Route EL3: Little Heath - Barking Reach
outer London east; 7 miles, 40 minutes
Welcome aboard London's newest bus. The EL3 is one day old, replacing the 387 which until yesterday ran along (almost) exactly the same route. The change brings together all the buses serving Barking Riverside under the East London Transit brand, joining the longer established EL1 and EL2. And all three routes are to get brand new vehicles, previously unfamiliar in these parts, kicking off with overnight replacement on the EL3.
Regular passengers were surprised to see gleaming New Routemasters waiting outside Little Heath Food and Wine in place of the bog-standard double deckers they remember. "Are we sure this is the right one?" asks one, who hasn't read the freshly-posted notice at the bus stop. "Wow Mum, that door opens as well!" cries another, rather younger. "Nice bus, do you like it?" asks the beaming driver as I board. I hedge my response somewhat, but am relieved to see route EL3's been gifted the updated model with the opening windows, part of the last batch bought by Boris. Upstairs smells a bit of newness, and the windows are already a bit grimy because that never takes long, and off we whirr.
Don't worry, I'll not regurgitate the full details of the southbound journey because we covered that yesterday. Take it as read that the EL3 went round the hospital, down Barley Lane past all the houses, through Goodmayes, down to Longbridge Road past lots more houses, past the bus garage, along the bus lane past yet more houses, and onwards to the centre of Barking.
The EL3's groupies are waiting outside the station with their cameras. They often come out on the first morning, the Men Who Like Buses, to grab their own mugshots of London's very latest vehicles. Today not only do they have a new route to celebrate but this is the first time New Routemasters have been seen as far east as Barking and Dagenham, plus there are all these new numberplates to record in their notebook. The largest group of MWLB is hanging around by the bus shelter, while one man has crossed the street to get a more oblique profile. Although a couple of their lenses are quite big, they're nothing compared to the monster I saw being wielded by two gentlemen earlier in the journey with a massive furry microphone attached, which seemed somewhat over the top.
Now that the 387's route has the EL3 label, it's allowed through the centre of Barking Town centre and no longer has to negotiate its way round slower peripheral streets. I don't think most regular users had noticed this yet so they all got out at the station rather than the next stop which is more convenient for the shops. Here the next batch of passengers awaits, the EL3 being essentially two half-routes bolted together, as are its partners EL1 and EL2. I'm struck by how much quicker the journey from the station to Lidl is than previosuly, although on the downside residents of Barking Riverside no longer have a direct route to the leisure centre, the theatre or Asda, only three buses to the shops.
And then there's a whole chunk more route that we covered yesterday, down Ripple Road and Movers Lane, across the A13, and straight ahead into the industrial backwaters of Creekmouth.
I didn't spot it on my 387 journey, because I was too excited to have spotted 'The Men Who Change The Bus Tiles Over', but a new-ish bus depot has been stashed away amid the metalworks and cash and carries. This is the River Road garage, opened in May last year, and is home to all of the EL-branded double deckers. So far only the EL3 has New Routemasters, while the EL1 and EL2 retain their original vehicles, but eventually they'll all be swapped over, using up another 46 of Boris's belated bequest. As yet all of the new buses are red, but it's expected they'll eventually get the East London Transit's trademark dusky autumn shades.
The grimmest part of the EL3's existing route is along Long Reach Road, which is currently a dead end so the bus turns off before the end. But this used to be the boundary of Barking Power Station, and is now the edge of a burgeoning housing estate, so contractors have been busy laying a cut-through. Already complete and labelled Bus Only, it passes along the side of some fairly lacklustre new flats, but is currently barriered off. Come autumn this gateway should be open for the exclusive use of the EL3, as the route is permanently diverted to serve the west and south of the new estate. They've even painted two bus stops on the other side, at the foot of Crossness Road, just before the road ends at another temporary fence and disappears into a pile of earth.
A bridge of sorts is being built across drains that cross the mud that used to be a power station. This'll eventually border a landscaped pool and several more new homes, but for now is the one missing link between here and a broad somewhat austere boulevard already rising on the other side. Bellway have a well-hidden showhome open, and hundreds of flats to flog, while workmen yell at one another and lower slabs into place outside. The development's publicity rather oversells the site's accessibility, and hints that owning a car might be a better option than taking the bus, but there aren't many other places in London where a newbuild 2 bedroom apartment is available for under £290,000.
The EL3 is due to pass along the southern edge of the community's centre, now complete with church, school, clocktower and three whole shops. One's a pharmacy, one occasionally sells coffee, and the third is a small supermarket with a big notice on the door warning 'No Hoodies!' It may not be much of a parade, but it's infinitely better than the zero shops Barking Riverside had until last year, and I suspect that residents remain over-reliant on online grocery services. Again the EL3's exclusive bus lane is already ready but out of bounds, leading to a bus-only junction and a short link out of the estate.
And out of the estate means River Road, where the 387 used to venture twice a day, which is Creekmouth's bleakest corner. The place livens up once a week when the Dagenham Sunday Market is held, still annoyingly inaccessible from existing bus routes, then for the rest of the week returns to a less agreeable existence as a dusty half-demolished backwater. It's amazing to think that a location once served by two buses a day might very soon be getting sixteen an hour, but perhaps less amazing when you consider that the Sunday Market site is pencilled in for hundreds of highrise riverside apartments, with thousands more on neighbouring sites.
Welcome to the proposed site of Barking Riverside Overground station, currently a pile of soil behind a fence near a mega-pylon, down a mucky road where HGV drivers park up overnight. Beyond this is the biggest redevelopment challenge of all, a long-abandoned expanse of polluted earth between Choats Road and the Thames, worth nothing as is but hundreds of millions as flats. Thus far the only building on site looks like a giant stack of portakabins but is actually going to be a secondary school for 1800 pupils, already with its motto out front, but as yet disturbingly unwelcoming. An unlikely public footpath still skirts the side of the river, a bit quicksandy at present, but easily the best place to see the scale of the challenge that lies ahead.
Look carefully and two new roads are being carved out, or maybe it's two ends of just one road, the very beginnings of a brand new community hereabouts. But there's no sign of this utterly desolate land being ready for housing any time soon, despite the dozens of heavy lorries making their way into the site. If all goes to plan the EL3 (and EL1) are due to terminate outside the school this September, down roads not yet complete, the first tendrils of connectivity which'll help bring this estuarine pipedream to fruition. In the meantime the existing terminus at the Riverside Centre is where the buses turn, for pioneering residents only, as this long-awaited transformation slowly ignites.