diamond geezer

 Sunday, June 29, 2014

The largest bus garage in London is at West Ham, built on brownfield land beside the Jubilee line. It was completed in 2010 to solve the Olympic problem, namely how to replace two bus garages on Waterden Road wiped clean to stage the 2012 Games. The solution involved knocking down a Parcelforce depot and remediating the toxic land beneath, courtesy of a gasworks which once existed on the site. West Ham Bus Garage is now home to 350 buses and more than 700 staff, and one of the most bioefficient sustainabletastic structures in TfL's portfolio. And it was open to the public for tours yesterday, neither of which sold out. I assume you had something better to do. [25 photos]

These tours were part of the London Festival of Architecture, and also part of celebrations for the Year of the Bus. The building's been open for Open House before, but yesterday's were serious multi-faceted tours involving being on site for three hours, and therefore damned good value for money. The site's a little remote, accessed via a poorly-maintained sideroad near Star Lane DLR, but the buses trundle in and out via the neighbouring trading estate so don't suffer too much chassis trauma. Any member of the public can walk this way, because West Ham houses the lost property office for every Stagecoach bus in London. But to get any further within you need to be staff, or to be one of yesterday's fortunate fifty.

First up we were treated to a 45 minute talk from LT Museum Researcher Oliver Green, in a concrete-walled meeting room off the main suite of offices. He ran through a century of bus garage design, fully illustrated, from horse bus depots to large-span spaces such as Stockwell. Many of London Transport's bus garages in the 20s and 30s were every bit as striking as the tube stations we more usually celebrate, heights more rarely scaled of late. And then we got to listen to West Ham's architect explaining how the four-arch concept had been developed not as protection from the elements but as sound insulation. There are long-term plans to build residential blocks on the land to the north of the garage, linked to a second exit from West Ham station, but the money's not there so the housing plan's stalled.

Then for the main part of the visit we toured the garage itself. It was fascinating seeing the everyday facilities for bus drivers, from the clocking-in desk to the machine where they throw their cash at the end of a shift (that's for another week at least). You might have seen the staff canteen on Celebrity Masterchef last week, although it's clearly busier here midweek than on Saturday afternoons, which have more of a tumbleweed feel. Every route served by the garage has its own risk assessment posted up, plus a precisely timed list of shifts, now churned out by computer rather than fretted over by hand. And when it's time, the two external arches lead out to the buses, and the inner two arches to the maintenance area.

Around two dozen vehicles can be driven into the inspection pits and given a good once-over. Mechanics were stripping down engines as we passed, and a couple of Routemasters had their bonnets up to aid internal poking. West Ham is home to ten RMs used on the number 15, soon to be the only heritage route in town once the 9s are terminated next month. But most of the vehicles are more mundane, yet no less important, checked out every three weeks to ensure they run in optimum condition. From the top of the office/workshop block we could look down on the lot, and observe the pile of generic seat covers and cushions waiting patiently to be fitted and repeatedly sat on.

The yard out the back is huge, and relatively empty during the middle of the day. A few buses that weren't out servicing shoppers were parked up, along with those returning for a wash or mid-shift layover. The bus wash is down the far end of the site near the diesel tanks, where most of the driving is done by bespoke shunters in orange overalls. Close by is the 100kW wind turbine, a massive structure that contributes around 10% of the energy the garage needs to run. You can keep an eye on its performance here, constantly updated, including windspeed and current turbine power. It may be an eyesore to some, but it's a lot nicer than the pylon which stood almost precisely here before being packed off underground by the Olympics.

And they may not be based here, but Stagecoach had wheeled in a couple of New Buses For London now to be found in service on route 8. They'll more normally be garaged in Bow, but a silver bus and a red bus were lined up as a little day one treat. I was more chuffed to see the old Routemasters, those not off plying the streets of the City, what with West Ham Garage about to become the last stand for these splendid 60-year-old vehicles. But I was most chuffed to have been allowed inside this facility at all, and for so long, to get some idea of the effort it takes to make part of London's vast bus network tick. And if you never made it, I can at least share 25 photographs to give you some idea of what you missed.

My West Ham Bus Garage gallery
There are 25 photos altogether [slideshow]

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