diamond geezer

 Monday, May 20, 2019

Last month Hammersmith Bridge had to be closed to road traffic after safety checks revealed "critical faults". The bridge is 132 years old and built for elegance rather than strength, its decking comprising 999 square panels in various states of disrepair. Best not stare too carefully as you cross.

Previous emergency closures have been relatively short, whereas this latest closure is indefinite pending a proper funded plan. Walking and cycling across the bridge is still allowed, which is just as well, but motorists now face lengthy diversions via Chiswick Bridge or Putney Bridge.

Before the closure five bus routes crossed the bridge, providing an invaluable connection for Barnes residents otherwise hemmed inside a sweeping Thames meander. TfL responded with some temporary rejigging of routes, then launched a consultation on something more medium-term, then enacted those changes three days later. The 72 they curtailed to run only north of the river, the 33, 419 and 485 only south. The 209 was diverted to Putney Bridge instead of Hammersmith, linking to the tube being its raison d'ĂȘtre. And because the less mobile still need to be able to get across the river without walking they introduced a new route, the 533. I took a ride on the 533 on its first day, which was Saturday. It was an unexpectedly awful experience.

Here's a map showing roughly where all the rejigged routes go.

It's of very poor quality because I knocked it up in MS Paint, but simultaneously very much better than any map TfL have produced because they haven't produced one. In what follows, the lack of a coherent map will be a significant contributory factor.

Route 533: Hammersmith to Castelnau
Length of journey: 6 miles, 30 minutes
In normal times: ¾ mile, 5 minutes

Route 533 runs every half an hour between Hammersmith bus station and Castelnau, Lonsdale Road - which is just the other side of Hammersmith Bridge. You could walk it in 15 minutes. The bus takes rather longer because it has to go the long way. Not everybody who gets on board realises this.

I turn up at Hammersmith bus station in time for an afternoon departure. I head to Bus Stop K in the lower bus station where about a dozen passengers are waiting. Amongst them are two young footballers, a pair of brownies in uniform and a mum with pink hair swigging an orange juice. I need to show you Bus Stop K, because it contains the worst tile infringement I've ever seen on a London bus stop.

There is no route N782, never has been, never will be. TfL don't run buses with numbers in the seven hundreds, let alone nightbuses - the bus in question should be the N72. And yet someone made a tile labelled N782, someone else installed it, and somebody more important failed to spot it shouldn't be there. If you need firm evidence that the team who organise TfL's bus operations have taken their eye off the ball, here it is.

A poster displayed inside the shelter shows which bus stop to use to board your bus, either here in Hammersmith or on the other side of the bridge. Two of the stops are called Bus Stop K, the one we're starting at and the one we're going to. One of the most useful stops doesn't have a letter. Two bubbles depict walks of 10 and 20 minutes respectively, which it turns out relate to thin dotted lines across the river. This is the sole reference to the bridge still being open to those on foot. I've seen far clearer explanations of complex situations.

A steward in an SFM tabard is waiting beside the stop to offer guidance if required. She's the only person who has a map of route 533, marked on a printout in blue highlighter, and also the only person who has a timetable. She's also very keen to warn people against boarding a 72 instead. "It's only going as far as Hammersmith Bridge," she shouts, four times, before the next number 72 departs.

In fact, assuming you're reasonably able-bodied, the 72 is easily the quickest way to cross the Thames. A one-stop hop takes you to Hammersmith Bridge Road, from which it's a two minute walk to the bridge and a further five minutes to Castelnau on the other side. As things turn out, anyone taking the 72 and walking would have saved themselves an hour on how long it'll eventually take, but instead the footballers and brownies and orange juice swiggers dutifully wait.

Every few minutes an announcement about Route 533 is made over the tannoy. I'll be hearing it several times while I'm waiting, so I'm pretty certain it goes like this...
"The Hammersmith Bridge is closed. The route 533 will run a shuttle service via the A4 towards Chiswick Bridge and continue the service towards the south side of Hammersmith Bridge via the Barnes area. For more details speak to SFM or TfL staff or visit TfL-dot-gov-dot-uk."
In the absence of a map or a timetable, this is the best explanation of route 533 any of us will be getting. Those with local knowledge, and who are actually listening, will realise that's quite a long way. But everyone else is just pleased there's a direct bus, a magic red box that'll transport them somehow across the river. And so they wait.

