It's never ideal to close the A1, but sometimes needs must. The railway bridge at Upper Holloway needs replacing, and has done for a while, with weight restrictions looming if nothing were done. TfL are therefore throwing £25m at the problem, and also taking advantage of the closure of the Gospel Oak to Barking line to get things done. The existing bridge will be demolished and replaced over the New Year, and a additional service duct has already been constructed alongside to carry pipes and cables. In the meantime relocating the pipes and cables is proving awkward work, with the result that the Holloway Road will be either partly or fully closed from this weekend until mid-January. This weekend has been one of the full closures, with the knock-on effect of diverting all the usual traffic elsewhere, including five bus routes. Which is where the 563 comes in.
Often it's only when a road is closed that travellers realise how much they rely on it. The Holloway Road is the only road to cross the Overground for almost a mile, so its closure is sending drivers and bus passengers on an awkward lengthy diversion along semi-inappropriate streets. Meanwhile those living along the broken stretch suddenly have no bus service, which isn't ideal. Those to the north of Upper Holloway station can walk to Archway, it's not far, even if it is uphill. But those living to the south are instead being offered a temporary shuttle service down to the Nag's Head where they can catch numerous other buses, and that's the 563. And it's free. And it's secret.
Not completely secret, obviously, because it runs with a notice saying 563 in the window, and because TfL have employed lots of volunteers to stand around at relevant bus stops and funnel people towards it. But quite secret, for reasons we will now discover, because this is yet another post about how a new bus route hasn't quite been adequately introduced.
I didn't see any posters at, or near, Archway tube station, regarding where to go to catch a bus. The bus stop on the corner with St John's Way appears to have been removed, because it's not needed again until January, so there were no clues there. A couple of hi-vis-wearing officials were standing nearby, but their role appeared to be observing and chatting, and they didn't offer any advice. At the last bus stop before the railway bridge a proper pink-clad volunteer was waiting, and she was charming and helpful. To help me on my way she gave me a leaflet, a double-sided full colour leaflet no less, with full details of road closure dates and bus diversions. But although the leaflet mentioned every existing bus and where to catch it, it didn't once mention the 563.
There is a pdf which mentions all the bus diversions and the 563. It's available on TfL's website, on a special page set up to provide information on the Upper Holloway bridge closure. The text on this page doesn't mention the 563 either, nor the fact that a free shuttle bus exists, but it is mentioned on the pdf along with a complete description of the route. And yet the print-out being freely offered to the citizens of Holloway, at this bus stop and several others along its route, is definitively 563-free. I can only presume that either the people who printed it are inept, or the 563 is indeed a secret bus.
There is plenty going on at the railway bridge, you'll be pleased to hear. A number of diggers were in evidence yesterday afternoon, and several men in protective clothing doing stuff, and a rather disturbing-looking tanker from a 'Suction Excavation Hire Service'. All the action was on the station side of the bridge, where the cables and pipes are being relocated, but with the full width required for more awkward manoeuvres. Contractors have been charged with working 24 hours a day to get the job done quicker, with noisier activities restricted to daytime hours. Meanwhile the main A1 road to either side was uncharacteristically silent, with only the occasional car approaching and turning off up a minor sidestreet to take advantage of 'local access'.
The 563 starts at a temporary bus stop to the south of the railway bridge. Being a temporary stop there is no indication of what stops here, nor that what stops here is special, maybe even a little bit secret. Only if you ask the hi-vis volunteers do you find out, or if the bus is actually parked up waiting to depart, which to be fair it is quite a bit of the time. The destination blind says Special Service, and a card saying 563 has been stuck lower down in the window. 563 Upper Holloway & Holloway, Nag's Head, it reads. And it turns out that one of these endpoints may be a lie.
"Free bus," said the driver, chirpily, because it's not every day you get to tell passengers this. He made his announcement to eight separate passengers, which I thought was quite a healthy number for a secret bus going not very far every ten minutes.
We headed off down the hill, stopping at a bus stop labelled "This bus stop is not in use". That's odd, I thought, because the bus stop clearly was in use, just not by its normal buses, only by the secret bus. The volunteer waiting by the bus shelter had a sheaf of leaflets stuffed in her pocket, again the not-quite-helpful kind on which the 563 was never mentioned.
We headed off down the hill, stopping at a bus stop labelled "This bus stop is not in use", opposite another bus stop labelled "This bus stop is not in use" at which another 563 was stopping. That's fairly typical, I thought. A passenger who didn't speak English very well tried to board. She asked whether we stopped at Highbury & Islington, and probably didn't understand that we didn't, but did understand the word 'free', so came for the ride.
We headed off down the hill, stopping at a bus stop which was very much in use, being the first after the diversion. "All change," said the driver, "this bus terminates here." This surprised me, because we hadn't yet reached the Nag's Head, indeed the map on the TfL website shows the 563 going two stops further. But no, the driver was off to turn his bus around alone, and our three minutes on the secret service were over.
Heading northbound the 563 does indeed depart from the Nag's Head bus stop, opposite Selby's department store. But you'd be hard pushed to tell. The 563 doesn't appear on the bus stop flag, nor is a timetable provided, nor does it show up on the appropriate digital webpage. There's also no poster or notice announcing its presence, and the Countdown display is switched off, or at least it was yesterday. Two volunteers were standing around when I was there, but they were talking to each other, and there was no hint to anyone waiting that it might be a good idea to talk to them about potential trouble ahead. When the 563 turned up they made a fuss, but the rest of the time they didn't, which left plenty of people boarding buses that were about to be seriously diverted when this might not have been what they wanted.
I caught one of these other buses back to Archway to see what happened. Tons of people poured off as I boarded, having been warned by an electronic message that a diversion was coming up - perhaps they'd guessed how long it was going to take. We made a good start up Tufnell Park Road, but this is no trunk road, more a residential street lined with parked cars, and progress soon slowed to a crawl. A lot of the problem was buses attempting to pass each other, five times more than usual, and another issue was waiting to filter through the traffic lights at the far end. All in all we took 20 minutes to escape, during which time I could have walked direct from Nag's Head to Archway and beat the bus.
This was on Sunday afternoon, hardly the busiest time of the week, so you can imagine how grim this week's rush hours might be. The Upper Holloway Bridge is closed all this week, then next weekend and two weekends in November, then all the way from Christmas to mid-January, and the remainder of the time open northbound only, It's not ideal, but it's got to be done, and the end result will be a bridge which should stand for 120 years. In the meantime TfL are running a marvellous free community service - a digitally invisible secret bus running up and down a silent road stopping at bus stops that are supposedly not in use and terminating early. Another triumph.