Yesterday afternoon I thought I'd ride the newly-realigned 108 bus route between Lewisham and Stratford International. It's only supposed to take an hour, according to the timetable. Instead it took more than two hours, for reasons which will become apparent, and was a deeply unsatisfying experience.
(also, please be aware that I split the journey into three parts, and they may not have happened in this order)
Route 108: Lewisham - North Greenwich Length of journey: 6 miles, 42 minutes
I'm pleased to have remembered that the 108's first stop is just outside the DLR station. Unfortunately memory counts for little in central Lewisham these days, which is going through a turbulent phase of long-term redevelopment which essentially involves erasing everything and starting again, only this time with more tower blocks. Roads vanish, bus stops flicker, and the immediate environment is a hateful expanse of swirling vehicles and temporary walkways which has done permanent damage to my opinion of the place. There are no obvious signs to indicate where the 108 does start, and it takes me five minutes to find a map on the other side of Lewisham Gateway, then another five minutes to walk there.
The first stop is by the market, near where BHS used to be, behind a stall selling cut-price homewares. A wall of red buses clogs the High Street, not one of which is a 108, and it takes twenty minutes for one to appear. Had I taken the DLR to Stratford rather than attempting to catch a bus, I could have been there by now. The front of the bus says 'Stratford', not yet 'Stratford International' because the blind is out of date. The onboard announcement says "108 to..." followed by silence, because the audio for the correct destination hasn't yet been programmed. What's more the bus stop had an out-of-date timetable, and didn't have a yellow notice warning passengers of the route change (as there is at almost every other stop along the way). The initial customer experience in Lewisham is piss poor, in other words, but that's Day One for you.
Fifteen of us pile on board, including a group of lads in red and black check and baseball caps who monopolise the back seat. They've brought their favourite tinny music with them but can't decide what to play, so eventually thankfully turn it off. Somebody sitting close to me hasn't deodoranted, and so smells faintly of sausage roll. Escaping the queue of buses in the High Street takes five minutes before eventually breaking off to bus stop number two, where suddenly there are only a handful of free seats left. At 'The Squirrels' a pair of tightly-groomed wedding guests climb aboard, one dangling a golden gift bag, his partner forced to sit separately further back and rest her heels. A couple of the more elderly passengers soon disembark on the climb to Blackheath, a short ride on the bus being much preferable to walking uphill.
The bus's internal scrolling display has some useful information about the day's big change - 'Route 108 now serves Stratford City and International Station'. This is occasionally supplemented by an even more useful audio announcement which fully explains the new route, including the nuances of where it will and won't be stopping in Stratford. This is good stuff, and I'm impressed by the clarity. Peculiarly the message ends with an exhortation to "visit TfL dot gov dot uk for full details", except there's bugger all on the home page about the 108 and most passengers wouldn't have a clue where to look anyway. The girl next to me is astute enough to find the 108's webpage on her phone and bring up 'map view', except that nobody at TfL has yet updated the map so it shows the old route, and hey presto the piss-poor customer experience is back.
Blackheath Village's gentrified shops are being well-frequented as we thread through, with a Big Issue seller outside the station a rare reminder that not all of London is this middle class. Four ambulances and a couple of police cars are parked up outside the Boulangerie Jade bakery, suggesting that something ghastly has occurred within. Necks crane. The bus is now so full that fifteen people are standing, not including the elegant young lady in brimmed hat who strides through to take the last back seat, nudging the lads to one side. A shower disperses those enjoying recreation on Blackheath, but not the ducks. Partway across this grassy expanse the local vicar alights, clutching a microwave lasagne for one.
"The next bus stop is closed. Please get off at this stop or wait for the stop after." This is a new extended audio message on London's buses, delivered by a new voice, and you'd think more useful than the briefer version delivered before. But in this particular case it's definitely the stop before the Royal Standard you want, not the one after, which is a long way down a steep hill you wouldn't want to pant back up. In various front gardens the Blackheath Royal Standard Jumble Trail is in full swing, with residents under brollies selling teapots, cakes and copies of old I-Spy Books, along with any other bric-a-brac they hope to recycle.
