Sunday, 2 July 2017

Busageddon: Hounslow & Hackney: July 2017

Routes 110, 120, 236, 254 and 394 have gained (mostly) brand new vehicles, as a result of contract changes/renewals that have taken place recently. All five of these routes enter the areas of Hounslow and Hackney and consequently they've been invaded by bus enthusiasts from all over London to take pictures and ride some of the newest buses in this city. Chronologically, the Hackney routes changed first, so we commence in the heart of North-East London, specifically on Hackney Community Transport.

CT Plus 1279 stands at Homerton Hospital, in between duties on route 394.
The 394 is one of the lesser-known single deck routes in zone 1, heading straight out of Islington Angel to terminate at Homerton Hospital, through an assortment of residential back streets in the areas of Hoxton and Hackney, taking a fairly indirect route between the two town centres, serving Hoxton Street Market, Hoxton Overground Station, Geffrye Museum, Haggerston Park, London Fields, Broadway Market and a large number of housing estates in the process. It runs every 12 minutes for the majority of the week and every 20 minutes on Sundays and it can get pretty busy, ferrying people to the shops from their houses. Due to the extremely narrow roads and tight turns this route negotiates, the 394 used to be allocated narrow Dart Nimbus vehicles that could cope with travelling along the route, nicknamed "Caetano Slimbuses", although these are no longer available and on the most recent contract renewal standard 9.0m single-door MMCs were ordered; these are based at Ash Grove (HK) garage which the route passes. They entered service at the end of April and have strayed onto routes 153 and W5, but they mainly stick to the 394 as it requires a specific allocation. Having said that, I once saw a 9.6m E200 on the route at Islington Angel, whether it made it to Homerton Hospital without a few parts missing is another matter!

CT Plus 1272 at Homerton, displaying the new-style Islington Angel blind, which looks rather ugly.
The 394 is certainly a quirky little route, serving some unique areas that the mainstream DD routes that radiate out of Central London simply can't reach. It's certainly a community route with various residents greeting each other on my trip, perfectly suited to CT Plus (Hackney Community Transport), who run the route pretty well from their Ash Grove base. I rode the route from Homerton-Angel yesterday and I enjoyed the experience: even with a few boring sections of relentless tower blocks, the number of interesting, new areas I passed through was superb, especially around Broadway Market, which was thriving in the Saturday evening sunshine, with London Fields and Regent's Canal just around the corner. The journey was quiet (another 394 was a few minutes in front) and it wasn't too long either, meaning that I wasn't fed up after reaching the terminus, unlike some residential SD routes.  There were also some random quirks, such as the unnecessarily long trip around the entirety of Angel to reach the bus stand, which is always a bonus for me. The wider new bus frequently became stuck in the narrow roads, although some careful and professional driving ensured that I had a safe journey through to Angel, and it's certainly one of the more interesting residential single deck routes out there, equipped with decent brand new MMCs. Hopefully CT Plus can maintain their excellent service for the next five years and I wish them luck in doing so!

Tower Transit WV46212 works route 236 to Hackney Wick.

London gained its first new Streetlite vehicles of the year with the contract renewal of route 236, running between Hackney Wick and Finsbury Park Station, via Homerton, Haggerston, Dalston and Newington Green. It's not particularly direct, but does offer some crucial links for local residents and runs at a high frequency of every 8 minutes to cater for the popularity of this service. Many enthusiasts were hoping for a double deck conversion of the 236 upon contract renewal, but new Streetlite vehicles were ordered instead by Tower Transit, who are running the route from their Lea Interchange garage. The 236 used to be one of a small number of single deck routes that ran 24/7, although this is no longer the case and it now starts early (0355) and finishes late (0141), leaving a mere two hour gap without service. The contract renewal date was Saturday 29th April, although the new Streetlite vehicles only started to enter service at the end of May and yesterday was the first time a full allocation was achieved, which was perfect for snapping the route's brand new buses. The fairly new E200s that used to work the 236 have now returned off-lease and the 17-reg vehicles are occasionally supplemented by one of the older examples at LI, which are allocated to the 444. I've never been a huge fan of Streetlite vehicles, finding them pretty boring, very hot in summer and not ideal for viewing external surroundings with the narrow windows at the rear of the vehicle. However, I enjoyed my brief experience of WV46212 yesterday, especially with my fast driver behind the wheel, who took advantage of this nippy vehicle, eventually overtaking the busy 236 in front. The colour scheme was effective in providing a comfortable, bright atmosphere and I'm now looking forward to riding this route end to end. These are the first Streetlite buses to contain "stop-start technology", but for some reason it's not as noticeable as on ADL Enviro 200 MMCs and doesn't occur as frequently. Even though the service has always been a bit unreliable, hopefully Tower Transit can up their game for the next five years, especially with these wonderful new vehicles.

