Sorry, this is a hyperlocal post, of interest only to those who live near the Bow Roundabout and those who ride the busiest bus in London.
I'm talking about the 25, the bus from Oxford Circus to Ilford, which carries about 25 million passengers a year. On its way it crosses the Bow Roundabout, this via the roundabout's slip roads rather than the flyover, because passing through at ground level best serves local passengers. Or at least it did until last week. Suddenly for no readily explained reason the 25 has been diverted across the flyover, where there are no bus stops, and those who live nearby are missing out.
Here's a map to show you what I mean. Heading east the 25 stops at the cluster of red dots to the left of my map, that's around St Mary's, the church in the middle of the road. It then usually stops outside the McDonalds drive-through, which is the first black cross, then usually stops again near the entrance to Marshgate Lane, which is the second. But as of last week the 25 is instead taking the flyover and skipping these two black crosses, stopping next at the farthest red dot near Warton Road. And that's a half mile gap where you can't get off and you can't get on. And that's not nice.
If you're waiting at either of the two black cross bus stops it's not the end of the world. Three other buses still travel eastward via the roundabout, the 276, 425 and D8, so to get to Stratford you simply wait for one of those. You'll probably have longer to wait than normal, and if you're going further than Stratford you may end up paying twice. But TfL have been very clear about what's going on, slapping a big red cross on the bus stop to show that the 25 doesn't stop, and sticking up a poster that says "Route 25 diverted". "Buses will be unable to serve this stop" it says, adding "Buses will be diverted via Bow flyover." But it doesn't explain why the 25 is taking a sudden shortcut, merely that it is.
If you're aboard the 25, however, things go wrong. And they go wrong because three of TfL's proudest digital systems don't work properly. The TfL website doesn't know about the stop closures, the Countdown indicators at bus stops remain silent, and the on-board announcements don't tell you enough until it's too late.
I thought I'd take a ride on the 25 to discover the true inconvenience of what's going on. Boarding by Bow Road station there was no indication that anything might be amiss a few stops up the road. A scrolling message on the Countdown display provided information about a bus stop in Aldgate that's currently closed, but that's not even in the right direction, so this was an essentially pointless message. Somebody in a control room somewhere needs to think more carefully about what they display.
Once on board the bus the audio announcements correctly ticked off each stop as we approached. But there were no passengers waiting at the last stop before the diversion, at Bow Church, so we didn't stop, and no words of warning cut in. We crossed over onto the flyover, which is not what the 25 normally does, while the non-25 bus in front continued down to the next stop as usual. Bow Flyover, flashed up the on-board display, so I dinged the bell. Bus stopping, flashed up the on-board display, but the bus didn't. After passing the stop, but now several feet in the air, up flashed Marshgate Lane on the on-board display. So I dinged the bell again, and again the display flashed up Bus stopping, and again of course it didn't. It couldn't because the flyover ends a few metres beyond this particular bus stop, so that was two stops we'd completely missed.
I dinged the bell again. This time the next stop was Warton Road, and we really were going to stop there. But Warton Road is a long way up Stratford High Street, past one, two, three separate sets of traffic lights. When we finally arrived it was at least a five minute walk back to the previous closed stop, and nearer ten to get back to the first, which required an awkward crossing of the Bow Roundabout. I'm fit and able so I coped, but for someone considerably less mobile this would be an unpleasant inconvenience.
Because what had happened didn't seem right, and being a glutton for punishment, I decided to repeat the experiment. This time the bus was packed, so did stop at the last stop before the diversion, and this time something different happened. The next bus stop is closed, announced the on-board display. The next bus stop is closed. The next bus stop is closed. The next bus stop is closed. Four times is a bit much, I thought, but at least they've announced it this time. Even so, I had two problems with the announcement. Firstly the next bus stop is not closed. Three other Stratford-bound buses still stop there, it's just that somebody's decided to reroute the 25 elsewhere, so you're on the wrong bus. And secondly, the next-but-one bus stop is also closed, but this never gets a mention. If you'd sat in your seat expecting to get off at Marshgate Lane as usual, your reward would have been an unexpected diversion and a long walk back.
And could I have spotted anything about this closure on the TfL website before I travelled? Well let's have a look. The year-old mobile-friendly TfL website doesn't have a single list of bus diversions any more. But it does have special pages for individual bus routes, and it does have special pages for individual bus stops. Let's take them one at a time.
» Checking the webpage for route 25 reveals three status alerts, each of which (somewhat annoyingly) has to be clicked on before you can read it. We discover that buses will be subject to delays on Drake Street WC1 until October 2016, for Crossrail reasons. We discover that Route 67 will be unable to serve stop 'F' at Aldgate East station until 14th April due to footway works, which isn't of relevance to route 25. And we discover that route 25 will be unable to serve stop 'R' on Aldgate High Street until 24th April due to a reduction of kerb space. We discover nothing whatsoever about the diversion in Bow.
» The webpage for the Bow Flyover bus stop appears to show business as usual. There is a little exclamation mark symbol by the route 25 marker, but clicking on this merely drags you off to the route 25 status alert page discussed earlier, and that's no help. Meanwhile the list of buses and departure times at the foot of the page suggests that the 25 is stopping at the Bow Flyover stop as normal. At time of writing there's apparently a 25 bus stopping in 4 minutes, 10 minutes, 12 minutes, 13 minutes, 15 minutes, 19 minutes, 20 minutes, 22 minutes, 26 minutes and 27 minutes. In reality, none of these buses are stopping here at all.
And this is no brief deviation, this is a three month diversion, running from 8pm on Monday 16th March to 4pm on Friday 26th June. I know this from the yellow sign posted up at the two out-of-commission bus stops, which appear to be the only places with any information about what's going on. What's odd is that nobody has chosen to explain why the 25 has to use the flyover. It can't be for any genuine physical reason, because the 425 still goes via the roundabout and that's a double decker too. It might simply be an attempt to speed up the 25 by skipping over the traffic queues at the Bow Roundabout. Or it might be a temporary balancing act to maintain the 25's overall timetable during the reconstruction of Cycle Superhighway 2. Slower progress through the roadworks at Aldgate might potentially be cancelled out later in the journey by speeding passengers quicker over the Bow Flyover. Which would be fine, indeed might even be good, so long as passengers didn't want to get off the bus in the meantime.
Sorry, this has been a hyperlocal post, of interest only to those who live near the Bow Roundabout and those who ride the busiest bus in London. But there is a wider message, which is that a long-term change to an important means of transport has been under-communicated. Whoever's job it is to post physical information at bus stops has done a good job, and nobody waiting at one of the affected bus stops should be in the dark. But whoever maintains TfL's digital services has missed the ball completely, with nothing on the website, nothing on Countdown displays and inadequate information on the bus. Just because something's flashy and electronic doesn't necessarily make for a good customer experience if nobody's fed in the appropriate information. And in this case the important message should be This bus is on diversion, not The next bus stop is closed.
» An email arrives from firstname.lastname@example.org: "Dear DG, I am writing to let you know that bus route 25 has been diverted via the Bow Flyover in both directions until further notice. This is due to Cycle Superhighway 2 works. During this time, route 25 will not serve the bus stops on Marshgate Lane and Bow Flyover.
(Only two weeks late, but thanks)
(But hang on, did you just say "until further notice"?!? Sigh)