Route 207: White City - Hayes By-Pass Location: London west Length of journey: 9 miles, 60 minutes
London's last bendy bus departs tonight. The articulated fleet has been on our streets for less than a decade but bows out tonight, shipped off to any other town or country who'll have them instead. Many have hated them (long, obstructive, uncomfortable), while others have loved them (fast, accessible, 'free'). Whichever, I've been out to sample one final bendy bus ride before Boris obliterates them from London's roads altogether.
White City bus station hadn't even been built when the first bendy buses plied the streets on route 207. Now the last pull up, every six minutes or so, at the gleaming shelters round the backof Westfield. You'll get a seat if you board here, no trouble, whereas if you queue round the front with everyone else you might not. Expect a diverse band of shoppers to barge on - those heading west towards Acton, Ealing and Southall. And whereas your average double or single decker fills up quickly with designer carrier bags, rest assured that on a bendy there's more space to dangle. My first neighbour has bought something black and furry from DKNY, and sits beside me tapping on her iPhone and trying not to fall asleep. By the time we've negotiated Shepherd's Bush Green the bus is proper full. We've also negotiated the final corner on the entire journey. Seven bends in the first half mile, and then the rest of the Uxbridge Road is relentlessly straight. That linearity is why the 207 was selected to trial bendy buses in the first place. The perfect route, some said... but not for much longer.
You'd not travel this route for its sightseeing value. The main road is lined by a constant chain of non-chain stores, many with a cosmopolitan international flavour. Polish supplies, Nepalese tandoori, Arab fruiterers, the Chili Spice Takeaway - all human life is here. My second neighbour is a West Indian grandfather carrying three tomatoes in an otherwise-empty plastic bag, bound for Acton not far up the road. As he gets off a horde of Morrisons shoppers scramble on, diving for the few remaining seats or hanging defeated from the grab-loops. A third pushchair boards, which'll be damned awkward next week, but the bendy copes admirably and pulls away without delay. Indeed I'm amazed to see how favourably the 207's travel time compares to the 607 express, which follows precisely the same route but with far fewer stops. The 207's only six minutes slower than the 607 to Hayes, according to the timetable, but that'll increase to ten minutes next week because front-entry double deckers are decidedly tardier than multi-door bendies.
The high street nudges slightly upmarket as Ealing approaches, and there's even a welcome stretch of green along the common. The majority of passengers appear to have been heading for the Broadway, where the bus empties out for collective Christmas shopping. Then at the bus stop at the other end of the high street it completely fills up again. Men in woolly hats mingle with women in headscarves, while close by is the distinct smell of someone who believes in drinking more than washing. Soon there are half a dozen people standing in each doorway, resigned to their discomfort because riding's quicker than walking. Even more passengers are crammed into the central concertina, leaning awkwardly on the twisting ridged plastic and taking care not to over-balance. Most of the service's clientèle nip aboard for a fairly short hop, it seems, so they don't mind standing for too long (even though they'd much rather be sitting down).
Ever onward, ever straight. Ah, that now-familiar hydraulic hiss, and the pre-departure beep, and the violent swish-slam of the closing doors. It's hard to imagine anyone getting nostalgic for these sounds in the double decker future, but Londoners won't hear their like again. At Chapel Road, when we pause to pick up passengers, the back half of our bus blocks a stream of emerging traffic. Won't happen next week. We glide on through West Ealing and Hanwell, past soulless office blocks, a Rolls Royce dealer and a Lidl. The road widens considerably beyond the River Brent, and as such would have been ideal had Ken's West London Tram ever got the green light. There'd have been no need at all for bendy buses had these even larger vehicles hit the streets, but not all of the road to Uxbridge is so broad, so inconvenience for car drivers ensured that tramlines never surfaced.
Southall Broadway is all fabric and sparkle. The bus is much emptier now as the end of the journey approaches, but there's still time for two more passengers to take a seat beside me. Neighbour number five is a petite schoolgirl, legs dangling, with a single exercise book in her hessian bag. She's replaced by neighbour number six, fresh from the mosque, enjoying a post-worship bag of crisps during his brief ride home. As far as I can tell, everyone has dutifully swiped their Oyster card on boarding. There are no obvious fare skivers here, even though public opinion would tell you bendies are full of them.
One final surprise is the discovery that this bus doesn't go as far as the Hayes By-Pass, as the destination on the front suggests. Instead every 207 terminates one stop early, at Springfield Road, allowing drivers to run ahead empty to the lay-by beside the roundabout. It's a bit bleak out here, unless you like arterial roads, windswept heathland and shopping parks (with the final posse of passengers preferring the latter). And this barren spot is where London's bendy bus dream will die. The last articulated 207 is due to expire on the outskirts of Hayes at about one o'clock tomorrow morning, followed ten minutes behind by the first of the replacement double deckers. It's cost over a million pounds to acquire new vehicles in advance of the end of the 207's current contract, but that's the price to be paid to rid London's streets of an electoral liability. One Mayoral transport commitment delivered. This bus terminates here.