One of the most important journeys you might make in the near future is to a vaccination centre. It might be to somewhere you know well or it might be to somewhere unfamiliar, in which case guidance on how to get there might prove helpful. TfL have therefore stepped in with a page on their website, the snappily titled tfl.gov.uk/jabs, to provide directions.
The page kicks off with a warning not to turn up unless you have an appointment and to wear a face covering while you travel. The page is frequently updated, launching two weeks ago with just one centre, and has subsequently been extended and refined. Currently three of London's largest vaccination centres are included:
• NHS COVID-19 vaccination centre, Newham at The ExCeL London
• NHS vaccination centre, Wembley
• NHS vaccination centre - Hornsey Central Neighbourhood Health Centre
The webpage is a useful resource but by no means perfect, indeed some of the transport-related information is unhelpful, unnecessary or misleading. Let's take a look at what it says about getting to ExCel.
Getting to the ExCeL vaccination centre by public transport ought to be simple. You head for Custom House station, and as soon as you're on the footbridge a series of electronic signs directs you to the main entrance. It's a very short walk and should take less than two minutes. That's all the guidance you really need.
The most important thing is that you head to the correct end of the building - the western end - because ExCeL is 600 metres long and negotiating your way around the perimeter is quite awkward.
The TfL webpage takes a unnecessarily complicated approach. Use our Journey Planner, it says.
But the destination it wants you to use isn't Custom House, it's ExCeL London, Western Gateway, London. And if you enter that, the Journey Planner tacks an unnecessary extra onto the end of your journey. After you reach Custom House station it invites you to continue for 6 minutes to an address it describes as 1 Sandstone Lane, because that's where you'd go if you were driving. But Sandstone Lane is a service road running underneath the main walkway, and there isn't a staircase where the Journey Planner claims so you can't get down there anyway. Not only is the end of the route unwalkable, it's an entirely pointless distraction.
And if you enter the postcode E16 1XL instead then the Journey Planner takes you somewhere entirely different. This time the extra walk takes 13 minutes and leads you round to a staff-only entrance on the other side of the building alongside the Royal Victoria Dock. Admittedly you would have walked past the correct entrance on the way so wouldn't have gone all the way, but this is ridiculous overcomplication.
In summary, using ExCeL London, Western Gateway, London takes you to the north side of the building and using E16 1XL takes you to the south side, whereas the correct entrance is to the west. It'd be a lot better to just use Custom House for ExCeL and keep it simple.
Next we get a map.
The map shows two walking routes to ExCeL but one is tiny and one is big. The walk from Custom House is tiny, and sensible, but gets very little prominence. Instead your eye is drawn to the walk from Canning Town which is much longer, and entirely unnecessary.
Anyone coming to ExCel by tube will first reach Canning Town, at which point the obvious thing to do is head up to the DLR and travel two stops east. It makes no sense to leave the station, which is a palaver in itself, and then walk the last mile on unfamiliar roads. Neither does it make sense to catch a bus for the last bit, as the map also suggests, nor to hail a taxi. The DLR is fully accessible and delivers you to a station alongside your destination with level access and no roads to cross. It's hard to imagine a situation whereby changing to any other mode at Canning Town would be better.
I went down to Canning Town station to see what efforts have been made to direct passengers to the vaccination centre. In the public part of the ticket hall, nothing. On the passageway out of the ticket hall, nothing. At the top of the main escalator, nothing. In the bus station, nothing. You could ask a member of staff, there's always one about, but the sum total of printed collateral is nil.
Only if you think to walk all the way through the bus station and out the other side does the first sign appear. This time last week it was a Nightingale Hospital sign but someone's been round and replaced those with a correctly branded Vaccination Centre version.
Unfortunately the second sign in the chain is pointing the wrong way... into a building site rather than along Silvertown Way. The third sign is 200m away, out of sight, and the fourth and fifth are pointing in the wrong direction back the way you came.
Should you make it round the corner into Tidal Basin Road the arrows remain very hit and miss, and by the time you reach the foot of Gateway Tower the sign has half-fallen off its mounting and is pointing at the sky.
I bet these were correct when they were installed, less than a week ago, but recent storms have done their worst with flimsy signage poorly attached. The end result is an ineffective intermittent chain of help to nobody, indeed somewhat of an embarrassment throughout.
The best thing I can say about the walking route is that the map says it takes 21 minutes and when I walked it that's precisely how long it took. However I'm a fit and healthy adult, a good 25 years younger than those currently making their way to ExCel for a jab, and I bet most octogenarians would take a lot longer.
This poster about buses is good.
Unfortunately I didn't see it where it would have been useful, i.e. at Canning Town bus station. Instead it's been posted up in the bus shelter outside the main entrance to ExCeL - the temporary shelter introduced in April for staff shuttles that are no longer running. In this location the poster's of no use whatsoever, because it describes how to get to the place you're already standing.
The website also has something to say about buses. "Download a bus spider map for the ExCeL London", it says, because ExCel is one of the places that still has one. Unfortunately a spider map is most useful for finding out how to leave somewhere, not how to get there, so the listed bus stops aren't much help. Also several of the buses on the map only stop at the wrong end of ExCeL so you really don't want those. The website helpfully lists the useful three, which are the 147, 241 and 325. Perversely it also lists the N551 which only serves ExCeL in the early hours, but perhaps that's a nod ahead to 24 hour vaccination.
The website goes on to give directions for anyone intending to drive to ExCeL, which is basically to go away and look at the ExCeL website instead. Parking is free for those attending for vaccination, which is good because the normal charge is £20. Taxis and private hire also get a mention on the webpage, but there's nothing whatsoever here for cyclists. This may be because ExCeL only has 60 cycle racks and 54 of them are at the wrong end of the building. The only convenient cycle racks are tucked away under the DLR walkway in a gloomy spot, almost as an afterthought. I doubt these six'll be overused during the octogenarian phase of vaccination, but capacity may prove awkward later in the process.
If you get an invite for vaccination in Wembley instead, the website's a lot more useful. For Hornsey Central Neighbourhood Health Centre it's rather less so, mainly because the nearest station's a mile's walk away and only one bus goes past the front door. Eventually there may be a lot more centres on this list, to the point where the webpage scrolls down and down and down for what seems like forever. It already manages to include an excess of information, not all of which is necessary and some of which is downright unhelpful. So if you do get an invite to ExCeL at some point then just get yourself a train to Custom House and best give the website a miss.