The incoming 533 arrives and lets off quite a lot of passengers. The driver does some tidying up, closes the door behind him and wanders off. The time of our scheduled departure passes, and "533     due" sits at the top of the electronic display for some considerable time.

Another member of staff wanders over and complains that she can't get into the ladies toilet. Our steward knows the door can be a bit stiff, so wanders off to provide assistance. While she's away a number 72 arrives and, because there's nobody to warn them, several people get on. Four get straight back off after the driver explains he's only going one more stop. These include the two footballers and their mum. "The 533 will be fine," she says, "it's only four stops." She's wrong, of course, it's going to be twenty.

The staff member who wanted the toilet turns out to be our bus driver. She boards the vehicle twelve minutes after it should have left and faffs around inside. Sorry, says the steward on her return, they've cancelled the quarter to and this is now going to be the quarter past. She also reveals she's been on duty since six this morning and won't be off shift until nine this evening. She's doing a sterling job.

Up rolls a member of British Airways flight crew with a peaked cap hung over the handle of his suitcase. He's making a call and his phone is still glued to his ear when a 72 pulls in, and on he gets. "It's only going to the bridge!" says the steward, repeatedly, following him onto the bus to try to press the point. But Peter the pilot isn't listening and heads off obliviously aboard the curtailed bus. Perhaps he cursed at the other end. Perhaps he got home quicker.

At last our 533 is driven over and on we get, sixteen of us in total. The driver doesn't go anywhere for five minutes, just sits there revving the non-Euro-VI-compliant engine. The footballers' mother walks forward to the driver's cab and waves the screen of her phone, keen to confirm that our bus will actually be going to her chosen destination. She returns reassured. According to the electronic display outside, the next 533 departs in 6 minutes. But this is rubbish, it's quarter past and off we go.

Our first stop is beside St Paul's church on Hammersmith Bridge Road. Anyone alighting here and proceeding on foot could be in Castelnau in under ten minutes. From there four different bus routes proceed through Barnes at regular intervals, which is easily the fastest option for several of those on board. But nothing at the bus stop mentions this, only an out of date map showing the previous temporary situation, and so a hockey player and a lady carrying a bunch of M&S dahlias climb aboard.

Beyond the flyover we ease onto the Great West Road and join three slow moving lanes of traffic. No other bus goes this way, only the 533. The iBus display is now showing that our next stop is at the Hogarth Roundabout, which is over a mile away. After a few minutes Footballers' Mum finally twigs that we're taking the scenic route to Barnes, and heads up to the front of the bus to show the driver her phone again. The driver uses hand gestures to reassure her, successfully, and back she sits.

Eventually we bear off the A4, and lose the traffic, speeding instead past the grounds of Chiswick House towards Chiswick Bridge. Traffic in the opposite direction looks somewhat clogged, so I don't rate the chances of any 533 heading back to Hammersmith. The view from the bridge is splendid. After fifteen minutes we have finally crossed the river Thames... but are now two miles away from the point we could have walked to in that time instead.

The Brownies and their mother alight outside the Stag Brewery in Mortlake, three quarters of an hour after they first turned up at the bus station. Further passengers alight on the riverside road towards Barnes, where we're now making good progress because traffic heading away from Chiswick Bridge is light. Towards Chiswick Bridge, not so good. I notice that every bus stop along the route has the same yellow poster to try to explain the latest changes. Unfortunately all it shows is where to board your bus on either side of Hammersmith Bridge, so out here it's no use whatsoever.

Waterfront Barnes is, as ever, gorgeous. It's also where buses on route 209 would normally head off down the High Street towards the heart of the village. Alas none of the newly-rejigged routes currently do this. Instead we head north along the riverbank, which provokes Footballers' Mum to make yet another trek up front to speak to the driver. Route 533 runs in a big clockwise loop round Barnes and Castelnau so the driver confirms yes, we really are going to the Red Lion. On foot from here it would only have taken ten minutes. Aboard our 533 it's going to take more than fifteen.

