stepney pelican crossing, then another. Shorter buses are going to keep the pedestrians happier around here, and one suspects the cyclists too. I wonder how many bus passengers have noticed the imminent change. A message scrolls past on the in-vehicle display - "double deck buses will replace the current bendy buses on r" - but the information's not especially useful curtailed. It's still chock-full busy on board, even through Bow, even after the push-cat lady finally vacates her space. Me, I've had it easy, watching the everyday chaos from the comfort of my corner seat, until I finally ding, and rise, and stumble to disembark.

Will I be glad to see the bendy 25's go? Sure, they've been a most depressing way to travel for the last seven years. Their standing-room-only-ness reminds me of a packed tube carriage, and there's nothing civilised about strap-hanging round a bend. But I can still remember the downside to double decker 25s, which was the number of times they arrived packed full and so sailed straight past without stopping. Let's see if one of London's busiest bus routes can cope with a less mass-transit solution. Boris's latest experiment begins tomorrow. And Ken's old experiment ends today.

Instructions on how to use a double decker bus, for confused bendy users

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