There are at least 20 passengers standing by now, and they're not well pleased when a much emptier 108 creeps up behind and then overtakes. But it's not going all the way, it's only going to 'Blackwall Tunnel North Side' (wherever that is now on this reconstituted route). At the foot of Westcombe Hill the second 108 slips through the lights and escapes from view, leaving our sardine can to rumble on. Those standing nearest to the door are occasionally thwacked as it opens - a hint that this 14 year-old vehicle is soon to be retired.
At the entrance to the retail park one young boy points out the footprint of Greenwich's eco-Sainsbury's to his skateboarding friends. "It used to be there, between those green mounds", he says, with a pang of unexpected nostalgia. The supermarket would have been here all his life, I realise, and now it's just a cleared patch of concrete awaiting transformation into IKEA. Our run past North Greenwich's trading sheds and cinema has cleared out the standees, as we approach the latest colour-stacked flats, and the traffic lights change to pause us unnecessarily. The peninsula's central park is mostly empty, with residents keener to hurry by, and only a couple of families are at play. Meanwhile the millennial fountains near the cablecar have been hidden behind a wall of arty boards, almost as if they never existed. Bus station ahoy.
Two-thirds of our passengers alight at North Greenwich - the next onward stage of their journey will be underground. And only one person boards, which might seem strange given how long it's been since the last service, but there are much faster ways to cross the river. The 108 has to return down the peninsula to gain access to the Blackwall Tunnel, which is one of the things that makes the route so slow, and traffic is another. There's tons of it today, clogging up the roundabout and tailing back towards the shopping park, and suddenly almost nothing is moving. Something is amiss beneath the Thames, a vehicle has broken down blocking all northbound progress, and forcing our driver to rethink. "We're going back to North Greenwich," he tells a disappointed audience, and keeps his word.
For half an hour the 108 gives up all semblance of running a full service, abandoning the half of the route north of the river to run only between Lewisham and North Greenwich. Once the tunnel breaks it's Tower Hamlets and Newham which get sacrificed, and passengers waiting in Poplar are suddenly abandoned in a way that wouldn't have happened the day before. An old lady at Bazeley Street stares up at the Countdown display and despairs. "It says the next 108 is eight minutes away," she says, "but it's been saying that for the last half hour." When the system goes down it leaves us to figure this out on our own, and so she gives up, tugging her basket morosely behind her.
Route 108: North Greenwich - Bow Church Length of journey: 4½ miles, 28 minutes
I try again at North Greenwich later. My smartphone tells me a bus really is coming this time, but not for a while. A pair of elderly ladies emerge from the tube carrying bags for life, one in a pink fleece, the other in black slacks. They've been shopping in Stratford, and weren't sure how to get the 108 home now its end has changed, so have retreated to a point in its journey they understand. They pick the wrong stop at first, one bewildered, the other angry as she stomps off beneath the canopy and shoots me a look. They reach the correct stop just in time for a southbound bus, but are too late in arriving for there to be free seats, nor is anyone packed on board going to make way. They continue to wait at the stop in the vain hope that the next bus will be emptier, like it would have been in Stratford. My smartphone says the next southbound bus is still a long way away.
But here's the northbound bus I need, and it's one of the new vehicles, recently swapped across from routes 507 and 521. These commuter-friendly buses are like cattle trucks on wheels, formerly ideal for transporting rush hour crowds from Waterloo, and it's hoped they'll ease the crush the 108 often suffers. But there aren't many seats, indeed only four in front of the central doors, and on this journey most of those up the back have been taken by the youthful entourage of a bossy mother. I stand along the side like I'm leaning against a wall, as third class travel returns to the streets of east and southeast London.
Traffic at the roundabout where the last driver turned back is still terrible, but only for those in cars driving up from the shopping park, which are still queueing back as far as the eye can see. Imagine if someone added an IKEA to this gridlocked mix, how chaotic that would be... or simply wait a few years and watch the area grind to a halt. Thankfully the 108 has a golden ticket, permitted to whizz for several hundred yards up the sideroad alongside the dual carriageway, where redeveloped wharves are being reborn with geometric collateral. The driver of a Mercedes scowls as he sees we're going to tuck in front of his motor, edging into the left-hand lane, then merging in turn at the tunnel portal. This fragile bore is all that threads cross river traffic together, and all that keeps the 108 in motion.
