diamond geezer

 Saturday, June 26, 2004

Round the bend

The 25 is one of London's busiest bus routes (absolutely jam-packed it is, even on a Sunday afternoon), following a pretty much arrow-straight route from Ilford to Oxford Circus (via my house). 'Busy and straight' are the perfect conditions for a takeover by huge 18m-long bendy buses so, as of dawn this morning, the huge 18m-long bendy buses have taken over. Overnight the Mile End Road has been hijacked by road-hogging articulated vehicles that can't manouevre particularly well. There's more space inside than on the old double deckers but there are now fewer seats. Passengers have a choice of three doors to board through but they have to buy a ticket before boarding or else they get kicked off. It's all a bit scary. I've been out for a Saturday morning ride on these new urban monsters, just to see how they and the travelling public are coping, and initial reports are not good.

The 25 starts its ten mile journey into civilisation just opposite the Oxfam shop on Ilford High Street. I hopped on through the rear door, just for the novelty value, and perched on a raised seat near the bendy bit in the middle. The bus smelt like the inside of a freshly purchased new car, deceptively spacious but still clean and gleaming. Hydraulics tilt the bus slightly towards the pavement at each stop to increase accessibility, the bell rings with a satisfying non-artificial ding, and none of the on-board Oyster card readers beside the second and third doors are yet functional. It was clear that our driver wasn't used to driving a 60 foot snake, so he edged gingerly round the narrow bends on the Ilford one-way system. "You've just got to keep thinking thin," he said to the bus company operative keeping a careful eye on him.

At the second stop outside Ilford Library a young Asian lady tried to board without having bought a ticket. The driver sent her back to the machine on the pavement and kindly waited while she tried desperately to stick a pound in. "It's only a machine, you only got to put money it!" said our driver, helpfully. Except this machine wasn't working properly and it took ages for her to extricate a small piece of paper from the slot at the bottom. By the time a second passenger had gone through the same rigmarole we were already running four minutes late. The driver learnt his lesson and whenever ticketless passengers tried to board later in the journey he sent them packing and drove off without them.

The bus chugged on through Manor Park and Forest Gate, slowly filling up with Saturday morning shoppers. Soon all the seats were taken and it was standing room only, although nobody seemed to want to stand on the bend in the middle for some reason. Passengers hadn't quite got the hang of being allowed to board through all three doors and so most queued up at the front door, only to squeeze on and discover that most of the remaining space was right down at the back. It's a long and difficult walk down a crowded aisle full of strap-hangers, eventually an impossible one, and as we approached Stratford the bus soon became front-heavy. It wasn't the most pleasant travelling experience for those forced to stand.

All this waiting around while passengers try to board isn't helping the buses to run regularly. The 25 is supposed to run every 6-8 minutes but instead these bendy buses appear to be bunching up with big long gaps inbetween. They seem to be running in pairs most of the time, the second emptier bus too cumbersome to overtake the first. At one stage I saw no buses passing the other way for about quarter of an hour, then six buses all within two minutes. The photo below shows four 25s queued up outside Bow Church, like a solid wall of red approaching the flyover. The front bus was packed, the second busy and the rear two almost empty. What a way to run a service.

Along the route a number of Transport for London employees were standing around in special red baseball caps handing out leaflets, generally at the least busy bus stops. One of them poked her head in to ask the driver if he'd tried out his ramp yet. He hadn't. In fact our only semi-disabled passenger had boarded at the rampless front door then struggled to hobble on crutches down the gangway, muttering "'kin assholes" under his breath. Given the speed that the swish new electric doors slam shut I wouldn't be surprised if these buses create more wheelchair-bound passengers than they transport. A ticket inspector climbed aboard along the Whitechapel Road, failing to find anyone who'd sneaked on without paying. It won't last.

We sped through the City, always deserted at weekends, until we were diverted off down an awkward sidestreet behind St Paul's to avoid major roadworks. Our driver took it slowly and thought thin. Down Oxford Street we joined the usual bus-jam, our now half-empty juggernaut taking up vastly unnecessary roadspace. The Olympic torch would be passing this way later in the afternoon, holding up the traffic even more. At Oxford Circus we followed the new 25 route left into Regent Street (because these lumbering buses aren't very good at turning right) before pulling to a final stop outside John Lewis. It felt a very long way from the Oxfam shop in Ilford, and a very long way from the horse-drawn omnibuses that used to drive into London down the Mile End Road 150 years ago. I took the tube home - I fancied a seat.

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