diamond geezer

 Sunday, December 18, 2022

London has three new bus routes - the 718, the 719 and the 720.
Proper bus routes, if temporary.

718: Queens Park to Harrow & Wealdstone
719: Queens Park to Wembley Park
720: Harrow-on-the-Hill to Watford Junction

I've been out to ride them all, which is clever because one doesn't officially start until Monday.

They're needed because the Bakerloo line and Overground are closed for a week west of Queen's Park for major engineering work. It's so serious that they'll need to close it for a week in February too, but the current shutdown is Saturday 17th to Friday 23rd December. Three parallel replacement bus routes have therefore been introduced, two for the Bakerloo section and one just for the Overground bit to Watford. By making them proper bus routes with proper route numbers TfL can charge fares and so recoup some of their considerable outlay. That said I was only charged for one of my three journeys yesterday so that plan hasn't necessarily worked out well.

In good (and unexpected) news, there's a map! In bad news it's a ridiculously complicated tangled map that serves mainly to confuse. Rather than just showing the three replacement bus routes it also shows eight other routes that might be useful, and then it makes all of them a different colour and throws them across the map like rainbow spaghetti. The lines aren't numbered except in a separate key and in a multitude of additional boxes, and then rail lines (open and closed) have been thrown in for good measure. Whoever made the crucial 718 route almost the same colour as the tangential 79 needs a better set of crayons.

Another dubious design decision is that the station names don't appear beside the stations, only in separate boxes at a distance, making the map remarkably hard to follow. Wembley in particular is a masterclass in under-annotation. What's more I only saw the map once during my day out, stuck to the door at Queen's Park station, and only discovered it was available online after I got home. I whinge a lot that TfL no longer produce bus maps of Greater London, but if this is what they believe a bus map to be then maybe it's just as well they no longer bother.

According to the map, and according to all the collateral stuck up at bus stops, route 719 runs 07:00 – 19:00 Monday to Fridays only. But according to the TfL status updates webpage, if you can decipher it, the 719 also runs 1000 to 1900 Saturday and Sunday, and this turns out to be correct. It seems a decision to operate the 719 at weekends was only taken after all the posters and notices had been printed, which isn't exactly helpful, and might help explain why the 719 I caught had hardly any passengers.

719: Queens Park to Wembley Park

The southern terminus at Queen's Park station was a hotbed of hi-vis activity. I counted 4 yellow jackets, 2 pink jackets and one blue jacket hovering round the first stop attempting to ensure that buses and passengers were dispatched on time. An additional yellow jacket with a sniffer dog prowled the Salusbury Road car park, which has been temporarily requisitioned for operational reasons, lest some terrorist had infiltrated the portaloos since his last circuit. After a short wait an empty 718 turned up and magically metamorphosed into a 719 while I was boarding, a switch which nobody announced and which would catch out a couple of passengers later.

We headed off to Kensal Green, where an unfortunate passenger had decided to wait at the stop second-nearest to the station so we left him on the pavement. He should have looked out for the yellow "replacement buses stop here" tile, I thought... although the stops at the next two stations turned out to be yellow-tile-less too. The bus stopped at the less obvious end of Willesden Junction station, so one passenger missed it, and then they missed Harlesden too because that stop's nowhere near the station. Normally the customer service agent on board yells out the name of each stop but ours didn't bother, he was far too busy engaging the driver in very loud conversation.

The bus stop in Wembley wasn't obvious either because the 719 turns off just before Wembley Central. This is to connect to a functioning tube station at Wembley Park, which alas wasn't where the bloke on the back seat wanted to go. He dinged until the driver let him off, not at a bus stop of any kind but adjacent to a traffic island, and let's just say the crew aboard the bus were lucky I wasn't some kind of inspector. They seemed surprised when I came downstairs at the final stop, as if they'd assumed they were running empty, bringing to an end a journey that had been very much sub-optimal.

718: Wembley Central to Harrow & Wealdstone

I didn't return to Queen's Park for this 718 journey, I hopped aboard mid-route on Wembley High Road. The bus took a while to turn up, my wait not being helped by all these buses being entirely invisible on apps like TfL Go and Citymapper. Normally the short hop to North Wembley takes two minutes by train but it took us 15 minutes by bus because no decent roads connect the two stations. Instead we had to divert all the way to Sudbury before looping back and ending up first in one contraflow and then another. The switcheroo confused a couple of new passengers who assumed that because the bus had arrived heading east it was going east, only to discover very swiftly that it wasn't. They dashed downstairs muttering mild expletives and urged the driver to stop, bruv, but got carried halfway to Kenton instead.

Preston Road was another Metropolitan line drop-off, at the expense of visiting South Kenton which is only reachable by single decker. We then got to whizz down Woodcock Hill, which was good because no normal bus ever goes this way, permitting a fine view of icy hills in the middle distance. North Wembley to Kenton eventually took 20 minutes for what's normally a two-stop journey. Indeed I was amazed quite how long the 718 had spent meandering around just the London borough of Brent, well over an hour, because the replacement bus is always the arthritic tortoise option. By the time we alighted at Harrow and Wealdstone I was bursting to get off.

720: Harrow-on-the-Hill to Watford Junction

I had no idea where to catch this one. The map doesn't specify, the website doesn't specify and the status updates page just says "Harrow Bus Station". I walked the length of the bus station finding nothing, so went up to the information desk at the far end to ask the supervisor there. He didn't get up from his desk because that would have involved effort, and merely attempted muffled conversation from a distance. He indicated that replacement buses departed from the far side of the tube station, so I walked over there and found nothing at all and then I walked all the way back. This time the supervisor ignored me for a while because he was too busy on his computer, then he told me he had absolutely no idea where the bus left from, he'd never heard of it, and left me to it.

It turned out the 720 leaves from bus stop Z which isn't in the bus station, it's a short distance down the road. I worked this out just in time to see a grubby red bus setting off without me so faced a 20 minute wait for the next. I considered going back to the supervisor's office and educating him, but decided to remain by the stop and endure the studious indifference of the employee there instead. When the next 720 finally turned up it wasn't red, it was a vehicle they normally use for the Thorpe Park Express and it was filthy, the windows smothered in dirt as if they hadn't been washed this winter. On the positive side the bus wasn't fitted with a card reader so we all got our rides for nothing, which after all that palaver felt precisely like the right fare.

We collected several more freeloading passengers at Harrow & Wealdstone. The windows were so dirty we reached Hatch End before I realised we hadn't stopped at Headstone Lane. I hoped to enjoy the pastoral snowy views along Oxhey Lane, another road no other bus normally takes, but the windows were too filthy for that too. At Carpenders Park the bus stuck to the South Oxhey side of the tracks, and that was another ten minutes to do one stop. The bus was quite busy now, indeed the busiest of any I rode that day. Had I been wanting to alight at Bushey I'd have totally missed it and had to walk back, thanks to the muck on the window and the lack of announcements. Watford High Street was Christmas-shoppingly busy. And my entire journey aboard the filthwagon took the best part of 50 minutes, so I got the tube home rather than endure any of that again.

In conclusion the three replacement bus routes were badly publicised, ill-coordinated and (in the case of the 719 and 720) sloppily operated. These things are always an endurance test and rarely the journey of choice, but I confess I hadn't been expecting quite so poor an experience. Good luck to you, northwest Londoners, you've got a week of this and then another to look forward to in February. Alternative routes are available and might well be advisable.

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