diamond geezer

 Sunday, December 10, 2023

Notes from the SL1

London's sixth Superloop route launched yesterday linking North Finchley with Walthamstow. I won't subject you to an end-to-end travelogue, mainly because a miserable wet morning with steamed-up windows doesn't facilitate it. But I can offer you multiple observations after riding the route end-to-end in both directions, which I can handily summarise thus: "well-introduced, mostly".

Route SL1: North Finchley - Walthamstow Central
Length of journey: 10 miles, 50 minutes

The SL1 is the second new Superloop route, as opposed to a rebrand. It's also the first, numerically speaking, although nobody has ever satisfactorily explained why the Superloop loop officially starts at North Finchley. Four-sevenths of the Superloop 'loop' is now operational (SL7 → SL9 → SL10 → SL1)

The SL1 shadows route 221 between North Finchley and New Southgate, then route 34 for the remainder of the journey. A downside of the implementation is that the frequency of route 34 has been reduced from every 8 minutes to every 10 minutes, meaning those who don't live near a Superloop stop now face a longer wait. It also means fewer buses between High Barnet, Whetstone and Arnos Grove, because this is not an entirely ULEZ-friendly panacea.

The vehicles being used on the route aren't new, they're 2015 vintage but have been refitted and are perfectly decent. Not all are yet wrapped in Superloop branding, I'd say two or three are still bog standard red. They do all have USB-charging ports though - these glow red! - and my first fellow passenger was happily plugged into hers throughout. I also found one bus with a route diagram pasted on the upper deck - alas nowhere I could actually see it - but I suspect more of these will be slapped on as time passes.

Spider maps along the route have been updated, so that's a thumbs-up. A big thumbs-down is that no SL1 timetables have yet been posted at any bus stop (I assume all bus stops but I only checked eight). The lack of timetables is a significant implementation failure, because if you don't tell customers where a new route does and doesn't go, how do you expect them to risk getting on it?

The tiles at stops were spot-on, though. Red tiles where they ought to be, extra Superloop tiles and roundel toppers on most of the shelters - tick. In the past I've laughed at the feeble antics of The Men Who Change Tiles but in this case the set-dressing has been done to a T.

On a practical note, if switching between the SL1 and SL10 in North Finchley a same-stop interchange exists whichever direction you're travelling. Heading east the switchover is outside the bus station, pictured above, whereas heading west it's over by the stand on Woodhouse Road. I stayed on the bus at Woodhouse Road because there's supposed to be one more stop, and was duly driven into the back of the bus station where the surprised driver had to usher me safely across the roadway.

A big expense on Day One was the provision of stewards at the vast majority of bus stops to explain to passengers what was going on. At least 20 low-paid souls were braving the weather along the route, dishing out advice and information (and occasionally waving to each other across the road). All of them were wearing official Superloop tabards - white with a rainbow roundel on the back - which haven't been in evidence at any previous launch. Not only were these folk being proactive in approaching passengers but they actually knew their stuff, as opposed to being untrained muppets sent out to loiter and grin.

The stewards had leaflets to distribute, and for the first time in the implementation of the Superloop these were useful leaflets with an actual route diagram. This was a huge improvement, enabling passengers to see where the bus did and didn't stop, and meant the stewards had something useful to point at when answering queries. Some of the stewards also had stocks of generic Superloop maps and were dishing out both to provide context, but thank goodness someone's finally had the sense to print something specific.

And after all this advice and cajoling, did the waiting passengers board the SL1? Generally no, they did not. For example at Walthamstow Market a 34 arrived just ahead of an SL1 and everyone queued up and piled onto that instead. Not even a "this is the new SL1" speech helped... at least 20 people boarded the familiar bus and I was the only person to risk the new route. Admittedly many of them will have wanted stops not served by the SL1, and admittedly many people will work all this out in their own good time, but as we sailed past them at the next stop it did feel like a lot of good advice had been wasted.

It was the same at wet and windswept Arnos Grove - much nudging and persuasion but not a single punter tempted aboard the new bus. But elsewhere the SL1 did indeed gain several passengers, and probably would have had a lot more had it not been pissing down, so it wouldn't do to judge loadings based on an atypically grim morning.

One thing several drivers were doing was making special announcements over the intercom to confirm what the next stop would be well in advance. "Just a reminder that this is a Superloop limited stop service and our next stop is Bell Corner", for example. This was probably just a Week One thing while people get used to the unexpectedly lengthy gaps, but it did mitigate against people being swept way past where they intended to go.

It didn't prevent it, though. The longest gap between stops is the two miles between Green Lanes and Angel Corner, a dash along the North Circular which completely ignores the significant A10 corridor crossing inbetween. The SL1 thus grasps the opportunity to blast through the underpass at 30mph while the other buses on the route filter off at the Great Cambridge Roundabout to perform the important task of serving passengers. The poor sod who dinged before the turn-off was grossly inconvenienced... but equally the number 34 which filtered off into the maelstrom probably got snarled up in the traffic for several wasted minutes.

The SL1 is supposed to be an express service but two of the least welcome messages still played out. Eastbound at Palmers Green we got 'this bus will wait for a change of driver to take place', wasting 3 minutes of everyone's time, because operator efficiency insists that shift changes take place near the depot rather than at either end of the route. And westbound at Angel Corner we got the dreaded 'the driver has been told to wait to even out the service' which was another dead 3 minutes of steamed-up sitting-around. I thought we'd been zipping impressively across the Lea Valley, but alas that had taken us off-timetable so the evil scheduling goblins held us back... just in time to run into a massive traffic jam.

The biggest problem with the SL1 is the unpredictability of the traffic and the worst of the traffic is the Bowes Park Constriction on the North Circular. As three lanes clog into two all hope of rapid progress fades, and although it was bad on Saturday lunchtime it wasn't as numbingly terrible as it sometimes gets. Thankfully for the SL1 the majority of traffic is turning left leaving the right filter clear, whereas the poor old 34 had to remain in the logjam to the bitter end to serve the stop at Warwick Road. It still took us 13 minutes to go just one stop, but sometimes it pays to be on the express bus.

As for timings, the end-to-end journey took me 50 minutes in one direction and 45 minutes in the other. I can't compare that to the scheduled times because there were no timetables, and the supposed SL1 Timetable page on the TfL website is just a list of departure times and average durations. That suggests 40 minutes end-to-end, which was never going to happen yesterday, and as for the hugely overoptimistic "32 minutes" insisted upon by the steward at Walthamstow I suspect that's early mornings and late nights only.

Whatever, the SL1 is an excellent option for zipping across outer London and much better than chugging along on the slower 34, assuming zipping across outer London is what you actually want to do. The driver I spoke to in North Finchley was also very proud of his new role, asking "What did you think of it?" with a big grin on his face. Things are definitely improving with every Superloop launch - the provision of those route diagram leaflets being a big step forward. If only The Men Who Change Timetables could get their act together, the launch of the SL2, SL3 and SL5 might go even better in the new year.

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