The next mile up to Castelnau is normally Hail and Ride on the 419, so is also designated Hail and Ride on the 533. The lady with the M&S dahlias spots this on the display and dings the bell at the appropriate point in the hope of getting off. Alas our driver has other ideas and ignores her, even sailing past a mysterious innovation I've never seen before - a bus stop labelled HAIL & RIDE. Admittedly its temporary sign was obscured behind a leafy tree and a school sign, so maybe she missed it. Further dings have absolutely no effect, so Dahlia Lady has to walk up front and urge the driver to obey instructions and stop. She departs huffily with an "And now I have to walk all the way back there!"

The next Hail and Ride dinger is equally unsuccessful, failing to alight at the traffic lights a short walk from the south side of Hammersmith Bridge. Instead she has to wait until we've swung round to an actual bus stop outside the shopping parade on Castelnau proper. At least 30 people are waiting on the pavement, but our driver doesn't open the front doors, merely closes the middle ones. Footballers' Mum is getting restless. The lady in front of me turns round with a look that says "what on earth is going on?"

I know what's going on, because I've spotted the light on the Oyster card reader has turned red. This stop is the so-called hesitation point on the 533's looping journey, the place where the driver has to stop and flip the blind. I've also seen the timetable online, so I know a) we're two minutes late b) we're only scheduled to wait here for a minute. Our driver decides to wait for four minutes... doors closed, engine running, passengers waiting, no explanation offered.

When the doors do finally open, many of the hordes boarding have questions for the driver. They're confused by a bus which says 'Hammersmith' on the front but is pointing away from Hammersmith Bridge. Our driver tells them yes she is going there, and yes Barnes Pond too, and in they pour. This is what happens on the first day of a new bus route when all the bus timetables and spider maps at a bus stop are out of date and the only information available is a small diagram showing where to catch your bus but not which way it goes.

We set off nine minutes late, rather than two, very much standing room only. Driving down Castelnau is a dream, there being hardly any traffic, this the advantageous consequence of closing a nearby bridge to all motor vehicles. We reach the Red Lion in a trice, which is where Footballers' Mum and her two strikers finally alight... 65 minutes after turning up at Hammersmith bus station. Lots of people alight with them, indeed most of the crowd who've only just boarded had no intention of going to Hammersmith, they merely wanted a lift to Barnes.

At Barnes Pond a lady waiting with a terrier engages with the driver, fails to receive an intelligible answer and reluctantly boards. She gets off a couple of stops later with an exasperated shrug, having not been carried to where she expected to go. This is also where the very last passenger from Hammersmith bus station alights, right at the end of the 533's loop, indeed we were barely 100 metres away twenty minutes ago. I think I've had enough too.

Unbelievably it's at this point that another 533 overtakes us. This shouldn't be possible on a route than operates every half an hour - we're not running that late - but it's happened all the same. The overtaking bus is almost empty. At least a dozen poor souls are still aboard our overtaken service, heading towards the queues at Chiswick Bridge and a lengthy detour. I wish them luck, and walk back to Hammersmith instead.

Sorry if that went on a bit, but I don't ever remember blogging a bus journey that was quite such a fiasco from start to finish. The rogue driver didn't help, but the main bone of contention was the 533 itself. It's a perfectly reasonable route in the circumstances, linking across the Thames as best it can for the benefit of those who can't walk across the bridge. What's unforgivable is how badly it's been explained, as the baffled public I met along the way so ably demonstrated.

A raft of changes hurriedly implemented. A bus stop tile depicting an entirely fictional nightbus. Bus stops with changed tiles but unchanged timetables. Spider maps still showing what buses stopped doing a month ago. Passengers told the destination of a bus but not where it actually goes. A map showing where to board your bus in Hammersmith stuck to every bus stop in Barnes and Mortlake. Maps of individual routes hidden within a consultation subpage but nothing showing how everything links together. And dozens of people wasting their lives aboard an infrequent indirect bus when they could have been told to walk across the bridge and catch their normal bus from there.

The team that coordinates and communicates changes to London's bus routes is an embarrassment. With dozens of big changes across Central London imminent, this is unlikely to end well.

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