diamond geezer

 Sunday, July 26, 2009

Red Arrow 507: Waterloo - Victoria
Location: Central London
Length of journey: 2 miles, 15 minutes

The 507's not just a bus route, it's an electoral policy in action. Last week the 507 was operated by the "writhing whales of the road" - Boris's much-derided bendy buses. And now they're gone. Extinction starts here, on this minor commuter route running between two mainline termini. The big question - was it worth the effort?

507... to... WaterlooThe first thing you'll think when you see a replacement 507 is "oh look, it's a bendy bus". The new Citaros look remarkably similar, having been built by the same company as their evil predecessor, and they also have doors for boarding in the middle. Sounds familiar. But they're not bendy buses because "oh yes, they don't bend in the middle." They don't take up a full 18 metres of traffic space either, they're only two-thirds the size. Still longer than your average London bus, but because they're not articulated they satisfy one of Boris's key campaign pledges. Result, box ticked, big blond smile.

There's another first on the 507 this weekend, and that's the introduction of a weekend service. Previously buses only ran Mondays to Fridays, carting thousands of commuters from their suburban trains to the office and back again. The 507 (and its eastern cousin the 521) have always been absolutely rammed in the rush hour, but not particularly well frequented during the rest of the day. The introduction of a weekend service might therefore be thought unnecessary, especially when there's another bus (the 211) that plies between Waterloo and Victoria seven days a week. Ignoring logic, I turned up round the back of Waterloo station yesterday to partake in the Great Leap Forward.

507... to... WaterlooOn stepping aboard my fresh 09-reg Mercedes, I was struck how similar the interior looked to that of a bendy bus. No wobbly bit in the middle, but other than that incredibly familiar. Big yellow grab poles, unstable grey loops hanging from the ceiling and a couple of oval-shaped Oyster readers facing the central doorway. Seen those before. But there was one major difference inside - far fewer seats. Only two seats remain between the driver and the centre of the bus, making space for an expanse of blue vinyl flooring (with a tentative gangway up the middle etched out in darker shades). There's room for a wheelchair, of course, but this vehicle has been fitted out with standing-room-only mass transit in mind. Not ideal for veering round corners at half past eight in the morning - it reminded me somewhat of an unstable dancefloor on wheels.

Thankfully there are more than two seats in the rear half of the bus, installed around the wheel arches in a slightly unusual pattern. Three of the seats face inwards, the rest face forward or back. One rear-facing seat even has its own tray-shaped luggage space alongside because there's no room to shoehorn somewhere to sit. But the 507 isn't a vehicle for resting your legs (it's more like a tube carriage in that respect). There are only 20 seats in total, which felt rather low given that each bus is 12 metres long. I must still have the wrong mindset. In 21st century travel, it seems, being able to squeeze aboard comes a long way ahead of comfort.

We set off through the streets around Waterloo (I say "we", I mean the driver and myself - we had 6m of roadspace each) and soon ended up in a jam. York Road was rammed with cars and coaches, which gave me longer to stare at the London Eye and County Hall but didn't aid our progress. The road was clearer past St Thomas's Hospital, and we were even joined by three other passengers. Every now and then I noticed that we were having our picture taken - certain gentlemen do like to take photographs of buses on their first/last day in service, and they were dotted along the pavement as we passed.

Across Lambeth Bridge, where I had a far finer view of Parliament than Monday morning's sardines will enjoy, and into the backstreets of CivilServiceLand. Nobody wanted to board or disembark outside the Department of Transport, but we pulled up and stopped anyway. Same story outside Channel 4 HQ (nice brollies, guys), then the odd tight bend round towards Victoria. The above average length of the bus still felt awkward, still a potential danger to pedestrians and cyclists, although still safer than swinging a monster bendy through the same streets.

507... to... WaterlooAnd finally, the long way, round into Victoria bus station. The 507 gets a lane all to itself, which is desperately useful on a Monday morning but rather wasteful at the weekend. Indeed, given that only four passengers had availed themselves of the bus at any point during our journey, I questioned the need for this service to be running on a Saturday or Sunday at all. Far cheaper, I'd have thought, to stick a minibus on the route - we'd still have had several seats each. Or cheaper still to have put all of us in the back of a taxi. There were certainly no crowds at Victoria clamouring to be whisked back to Waterloo.

So, has the change on route 507 been worthwhile? I'm not convinced. All that appears to have happened is that a big long bendy bus has been replaced by a long-ish bus that looks like a bendy bus but doesn't bend. Travelling conditions inside will be no better, but there'll be less capacity so more buses will be needed. The 507 used to be run by a fleet of nine, now it's a fleet of fifteen. Rush hour buses used to run every five minutes, now it'll be every three. Stop me if I'm wrong, but more buses an hour means more traffic, and therefore more danger to cyclists not less. The weekend service is even more bike-unfriendly, increasing the number of buses from zero to five an hour, and adding a finite amount of frame-crushing risk where previously there was none.

And this new fleet of buses has cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, money which might have been better spent on more useful travel projects. Boris claims that the expense will be part offset by reduced fare-dodging. "It's bad news for those who thought the bendy bus was the free bus," he said on Friday. "It will be more difficult to get on without paying." He's right, but only sort of. A bendy bus had three doors and these only have two, so it is more difficult to get on. But travellers on the 507 will still be able to nip aboard through the middle door and disregard the instruction to touch in their Oysters, so fare-dodging continues to be a unavoidable possibility. It's got to be like this because the 507s need more than one entrance - they're a high-frequency route and need to be rapidly boardable. But you wait until tomorrow morning and see if two doors is better than three.

The bendy bus is dead, hurrah! Or perhaps, in this case, not.

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