Down into the tiled tunnel we go, and at a decent speed. The vehicle whirrs and wheezes exactly like a bendy bus did - same manufacturer, less articulation. The Blackwall's repeated zigzags soon cut out the phone signal, causing several passengers to look up from their phones and start willing us out the other side. When we do emerge, it's time for the first change of route compared to what's gone before. The 108 now turns left up towards the East India Dock Road, abandoning the bus stop beneath the roundabout which suddenly has no bus service whatsoever. Our first stop is some way off, six minutes after the last on the peninsula, as we head into the backstreets of Poplar.
The seatless corral at the front of the bus is filling fast, and the paucity of front seats is causing problems for our more elderly passengers. One old lady with a Jack Russell and a shopping trolley takes the accessible seat, but all subsequent pensioners are forced to stand, the spare seats at the back of the bus being too far away and too inaccessible to reach. These internally featureless buses might have been a good way to deal with inner London commuters, but they're far from ideal in residential streets where the population can be rather older. On the positive side, people with pushchairs who yesterday would have been left at the roadside can today squeeze easily on board, a benefit that's even more important when your bus service has unreliable gaps.
We've collected a lot of souls up Violet and Campbell Roads, I think generally unimpressed at the replacement service TfL has thrust their way. Those forced to stand aren't helped by the journey being rather jolty, both when passing parked vehicles or when manoeuvring over speed bumps. At one point I lose my footing completely and fall onto the man beside me, quickly apologising, then holding on more tight. At the back of the bus the younger boys are now hanging from the loops on the roof, as if this were a playground or amusement park ride, or even a zoo. And finally we emerge onto Bow Road, the 108 serving a DLR station it's never served before, then pulling in at Bus Stop M. I've seen the traffic ahead, and this would seem the ideal moment to pop home for a cup of tea.
Route 108: Bow Church - Stratford International Length of journey: 2½ miles, 37 minutes
What I'm expecting is a short run up Stratford High Street, then a corkscrew round the Olympic Park. That's what the D8 used to do these last three years, and what the 108's timetabled to do henceforth. But I missed something important, and instead endured one of the slowest journeys from Bow to Stratford I've ever known. The mounted police trotting by should have been a clue.
Initially leaving Bow Church all is as expected... but not for the pair of elderly ladies in the front seat, one in a pink fleece, the other in black slacks. They boarded south of the river, heading for the shops in Stratford, and the long detour they've taken through Tower Hamlets has them bemused. The bus has taken them down streets they don't know and past buildings they don't recognise, and when they spot 'Blackwall Tunnel' on a road sign they get worried. "We're not going that way are we?" one asks. "There's them flats," says the other, gesturing at the Bow Bridge Estate, "so I know where we are now!" "Oh," replies the first, "I suppose we'll be coming this way all the time now. But it takes ages to get there!" They seem deeply underwhelmed.
An ambulance squeezes by outside McDonalds as the lights change, and we rattle round the Bow Interchange at roundabout level. At the Marshgate Lane bus stop a woman who's been waiting patiently (and watching several 25s speed by across the flyover) checks the bus's final destination with the driver. She's well informed, she knows the 108's terminus has changed, but the blind on the front still only says 'Stratford'. Unfortunately her Oyster card is cashless and then her contactless card fails to work, twice, so she is unable to convert her knowledge into experience. The two elderly ladies in the front seat are still chatting, trying to remember if they've come this way before, which of course they have because this half mile of the route is unchanged. And as we slow down into the back of a whopping traffic jam they turn their eye to the newbuild flats along Stratford High Street and criticise each in turn.
The problem ahead is football, specifically West Ham. A bus diversion is put into operation for two hours either side of a home match, and during it too, so that police can shepherd supporters on foot down Montfichet Road. This closure used to affect the D8, and now affects the 108, but more importantly it affects all the cars trying to drive to the multi-storeys at Westfield. They have to travel a much longer way than usual, which completely chokes up the centre of Stratford and several roads feeding into it for up to seven hours. It's a total traffic nightmare, and all because there's only one road into Westfield from the southwest. Did Olympic planners not think ahead, or are the police's crowd control measures over-zealous? Whichever, they've screwed up the Stratford economy every time a home game takes place on a Saturday afternoon.
