While travelling on the District line last week the driver interrupted proceedings to alert passengers to engineering works at the weekend, that's this weekend. "No service between Aldgate East and West Ham", he warned, before adding "expect delays of up to an hour and a half". This seemed ludicrous, if pedantically correct, so I decided to come back at the weekend and test out the claim. Spoiler: Delays did not reach an hour and a half, but they were a lot longer than I expected, and the overall replacement bus experience was mighty poor.
I decided to take a trip from Plaistow, one stop before West Ham, to Monument, two stops after Aldgate East. Normally this journey takes just under twenty minutes. Yesterday it took me a lot longer than that.
My first problem is a lack of trains. Normally on Saturdays Plaistow is served by more than 20 trains an hour, but when engineering works intrude TfL cut this to an "every 10 minutes" service. My timing proves unfortunate and I have eight minutes to wait. The train, when it arrives, is packed.
At West Ham it's all change. I note that the Next Train Indicators are incorrect, the display on the other platform suggesting an Upminster train will be leaving soon, whereas the display on the platform it'll actually be departing from is blank.
A recorded message plays out frequently detailing the westbound closure. Replacement buses are available from Canning Town. Passengers hoping to travel beyond Westminster on the District line are advised to take the Jubilee line and change there. Meanwhile Hammersmith & City line services are starting at Liverpool Street, so passengers should head for Stratford and change there to the Central line. (According to the TfL website the entire Hammersmith & City line is closed and it'll be a Circle line service at Liverpool Street instead, but I understand why a white lie has been deemed helpful in the circumstances). No mention is made of the Fenchurch Street trains on the opposite platform which would provide an almost-perfect leap over the gap in District line services.
The walk to the Jubilee line platform is the longest possible walk at West Ham station. Someone has thoughtfully placed signs across the main concourse to remind people that replacement buses are leaving from Canning Town. TfL don't believe in serving West Ham station with replacement buses because turning vehicles outside is nigh impossible. So, Canning Town it is.
What I should have done at this point is take the DLR to Bank, but I didn't do this because it was never suggested. Instead I follow on down the replacement bus rabbit hole, as directed.
A helpful sign in the ticket hall states that replacement buses are departing from Bus Stop C. Unfortunately Bus Stop C is at the very far end of the bus station - again the maximum possible walk. Consequently I arrive at the stop just as a bus departs, so am forced to hang around and wait for the next one. I'm clued-in enough to know that the rail replacement bus is officially the DL-6, and the Next Bus Indicator tells me that the next DL-6 is five minutes away. It is not, it is much further away than that.
The bus stop is being patrolled by a helpful member of staff wearing a pink hi-vis jacket. It ought to read CUSTOMER INFORMATION on the back, but his orange hoodie obscures several of the letters. He has to deal with two baffled passengers who think they need a replacement bus to reach East Ham and Barking, whereas normal trains are in fact running to those stations, just not from here. He also banters with the bus company inspector sent to oversee timely dispatch. The next bus'll be here in about four or five minutes, he says. It won't.
I watch the Next Bus indicator spew out a cavalcade of incorrect due times. "5 mins", it says. "1 min", it says. "We're sorry but there is a connection error", it says. "Due", it says. "13 mins", it says. "9 mins", it says. The next bus eventually turns up on "6 mins" because its departure is being controlled by the inspector, not the electronics. The Next Bus Indicator also thinks the 241 goes to "Startford City", because it has been badly programmed, but that's not relevant here.
About a dozen people are waiting to board this DL-6 journey. Some of them want to wave a card to pay, because they're unfamiliar with the free nature of replacement bus travel. "GET ON!" barks the inspector, as they dither by the card reader wondering why it hasn't registered. On a normal day my District line train would have arrived at Monument quarter of an hour ago, but today I am still at Canning Town.
We whizz to Bromley-by-Bow via the A13 and the A12. The on board display could have been programmed to show the names of the upcoming stations, but alas it has not. Several people are waiting outside the station because there hasn't been a bus for quarter of an hour. The member of staff in hi-vis is wearing a big black rucksack on his back so it's impossible to read any part of the words CUSTOMER INFORMATION. A wheelchair user arrives, and the driver has to reverse the bus slightly to get into a good position to extend the ramp.
While we wait I watch passengers arriving at the tube station and being surprised that there are no trains. They walk in, they stare at the row of four boards across the ticket hall and they walk out again. The most extreme example of this is a car which stops near the station, illegally, to drop off a school-aged child. Dad roars off, she walks up to the station and only when she steps inside does she realise her intended journey is scuppered. No matter how hard TfL try to announce their engineering works in advance, a significant proportion of travellers always end up being caught out.
