[NEW] Route 278: Heathrow to Ruislip Location: London west, outer Length of journey: 11 miles, 60 minutes
Of this weekend's four new bus routes, only the 278 could truly be described as new. It links Heathrow Airport to Ruislip for the first time, and creates a fresh north-south connection across the borough of Hillingdon. When the Mayor promised to boost services in the suburbs to make up for culling those in central London, this is the kind of thing he meant. It's also being operated with brand new vehicles, each USB-enabled, but for my journey they wheeled out an old (unplugged) one so I had to survive on battery power alone.
Heathrow Central bus station is a frenetic place, and also poorly signed. The bus shelter displays two nightbus maps and only one of daytime routes, which contains at least one spelling mistake and is now out of date. Stop 19 has an N140 timetable but not an N140 tile, and a 278 tile but not a 278 timetable. Indeed I never spotted a 278 timetable at any stop anywhere along the entire route, possibly because TfL's Bus Stop Team are overstretched or possibly because they're inept, you decide. My 278, when it arrives, is not mobbed*.
* An important fact about Heathrow airport is that it's surrounded by a Freeflow zone within which all public transport is free. That meant the 140, when it started here, used to be packed with passengers boarding (legally) without paying. Officially travel was only free as far as Harlington Corner, but usually nobody checked, so once passengers were on board it was perfectly possible to ride all the way to Harrow for nothing. The X140 express closes that loophole because, like the X26, it's been excluded from the Freeflow zone. This means the scroungers option is now the 278, at least as far as Hayes, and will be once everyone's sussed the new system.
"Ooh this is new", says one lady to her friend. "I normally catch the A10 but let's give this a try." They sit downstairs and I sit alone on the upper deck, having held back fifteen minutes to give the Young New Bus Route Chroniclers an undisturbed run. The 278 ploughs into the tunnel beneath the runway, then turns left onto the perimeter road so that it can eventually turn right. I have a particularly fine view of a Delta Air Lines Boeing taking off. At several stops along the Bath Road potential passengers mutter with the driver before boarding, having never seen a 278 before and having no idea which route it takes. Some are willing to take the chance.
We reach Harlington Corner in twelve minutes, whereas the express X140 managed it in more like five. A trio of Jehovah's Witnesses are standing on the corner holding out religious pamphlets to non-existent passers-by, and drinking coffee. When we pull up at West End Lane a teenage girl squints up at the blind, mouths "Whaaaaat!" and opens up her phone to check what this apparition might be. By the time she works it out we've driven on. Another group of five are similarly untempted further up Harlington High Street. When there are no timetables and no updated maps, and all it says on the front of the bus is 'Ruislip', who'd risk it?
We reach Hayes and Harlington station after twenty minutes, our duty as the 140's replacement now complete. Temporary traffic lights force us to wait by the canal, between an Oxfam and a burger joint, before progressing along the oh-so-'30s high street. Shoppers are blindly walking in the cycle lanes, these being irregular and hard to distinguish, while a cyclist rides merrily down the white line in the centre of the traffic. I finally gain company on the upper deck when a married couple take the other front seat, she ringing a friend and yakking for the next two miles, he sitting stoicly mute.
Church Road contains the HQ of the Hayes and Harlington Conservative Association, but front gardens only display Labour election posters, because the Shadow Chancellor isn't at risk in this safe seat. The Fountain House Hotel proudly displays a plaque stating that George Orwell lived here, but only when it was a private school and he was Senior Master, and only for a year. Nearby St Mary's church is of 12th century origin, and a reminder that the heart of Hayes has been dragged irrevocably south since the arrival of the railway. We're not picking up many passengers, nor indeed stopping much at all.
Next it's time to slog up a couple of miles of the Uxbridge Road. This is not London's most inspiring experience. Its flanks are a hotchpotch of minor shops and businesses, occasionally interspersed by flats and houses, but mostly the former. I spy used cars for sale, and pubs flogging Christmas trees, and kebab shops waiting for custom, and a scrap of a park, and repair shops stacked with tyres, and a dozen hydraulic platforms awaiting hire, and a peeling Chinese laundry, and a silver office block resembling a disused grain silo. We are not the only bus up the Uxbridge Road, nor yet a bus local residents require.
n.b. When I said the 278 was an entirely new route, this wasn't strictly true. For the last four paragraphs, i.e. since Harlington Corner, it's been following the route of the H98, and only at this point does this break away and terminate. Before 1990 the H98 was of course the 98, connecting Hounslow to Uxbridge, and until the 1960s it followed exactly the route we're about to use towards Ruislip. The 278 is essentially the fifty-year old 98 with Hounslow switched for Heathrow, but I'm sure I didn't need to have to tell you that.
Without fanfare the 278 has passed from John McDonnell's constituency to Boris Johnson's, because my bus tale is nothing if not topical. It's soon time to turn off up Long Lane, a much more salubrious corner of Hillingdon with large semis and leafy gardens, and the point at which the 278 starts to offer something properly new. There are bus stops along Long Lane that've seen nothing more than school buses for decades, the only other local service twiddling around the backstreets instead, then turning back at the station. Imagine the shock of waking up one morning to find proper double deckers down your street... before hopping into your car and driving to the shops as normal.
One side of the shopping parade at Hillingdon Circus is redbrick and the other is Mock Tudor, as if the architects couldn't make up their mind. The long footbridge spanning the chasm to Hillingdon station is no longer as white as it should be. And by crossing the A40 we create that new link the area's been crying out for, connecting Hillingdon to Ickenham by bus. The U10 runs hourly nearby, but the 278 is the first half decent bus service hereabouts. It's great news for anyone attempting the Tube Challenge - your chances of catching a ride between West Ruislip and Ickenham just multiplied.
This part of London is packed with pubs prioritising food over beer - I hesitate to call them gastro. HS2 also have a massive building site up the side of the existing Chiltern railway, with scores of yellow cones encroaching on what used to be golf course. We're nearly home, but first we have to join the queue of traffic on Ruislip High Street. The windows of John Sanders' department store are bedecked with gifts, numerous Christmas trees and a lot of sensible knitwear. And sadly there isn't room for the 278 to stand outside the tube station so we have to terminate an annoying distance away outside an off licence, where someone's extended a normal bus stop using yellow paint, wiping out a parking space. It's OK, the return journey does start somewhere more useful... and the bus is now quicker than taking the tube.