[NEW] Route X140: Harrow to Heathrow Location: London west, outer Length of journey: 11 miles, 50 minutes
In 2008 Boris Johnson's first Mayoral manifesto promised to "commission a trial of orbital express bus routes for outer London". A decade later, his successor has finally introduced one.
The 140 is one of London's top five busiest bus routes, a proper orbital big-hitter, at last count carrying over 13 million passengers a year. It runs roughly north-south from Harrow Weald to Heathrow Airport with a direct hit on the Crossrail station at Hayes and Harlington which it needs to serve as efficiently as possible. And that's why yesterday TfL split the original 140 into three manifestations — the 140, X140 and N140 — a cunning plan to use exactly the same number of vehicles in a somewhat different way.
The N140 is precisely what the 140 used to be, but only runs at night. The new 140 has been curtailed at the Heathrow end so now only runs as far as Hayes and Harlington, almost as frequently as before. The real gamechanger is the X140, TfL's fourth express bus route, which runs from Harrow bus station to Heathrow Central bus station stopping only eleven times inbetween. You can bet this confused a number of passengers yesterday, and delighted many others.
Harrow Bus Station is a bustling hub, conveniently situated for the shops and the station, and the point of departure for the X140 express. Not that you'd know. The X140 hasn't been added to the list of routes above the entrance to Stop B, nor have any of Harrow's spider maps been updated. The X140 also fails to appear on the bus station's live departure screen (although arrivals are shown, pointlessly, at their final stop). The only clue is a single timetable stating that "buses only serve the stops shown", that buses run five times an hour and proposing a 48 minute running time to Heathrow Airport. Apparently staff were handing out leaflets earlier, but I never saw one.
Passengers shouldn't be able mistake the express bus for its X-less namesake - its blinds are blue, it has a fairly prominent X and it says Limited Stop on the front. Nevertheless people will, and do. A goodly crowd pour into the double decker when it arrives, with the upper deck front seats promptly taken by the Young New Bus Route Chroniclers. One of the teenagers has a notebook and will be jotting down whether we're running early or late, while the other has a cracked tablet pinned up against the window to record every minute of our upcoming journey.
The advantages of an express bus route are immediately evident. The normal 140 veers off into West Harrow, as it always has, but we don't need to serve those four stops so we head to South Harrow direct. Playing fields and semi-detached houses spread to either side, plus the occasional crooked cottage and grim office block. It's already going well.
South Harrow Station(5 mins) is our first stop, alongside the market hall under the railway. A quick check confirms that the X140 tile on the bus stop is white with the word 'Express' written in small type above the route number. One of the Young New Bus Route Chroniclers stands and takes a photo of the iBus display in an attempt to collect the full placename set. The other reaches for a bag of crisps and a bottle of water to sustain him as we progress onwards through Roxeth.
Station Parade(9 mins) is an unhelpfully mysterious name because it's never made clear precisely which station this is (obviously it's Northolt Park, with its hourly service into Marylebone, but you'd never know). Then it's on past the fire station and... ah, road works. A sign announces "Use bus lane when chevrons lit", and today they are, a succession of lamps pulsating in the tarmac. We join the queue waiting at the temporary lights, which thankfully keeps moving, and one of the Young New Bus Route Chroniclers instinctively reaches for a packet of biscuits. The other, of course, daren't eat for fear of his tablet slipping.
Northolt Station(14 mins) is next, indeed so far we're only stopping every time we hit a railway. Not very many passengers have been tempted aboard so far, perhaps because they want to alight at one of our intermediate stops, or perhaps because they've not yet worked out who we are. It's relentlessly 1930s along here, indeed the entire journey feels like a safari through sub-Metroland suburbs. The shop window at Jedi Robe features a stormtrooper in a Father Christmas outfit. Beyond the A40 we catch up with a real 140, and promptly overtake.
It's then that something entirely predictable happens - a passenger wants to alight at a bus stop we're not serving. They ding for Sycamore Close but we don't slow down, so they ding again but we don't stop, so they ding several times and we continue, then they ding for Northolt Library but we don't stop there either, so they ding again and eventually end up three stops past where they wanted to be. A route diagram stuck up inside the bus might have helped. Impressively, nobody else makes the same mistake later.
Yeading/White Hart Roundabout(21 mins) isn't the best name for a gyratory, given that the White Hart pub which overlooks it has been shuttered and is fenced off. Beyond that we get to follow Yeading Lane, with its fifty year-old church that looks disturbingly like a power station. We don't even bother to stop at Dilston Close because a 140 just hoovered up its queue.
Shakespeare Avenue(24 mins) is a different matter - it's busy because the 140 hasn't got here yet. Several passengers enquire of the driver where he's actually going ("Are you stopping at The Grapes?"), then board in numbers. They are more fortunate than the single woman waiting at the next non-stop. She waves at the bus as it approaches, then mouths "Whaaaaaat!" at the driver, then shrugs like a demon possessed.
The Grapes(27 mins) is better known as a Beefeater than a pub these days. The sun has come out, dazzling the video still being shot from the tablet propped up against the front window. We pass an assortment of minor shops selling used furniture, chicken and accumulators, plus the first of several hotels optimistically named after Heathrow. Approaching Hayes we pass three successive stops at which someone has their arm outstretched, expecting us to stop, and is left disconsolate.
Hayes Town(33 mins) is up next, thoughtfully serving the shops rather than the station. Six of the tiles on the bus stop have coloured stripes across the top, but not the 140 or X140, confirming that the rainbow branding TfL introduced in Hayes two years ago isn't being carried forward. (It also means those ghastly non-geographical spider maps aren't the future, and thank heavens for that).
Hayes and Harlington Station(36 mins) is the reason the route's been tweaked, even if it won't see a Crossrail through-service until maybe 2022. The rebuilt station is still very much incomplete. I'm expecting a pile-on of passengers because this is where the non-express 140 now terminates, but it seems nobody wants to use our X140 to piggyback on to Heathrow. We pass the 140's new stand near Asda, then rise up to cross the M4 at rooftop level.
Manse Close(42 mins) isn't helpfully named for a stop on an express route. It is in fact in the middle of Harlington, a former village nowhere near the station of half the same name. The mystery team from @LDNBusUpdates have been here earlier and stuck two of their helpful laminated sheets on top of the timetable panel. It says much about the paucity of TfL's Bus Stop Team that they've decided to leave the guerilla information in place.
Harlington Corner(45 mins), on the fringes of the airport, is our penultimate stop. A fair few people are still on board, though none with suitcases. We flit past the Marriott, Radisson and Novotel, before breaking off to join the ramp down to the roundabout into the tunnel. It's creepy knowing there could be a plane taking off immediately above your head.
Heathrow Central Bus Station(50 mins) is our last and final stop, where a dozen or so passengers alight. We've got here in fifty minutes flat, which feels fast, but is actually two minutes slower than scheduled. This time last week the ordinary 140 was timetabled to do the journey in fifty-nine minutes, so maybe it's not as impressive an express journey as it seems. But I know which bus I'd rather ride, and perhaps these orbital express routes should be something the rest of the capital gets to sample and enjoy.