The situation at Bow Road is a proper mess. Bus Stop Z outside Bow Road station is currently closed due to emergency gas works so replacement buses aren't able to stop here. No clues have been provided regarding where to wait instead. Even if you walk up to the station entrance and read the panoply of notices arrayed outside, all they say is "No trains from this station" and "Central line services are running from Mile End station which is about a five minute walk away". The eastbound bus stop on the other side of the road is not mentioned. The fact that westbound buses are in fact stopping outside Bow Church station, less than five minutes up the road, is not mentioned either. This is abominably poor dissemination of possible travel options, and entirely tube-obsessed.
And so we stop at Bus Stop B outside Bow Church station instead, which I note has not been graced with a yellow 'Rail replacement bus service stops here' cover. The only clue that replacement buses might stop here is a youth in a pink hi-vis, and he's also wearing a rucksack which entirely obscures CUSTOMER INFORMATION on his back, indeed I'd walked straight past him earlier in the morning without the penny dropping. In summary the westbound replacement bus service at Bow Road/Bow Church is a total secret, because nobody has been bothered to think this through. We pick up a couple of extra passengers nonetheless.
Unsurprisingly most of my fellow passengers alight here and pour off towards the Central line. The pink-jacketed member of staff is again wearing a rucksack, but low-slung enough that most of CUSTOMER INFORMATION is readable. I have now seen enough to know that the design of this staff uniform is patently flawed, especially since no paid employee is going to be keen on leaving their belongings unattended in a bus shelter for several hours.
The rucksack problem has been solved at Stepney Green, but only because no member of staff is present... on either side of the road. There is a lady in a blue Team London ambassador tabard, but surely the bus company hasn't stooped so low as to get unpaid volunteers to do their work for them.
Whitechapel is the reason the engineering works are taking place, as yet another weekend closure is required to progress Crossrail a little further. With its start date still over a year away there could be many more replacement bus weekends to come. The Overground isn't stopping here either, but there are no replacement buses for that. Full marks to the young man in the pink tabard, however - not only is he rucksackless but he's also wearing a tie.
I've now been on the move for an hour, which is ridiculously slow, but I can at last alight and catch the District line again. Almost everybody else piles off with me. The driver extends the ramp so that the wheelchair user can get off too, but it turns out she actually wants to continue to the last stop at Tower Hill (because Tower Hill has lifts) so he has to withdraw it again. The pedestrian crossing between the bus stop and the station entrance is out of action, so I have to dash across the road in a gap in the traffic.
There are no eastbound services from this station today, nor any Hammersmith & City services whatsoever. A member of station staff announces this information while striding up and down the opposite platform (inbetween blaring out Lewis Capaldi from his personal device). He has rather more to do when an eastbound District line train arrives and everybody aboard has to be turfed off. The station has two exits, but he does not mention which is more convenient for the replacement bus stop. The driver has already set the scrolling destination to Richmond, despite the fact he's about to head empty into the darkness.
I face a long wait on the westbound platform because it turns out trains are only departing Aldgate East every ten minutes. The Next Train Indicator proves unable to tell us when the next train will arrive, only perking up just before it arrives with the unhelpful message "Check Front Of Train". It's going to Richmond, of course it is.
At Tower Hill I realise I've been a bit of an idiot. A Wimbledon train is waiting in the adjacent platform, and of course Circle line trains are still operating as normal in both directions. This means there are three times as many westbound trains from Tower Hill as there are from Aldgate East, so what I should have done is STAY ON THE BUS to Tower Hill. Nobody ever suggested this. Instead I languished on the platform at Aldgate East for eight minutes, making my journey that unnecessary little bit longer.
Finally, at long last, I have reached my intended destination. I know I haven't travelled via the most efficient route, but equally at no time during my journey has any sign, notice, person or announcement intimated that the DLR or c2c might be the way to go. Also my intention had been to test out the replacement bus service to see if that driver's warning of "delays of up to an hour and a half" might possibly be true, and it was not. It has in fact taken me 75 minutes to get here, rather than the usual 20 - a delay of 'only' 55 minutes.
Along the way my journey has showcased a huge number of issues with the replacement bus service and the dissemination of information, indeed it was an almost entirely sub-optimal journey from start to finish. Expect a similar debacle out there today, and on numerous sloppy weekends in the future.