We are barely moving, edging occasionally forward, and take a good ten minutes to reach the next stop. Then suddenly we hear 'This bus is on diversion', bolstering a scrolling message about the football that most passengers haven't read. Ironically the diversion takes us along the 108's original route, the route it used to follow until yesterday, sticking to the southern side of the railway line. There is one last chance to alight, and the chain of red buses trapped in the traffic ahead strongly hints this might be a good idea. But the very idea that it might be quicker to walk seems to be beyond the experience of the passengers on board, most of whom are perfectly capable of reaching Stratford well before the bus, and all of them sit tight.
We should have turned left to serve the Aquatic Centre and Stratford City, but this afternoon that section of the new route is cancelled. West Ham's fans are trickling through the streets, many safely tucked up at The Builders Arms, which has lured them inside using a blue and claret banner announcing 'Traditional East End Pie and Mash'. It's their fault we're going nowhere fast, and they're not even on the closed road, they're downing beers. We creep onto the inner ring road where we filter into additional queuing vehicles and eventually find a bus lane. All in all it takes nearly half an hour to reach Stratford bus station from Bow, a journey which can normally be done in eight minutes. When the new football season hits Christmas shopping expect things to get far worse.
Yesterday the 108 terminated here at the bus station, but today it doesn't, which presents our driver with a dilemma. He opts to pull over alongside one of the bus stops, or rather almost alongside, leaving a broad chasm between the bus and the pavement. On opening the doors there is a rush to get off, indeed every single one of the 40 or so passengers except me disembarks. This is ironic too, given that the 108's not supposed to come here any more but it is where everybody wants to go. Stratford International is merely the booby prize, and even though we will be heading there eventually, nobody else on board gives a damn.
The two elderly ladies are not alone in having questions for the driver. Chief amongst these is "Where do I have to go to get the bus back again?" This is a good question, because even though Stratford bus station is plastered with signs stating that the 108 has been diverted, there's no explicit mention of where to go to catch it instead. The driver struggles to explain because there are two answers, one for the future, and another valid only during this football diversion. "It's too confusing, say the ladies, "we'll have to take the tube back," not yet realising how bewildered and angry this will make them later.
Ten people are waiting patiently at the front doors thinking the bus is going to Lewisham, like it would have been previously, but have to be shooed away. Meanwhile the bus station manager has wandered over, keen to give our driver a dressing down. Parking some distance from the kerb is a no-no, firstly because it's blocking the traffic behind, and secondly because it's forced several frail passengers to have to step down further than they should. "I'm just leaving," says the driver, which he nearly is, setting off on a futile trip to what's now the end of the line.
The only way to Stratford International is to continue in the jam round Great Eastern Road and join the cars attempting to reach the multi-storeys from the east, and I'm the only passenger who seems to want to go. That's another ten minutes of my life I shall never get back. The railway completely severs Westfield from the old town centre, bar one pedestrian bridge, so a convoluted six-traffic-light drive is required. At Stratford International I alight with a forced cheery "thanks", and the driver parks up for a well-deserved break. There might later be fresh passengers waiting to go back the other way, but there aren't any now - they're probably all waiting in the wrong place in Stratford, wherever the wrong place is on football diversion day.
The West Ham match wasn't TfL's fault, nor the tortuous route to be followed to avoid it. The broken down vehicle in the Blackwall Tunnel wasn't TfL's fault, nor the total collapse of the bus service north of the river when it happened. But the switching of the D8 and 108's routes is their decision, and does seem somewhat ill-advised. The more important long-distance route, the 108, has been sidelined through Poplar and shunted off to a terminate at a quiet station, bringing fragility and irregularity to communities used to a better service. And if the main aim of the swap was to bring double deckers to the D8, I watched several of those swan past yesterday carrying mostly air, and a minibus would have easily sufficed.
Sorry, I don't think I've ever written up a bus journey, or an attempted bus journey, in quite so much detail before. But I fear it'll be some time before I feel like risking a ride on the 108 again.