Route 521: Waterloo to London Bridge Location: Central London Length of journey: 3 miles, 40 minutes
The 521 is London's most frequent bus service. Paradoxically, it doesn't run at weekends. The 521 is a true oddity, the commuters' friend, and exists because it's a lot cheaper than digging a new tube line. It crosses the Thames twice to connect two rail termini to places of work around Holborn and the City. It would be quicker to walk from one end to the other than to take the bus, not that any regular passenger would ever dream of riding all the way. So I did.
Never let it be said that queueing is dead. Visit the bus stops along the flank of Waterloo in the morning peak and you'll find several, two of which are for the 521. One aligns with the front doors and another with the centre, each with its own shelter in case the weather is inclement. As one bus vanishes the queues build up again, ready for double boarding, as the next vehicle lines up round the corner ready to take its place. Between half past seven and half past nine the 521 sets off every two minutes... as it'll do again between half past four and half past six, except then there'll be hardly anybody here waiting.
I've joined the crew who don't need to be at their desks by nine, but maybe nine thirty, so the bus I board isn't quite as rammed as those which left a few minutes earlier. Even better I manage to grab a seat, but the majority behind me in the queue are not so fortunate. They nip on with their free magazines and gym bags, their books and massive headphones, and clutch the handrail. Those packed beside the windows stare out in purgatorial indifference, displaying a fine range of tailored jackets, floral blouses and natty scarves. It's time to head across the river.
The on-board screen suggests we'll reach Holborn in five minutes and St Paul's in 17 (whereas anywhere better reached via the Waterloo & City line is conspicuously absent from the list). Nobody seems interested in hopping off on the south side of Waterloo Bridge, so everyone gets to enjoy the world-class view along the river Thames... unless they've seen it umpteen times before, or are squished somewhere in the middle of the bus from which it is invisible.
Wahey, here comes a unique bit of road no other London bus follows, namely the Strand Underpass. What's more only the northbound 521 uses it, because the former Kingsway tramway subway now only has room for one-way traffic. A serious left-hand bend intrudes part-way through, somewhere near the basement of Bush House, requiring a foot off the accelerator to negotiate. And in case you're wondering whether this tunnel might be an architecturally fascinating treat, no, it's basically a wall of concrete blocks and the occasional safety sign.
I can't help noticing that the lady sat in front of me is answering her office emails to fill the time. She's spotted a pertinent feature in the morning's freebie, so emails Lisa to ask if there are "any other verticals going out we need to know about". She asks Georgina about travel to Amsterdam, and Sarah about the Elite Singles partner proposal. She opens up an enquiry from Mark about his confidential salary review, and invites him to speak to her in the office later. I've changed the recipients' names to protect her PR agenda, but I wonder how much other confidential communication is undertaken in full public view on the 521.
Around half the passengers on the bus alight at Holborn. They could have caught any of seven other bus routes to get here, and I saw a particularly long queue for the 243, but I guess this crowd prefer the frequent express through the tunnel. A couple of people duly climb aboard, and I notice one of them fails to touch in, indeed I've spotted a fair few (on the 507 as well as the 521) treating the middle door as an excuse for a free ride.
On High Holborn a lady steps off the pavement in front of us having failed to spot the traffic lights have changed, because her phone is more interesting, and is blasted by a loud beep on the horn for her trouble. At Chancery Lane the number of passengers aboard halves again, and is now down to more like fifteen. The display screen has started to suggest it'll be 25 minutes before we reach London Bridge, which seems a ridiculously improbable length of time (but turns out to be correct).
At Fetter Lane a button is pressed to announce "The driver has been instructed to wait at this stop for a short time to even out the service". This is ridiculous for three reasons. Firstly, these buses run really (really) frequently. Secondly, it turns out the extra wait is only for a minute. And thirdly, absolutely nobody else is waiting to get on board at any of the remaining stops. Whatever, the majority of the remaining passengers alighted when faced with this announcement, and now there are only 4 of us left.
I note that the 521s going the other way are mostly standing-room only, packed with passengers who clearly don't have to be at their desks terribly early. And there are a lot of 521s, they're everywhere, indeed it takes 27 electric vehicles to keep this brief service on the road. But heading my way, from St Paul's Cathedral onwards, there's only me on board. In terms of time, that's half the journey that the driver would have had nobody else for company if I hadn't made the journey. A heck of a lot of driving hours are being wasted transporting air, just so that dozens of people can cram in for the first bit of the ride.
"This bus is now on diversion and will not be serving Cannon Street station." Oh joy. Gas escape repair works have blocked King William Street since the end of April, one way only, so we're to be sent round the long way. Specifically that's via Bank, and worse than that it's via Threadneedle Street, because impromptu roadworks are a central London curse. Until the start of June the eastbound 521 has become a wholly inefficient experience, which must be infuriating the regular commuters on their homeward journey, but for now is only inconveniencing me for an extra ten minutes.
I spy someone in the heart of financial territory scudding along the pavement on a scooter. I spy a smart woman entering the back door of Lloyds Bank carrying a bag of shareable treats. I spy a queue of buses snaking ahead waiting for the lights to change. I spy workmen legs-deep in a hole manipulating a spaghettisworth of plastic pipes. And I spy the last hordes of the morning commute flooding over London Bridge, because not everybody catches the bus.
We finally roll up the ramp into London Bridge bus station, the driver and me, 40 minutes after starting out. It feels like forever, but actually it's only five minutes longer than mandated in the timetable, so not too bad. He now gets to rest awhile before carrying the day's final stragglers back towards High Holborn, and maybe nobody at all into Waterloo, as the service winds down to a less hectic daytime frequency. The 521 might seem a terrible waste of money, but its contribution (for a few hours a day) is invaluable, and it is a lot cheaper than digging a new tube line.