A big chunk of the Bank branch closed on Saturday, so yesterday a new bus route launched to plug the gap. It's route 733, it's temporary until mid-May and it only runs on weekdays.
Let's answer two questions - Would you notice it was operating? and What's a journey like?
In good news, yes you probably would notice it was operating because TfL have left clues everywhere. We saw last week how they've produced a leaflet with a very bad map to show where the 733 goes, but thankfully the rest of what they've done is a lot better.
• Bus stops have fresh tiles. I think there are tiles at all relevant bus stops which is good because these often lag behind. The tiles all say Mon-Fri to ram home the point that you shouldn't wait at weekends.
• Bus stop panels also have yellow inserts including simple route maps showing the tube stations the route shadows. It's a heck of a lot clearer than that other map. OK it always has Oval at the top and Moorgate at the bottom no matter which side of the road you're on, and it runs contrary to geography, but let's not quibble about that.
• Yellow posters are also on display if you walk into tube stations, for example straight in front of you on a board as you enter Oval.
• Bus stops all seem to have timetables. That is they have what passes for a timetable these days which is estimated journey times, early departures and a bunch of fuzzy frequencies that say "don't worry, you shouldn't have to wait more than ten minutes." I'm less impressed by the four lines of faff underneath which make a right pig's ear out of saying "No service on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays." Admittedly this is the usual template and identical to what you'd see on other weekday-only routes, but it is an excessive amount of text to have to plough through. In particular route 733 will have been withdrawn long before Christmas Day so perhaps shut up about it.
• Bus spider maps have been updated. For example the shelters outside Oval station are already bedecked with new spider maps featuring route 733, and you can find similarly useful maps for Elephant & Castle, London Bridge and Bank online. This is already hugely better than normally happens and smacks of a properly-thought-through rollout.
• Even the online 733 map at tfl.gov.uk/bus/route/733 magically switched on yesterday morning in case you want to see where the bus goes.
• All the buses have great big route maps on the side. But they're only on the side facing the kerb, leaving the other side free to raise revenue with adverts for loan companies and Christmas deliveries, so that's a cunning balancing act.
• If instead you're underground on the Northern line, yellow posters have appeared on platforms to nudge you towards the new bus route... if necessary. At Kennington they say the fastest way to the City is to go up to the surface and catch a bus, but south of Kennington the advice is to change at Oval instead because that has escalators rather than lifts so is better suited to collective interchange.
• On the trains themselves, however, route 733 is not mentioned. It's not on the updated line diagram and it doesn't appear in announcements, where instead you're urged to "Stay on this train and change where necessary". There's no point catching a bus if you don't have to.
• But zero points for whoever at Oval is still playing the "If you don't see a Charing Cross branch train change at Kennington" announcement, because everything's going that way now.
Overall, it seems, this is not a bus route you are going to overlook. But is anybody going to catch it?
Route 733: Oval to Moorgate Location: London south, inner Length of journey: 3 miles, 30 minutes
I caught it. I was the only person who climbed aboard at Oval station, but admittedly this bit of the line isn't closed, it wasn't rush hour and another bus had departed a few minutes earlier. Spacing out the buses is made harder by the fact they're laying over at Vauxhall bus station, and the traffic between there and here was awful, but hey I got a front seat. Two other passengers joined me at Kennington... so no, this is not going to be a ghost service.
The 733 isn't an express bus, it stops everywhere, so is essentially providing additional capacity on the Oval-Moorgate corridor. This was proved at Penton Place where we were flagged down by a family who'd been expecting a 133 but noticed the similarity in number. "Do you go past Guy's Hospital?" they asked, but the driver didn't know because that's a tough question on Day One. They weren't impressed ("You don't know?!"), but when they rephrased the question as "Are you going to London Bridge?" everyone seemed happy and on they hopped.
Nobody at Elephant & Castle was interested, and likewise nobody got off. The bus has a regular announcement "There is currently no service on the Northern line from this station, please remain on this bus" and everyone complied. Alas at the next stop we got "The driver has been told to wait to even out the service" because even short frequent rail replacement buses suffer from that, even if tube lines don't. Most of the 733s going the other way looked almost empty, suggesting TfL may have over-resourced the service.
Borough station was securely locked and one more passenger grabbed the option of a 733 escape. Further up the high street an elderly gentleman in a tweed cap eyed us up and down as if thinking "what is this freakish bus with a number in the 700s?" and walked off plainly unsettled. A lot of traffic lights intruded between Union Street and the next stop at London Bridge, and I think we stopped at all of them.
Then things really sped up. London Bridge to Monument only took a minute, with a glorious sunlit vista up and down the Thames to enjoy inbetween, and we reached Bank station just one more minute after that. For short journeys a bus can be a lot better than the tube. The second Bank bus stop said it was closed but it wasn't. And then ridiculously, with just one more stop to go before Moorgate, a bald bloke flagged us down and hitched a ride he could easily have walked.
I stayed on to the final stop at Finsbury Square, which nobody else did because it doesn't have a station. A final announcement reminded leftover passengers that from here they could catch the 214 to Old Street, Angel and King's Cross, because that might be quicker (and cheaper) than switching to the functioning bit of the Bank branch. By my calculations nine other passengers had joined me on my journey, so I don't think the 733 is about to be overwhelmed for the next four months but likewise neither is it a complete waste of cash. Enjoy the ride.