diamond geezer

 Tuesday, February 09, 2016

 Route 508: Stratford City - Wanstead Park
 Length of journey: 3 miles, 25 minutes [map]

You'd hardly know this bus exists, and maybe that's the idea. It runs at wildly irregular times, it's barely advertised, and passenger usage is likely to be very low. But it has a proper route number and it meets a genuine need, indeed it's a perfect example of TfL's commitment to a comprehensive and reliable bus network. The residents of Albert Square might very well be lost without it. And it's all Crossrail's fault.

The situation is this. The 308 runs from Clapton to Wanstead via a circuitous route, dipping down to Stratford around halfway to make connections there. For part of its journey it runs along the northern side of the Great Eastern Mainline, specifically between Maryland and Forest Gate stations, along which section it is the only bus. However, intermittent Crossrail work at Forest Gate station requires part of the road outside to be acquired for works vehicles, every now and then, and this prevents buses from passing the full length of Forest Lane. The 308 is then diverted via Romford Road, which leaves seven bus stops unserved, hence the introduction of temporary route 508. But only at weekends. And only certain weekends. So good luck if you fancy catching it. I gave it a go on Sunday.

The 508 starts its stumpy journey at Stratford City bus station. Nobody seems especially proud. There is a 508 tile at Bus Stop W, but there's no timetable on the pole, and the 508's not shown on the map in the shelter, hence it's impossible to know where it's heading and when. I stand and wait. The next 308 whisks all the Wanstead-bound clientele away, so when the 508's unconvincing single decker spins around there's nobody else waiting. All the bus obviously says on the front is 'Special Service', which isn't useful, but evidently it wasn't practical (or economically viable) to add bespoke blinds. Look more closely and there are two A3 laminated sheets in the window, both of which say...

Stratford City &
Wanstead Park

...except the bottom of each card is obscured beneath the bottom of the window, hence the bus's destination is practically invisible. If you were attempting to run a secret bus to Ssssh Not Telling, you could hardly organise things better.

Not surprisingly nobody other than me chooses to board. A couple of people try, but this is because they think this is the rail replacement bus that's supposed to be departing from the same stop this weekend. "Are you going to Goodmayes?" "Are you going to Romford?" But no, we're stopping well short, so it seems the secret bus is all mine. Even better it appears to be free. I touch in my Oyster but the light is red, indicating either that the reader is switched off or that it hasn't warmed up yet. It soon becomes clear that the onboard iBus system isn't working either. Normally the electronic system chips in to announce the next stop, but no, it looks like nobody's been bothered to program this either. Thus far, nothing about the 508 is looking competent.

It takes a while to escape Westfield Stratford City, blighted as it is by several over-zealous traffic lights. But eventually, on the one-way system outside Stratford library, we pull in for actual passengers. A husband and wife board with several bulky bags of shopping and attempt to plonk these down at the front. There is then a slight altercation when the driver asks them to pay - it seems the Oyster reader has woken up. "But this is a free service," pleads the woman, "I'll show you the email if you like." The driver tries to ask again but she's having none of it. "No, it says online it's a free service!" I've tried my damnedest to find evidence of this since but there's almost nothing out there, indeed the 508 is conspicuous on the TfL website by its absence. At this point the driver gives up - the customer is always right - and we continue.

Around the corner lots of people are waiting, but not for us. No, hang on, a middle-aged gentleman seems keen to step aboard. He engages in some kind of conversation with the driver, as far as one can without a language in common, and beeps his card as normal. The shopping couple look on, but wisely say nothing. As we move off our latest passenger starts looking somewhat uncomfortable, there being few clues as to where the bus is actually going, until we stop again and he gets off. That's probably £1.50 wasted, mostly through ignorance. At the foot of Water Lane a second passenger does the same thing - boards for a one-stop journey - but in this case he's a seriously elderly gentleman with a stick, and the 508 has performed an immensely useful public service in getting him to within hobbling distance of home. There are genuine reasons why the secret bus exists.

Turning into Forest Lane we are greeted by large red signs warning 'Road Ahead Closed'. From here onwards we're entering the 508's exclusive domain, the community part-cut-off by Crossrail, living up a run of tightly-packed Victorian streets to one side. Ding! The shoppers are getting off at the first stop. I'm mildly surprised because the stop they boarded at is less than half a mile distant, via the direct route this bus hasn't followed, and I could probably have walked here faster in the time it's taken the bus to arrive. But they couldn't, of course, hence the 508 is again doing its job by providing a delivery of cereal boxes, loo roll and fresh veg almost to the front door. The woman makes a special point of waving her phone at the driver to show him her email before she alights. And look, this is the stop for Albert Square, the Newham street I've written about before, and which bears little resemblance to its fictional counterpart.

There's nobody else left to alight along the remaining stretch of road, although there are people waiting on the opposite side of the street, directly overlooking the railway cutting, for our driver to return. They can expect a long wait. Turning a bus round in this warren of streets isn't going to be easy, especially with the far end of Forest Lane irrevocably blocked. With the barriers fast approaching I wonder how we're going to do it, but at the last minute we turn left up a sidestreet rather narrower than TfL's diversionary planners would like. A chain of parked cars runs along each side of Field Road... clearly our luck is eventually going to run out when we meet something driving the other way.

It's not long before we meet something worse - a greedy parker. His Ford Galaxy is sat slap bang in the central gap, with the passenger door wide open and his hazard lights flashing as if this is somehow a suitable apology. Whatever the elusive passenger is doing, it clearly isn't quick, and it looks like we may be here some time. A local resident takes the opportunity to step over to the driver's cab and enquire when the next bus in the opposite direction might be. The driver explains that there isn't a bus stop here (this isn't some Hail and Ride zone, it's wholly unsuitable) and off she goes. And then she comes back, because the parking manoeuvre ahead is taking much longer than expected, and the driver relents and says if she waits right there he'll pick her up on the way back.

Eventually, after some sheepish reversing, we continue onwards in an attempt to escape this residential maze. I'm not entirely certain where the bus is going next because the only map of the route TfL have produced is chopped off after this point... but it does say "towards Wanstead Park" so I assume we're heading to the station. Not so. After two hopeful-looking right turns we suddenly head left away from the Overground, and I'm deposited rather further away than I'd like to have been. The last stop is at the bus stand on Bective Road, opposite Wanstead Flats, and if I'd genuinely wanted a bus to here I should have caught the 308 instead, because from this point onwards the diversion is over. Indeed I'd have been quicker getting off ten minutes ago and walking through the Crossrail parking lot, past where Forest Gate station is currently a hive of industry.

Which leaves me wondering how the 508 has been advertised to those who live along the key section of its route. I therefore walk back to the penultimate bus stop in the hope of finding a timetable, but all I find is a map of the diverted route, and a table listing which days the 508 bus is actually running. The last four Sundays in January, every Saturday and Sunday in February and March, back to Sundays in April and May, not at all in June and July, then approximately half the remaining Sundays until the end of the year. Oh, and always starting at 8pm the night before, and finishing at 6am the morning after. Has there ever been a more complicated bus schedule than this? But as for an actual timetable, TfL haven't chosen to provide one. I know the 508 runs every half an hour and when, because I've found this listing online, but in real life there's bugger all.

In some ways the 508 is a model service, running from before 5am until after midnight to keep a handful of residential streets connected. Someone's also done a perfect job adding fresh white '508' tiles at every bus stop along the way. But the remainder of the information provision, and the user experience itself, are considerably more substandard. Well, it wouldn't be a secret bus if it wasn't secret, eh?

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