diamond geezer

 Monday, July 15, 2013

Route 588: Hackney Wick - Stratford City
Location: through the Olympic Park
Length of journey: 2 miles, 15 minutes

Now here's an odd bus. It's the very first TfL service to run through the Olympic Park. It's a double decker, with scenic views. It's a temporary service for 2013 only. It started operation this weekend, two weeks before Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park opens to the public. It's had barely any publicity, as if someone really doesn't want you to use it yet. And, not surprisingly, it has almost no passengers. Welcome to the 588.

Come December, when the Eastway has been remodelled to take two-way traffic, the 388 will be extended from Hackney Wick to Stratford. Until then the 588 runs the last bit, shuttling between the bus terminus on Eastway and the bus station at Stratford City. The idea is to provide a public transport link between Hackney and the shops at Westfield, which will be an excellent idea once the bus goes all the way and residents get to hear about it. In the meantime three drivers are being employed to transport air from a quiet corner of E9 to E20, from 5am until 1am, and passengers are conspicuous by their absence.

Stop number 1 is near the former Public Baths on the Eastway - a relatively out-of-the way location. Someone's been round to add a '588' plate to the bus stop, and a sign that says buses now travel "towards Homerton Hospital or Stratford City". But there's no timetable posted for the 588, nor does its route appear on the map in the shelter, so the waiting public are none the wiser. It's the same story at every other stop down the line, or at least it has been over the 588's first weekend. The secret bus arrives, the secret bus picks up nobody, the secret bus departs.

The first bit of the route is a detour, because the quick route straight ahead remains one-way traffic. Three stops to the north of the A12 are served, the last of which used to be called Olympic Park North but is currently labelled Hackney Marsh. It's your last chance to climb aboard before Westfield, but don't expect anyone to get on here either. The bus then joins the queue of cars waiting to drive through the park to the mega-mall's multi-storey. The 588's notional 10 minute running time is already looking somewhat optimistic.

No buses have run down Waterden Road since July 2007, when the three bus garages along here were forced to relocate pre-Olympics. Their depots later formed the backdrop for the Games and those nice green lawns sloping down to the river. Even Waterden Road has been relocated, a little to the west of where it was, now running alongside the back of the International Broadcast Centre. Cars have been allowed to travel this way for months, because big retailers need customers, but only now is there a footpath running alongside for the use of pedestrians. It's just not open yet.

This weekend's event in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park was the Wireless Festival, headlined by Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z. Thanks to the 588 I've almost been, or at least I've peered over the perimeter wall at the circus-style tents, gents loos and drinks concessions. The main entrance is opposite the Copper Box, where barriers funnel festival-goers through their patdown and ticket check. This stream of humanity crosses Waterden Road at a hand-controlled Stop-Go junction, causing the bus yet further delays. Even a year after the Olympics this is still a very entertainment-oriented spot.

Two bus stops outside the Copper Box await their first passengers, probably in a fortnight's time, but are currently covered up. That big mirrored RUN sculpture remains outside, one of the few leftovers from the Olympic Park allowing comparison of 2013 roadspace with 2012 walkway. And then the road turns left toward Westfield, crossing the bridge across the narrow centre of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. To the north the parklands look lush and inviting, though without the signature wild flower meadows we all loved last summer. And to the south there's the Stadium, the Orbit and the Aquatic Centre, the latter now shorn of its wings, again with attractive greenery in the foreground.

On entering the Westfield complex the 588 should run straight ahead, past two new bus stops outside John Lewis and the bar area. The latter stop looks particularly bereft, with no timetables on the post, and the bus shelter inconveniently situated a dozen yards away. But the 588 can't travel this way when QEOP is in full-on festival mode, so at the weekend it was diverted round the northern side of the mall past Stratford International station. There are new bus stops here too, still shrouded in yellow "Bus stop not in use" coverings, awaiting their first services at the end of August. Ooh, International Way has finally opened to traffic, and it's even possible to walk up Celebration Avenue into what used to be the Athletes Village. London's post-Olympic legacy is silently, inexorably, opening up for business.

At the last stop in Stratford City bus station the 588 opens its doors, even if there are no passengers aboard to alight. And then the driver waits patiently for the appointed time in case anybody else wants to travel back the other way. It's not looking likely. Again there's no 588 timetable here, nor does the 588 appear on any map, so when the bus pulls up to start its journey not a single shopper from the waiting horde gets on. They'll get the hang eventually, especially when they realise the 588 is the ideal service for taking a picnic to the Park. But for now it potters off empty, three or four times an hour, reclaiming the Lower Lea Valley for precisely nobody. Why not book your top deck ride today?

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