Arriva London VLW153 on route 254 to Holloway, Nags Head.
The 254 is one of London's busiest bus routes and has been operated by Arriva since its creation, when the 253 was split into two routes, with the 254 taking the Southern section between Hackney and Aldgate and sharing the busiest middle part between Holloway and Clapton. It runs at a high frequency of every 6 minutes and its previous allocation was a dedicated batch of Wrightbus Eclipse Gemini B7TL vehicles and other types rarely strayed onto the route. (Un)fortunately, many routes in Central London destined for New Routemaster operation contained restrictions, meaning that some LTs essentially had to be dumped on other routes and the 254 was one of the victims, despite it barely reaching zone 1, terminating at Aldgate Bus Station which is just outside Central London. Its sister route, the 253, converted last year, so it made sense to standardise the whole corridor and dedicate another 33 of the three-door vehicles to the 254. The contract was retained by Arriva London and even more LTs arrived at Ash Grove (AE) garage, in addition to the examples currently taking over route 48. Shortly after Saturday 3rd June, they debuted on the 254 and the Wrightbus B7TL Gemini's are disappearing quickly, so make the most of penultimate examples of them in the Arriva fleet before it's too late!

Arriva London LT467 works the 254 at Hackney.
However, the LTs allocated to route 137 (running from Oxford Circus-Streatham) were inadequate for the Streatham Hill Low Emission Corridor, so the 254's new buses were diverted to Brixton (BN) garage and can now be found roaming around South London. As a result, the older New Routemasters are slowly transferring to Ash Grove (AE) garage and are the main allocation of the 254, along with some extra buses drafted in from the curtailment of route 73 to make up the numbers. I'm not a fan of these buses and I haven't sampled the vehicles on the route yet, but hopefully some residents will be happy with their new allocation, especially as they have now gained the option of free bus trips with open boarding in place!

London United DLE30047 on route 110 to Hounslow Bus Station
The 110 has always been one of the quieter, more indirect routes in Hounslow Town Centre, that has undergone multiple route changes in recent times to try and boost patronage. The successful part of the route runs between Hounslow Bus Station and Twickenham, offering relief for the 111 and linking residents of Powder Mill Lane and Hanworth to Twickenham Town Centre. However, TFL seem to obsessed with terminating this route at West Middlesex Hospital and a few years ago the 110 was extended there from Hounslow Bus Station, through Isleworth and Busch Corner, but it was very unpopular and TFL made the right decision and removed the route from the London Road corridor. However, TFL thought it would be a good idea to extend the route from Twickenham to "relieve" the 267 and terminate at, you guessed it, West Middlesex Hospital! This extension has also been a failiure, with buses rarely seeing more than 2 or 3 passengers on this superfluous section of route. Having said that, the route has always been very reliable and this extension hasn't had an impact on the popular part of the 110, who have been blessed with brand new Enviro 200 MMC vehicles. These arrived much later than the scheduled contract date of Saturday 29th April and finally debuted at the end of May, but this small batch of 8 vehicles entered service quickly and all of the dedicated Dart Pointer vehicles have gone. The buses are decent and will provide a sufficient new allocation for this local U-shaped route, even if they occasionally stray onto the more prolific H37 and H98.

London United "lowheight" SP40014 on route 120 to Hounslow Bus Station.
The 120 is an extremely busy trunk route, running between Hounslow and Northolt, via Heston and Southall. It runs every 10 minutes (which isn't frequent enough) and London United lost the route to Metroline, to the disappointment of many enthusiasts, with a batch of brand new Wrightbus Gemini 3 B5LH vehicles. The combination of crowds and congestion make this route very difficult to run and it's never been particularly reliable, although London United provided a decent service for such a challenging route. There was always a wide variety of vehicle types on offer, sourced from the common user pool at Hounslow (AV) garage, which included ALX 400s, Enviro 400s and Scania OmniCity vehicles, with both common N230UD examples and the much rarer "low-height" N94 vehicles, with only 9 of them left in service in London following the 120 loss. I always loved the mix of types found on the 120 and I was saddened by the loss of this route, especially with such boring buses taking over.

Metroline VWH2266 at Southall Station on route 120 to Northolt. Unfortunately, this bus has been involved in an accident since I took this photograph.
The Wrightbus Gemini 3 B5LH vehicles arrived prematurely and started to enter service at the end of May on other routes at Perivale West (PA) garage, including the 297 and 90, which aimed to iron out any "teething" troubles prior to their introduction into service on route 120. The contract change took place on Saturday 24th June and the service quality simply deteriorated throughout the day. The decent service I encountered in the morning disappeared by mid-afternoon, partially due to the heavy traffic in Southall Town Centre, that the service controllers perhaps weren't expecting. Some rare curtailments were pulled out very early on, with sightings of buses curtailed to "Northolt, Target Roundabout" and "Norwood Green", and since then the service hasn't improved much, with very large gaps and bunching being concerningly common. Having said that, Metroline do operate other routes in the Southall area, such as the 105, so hopefully these reliability issues are temporary and I'm sure they will be able to provide an adequate service in due course. There has only been one rare working under Metroline, which took place on Thursday in the form of VW1188, a Wrightbus Gemini 2 B9TL currently allocated to the 90.

Metroline VWH2272 departs Ealing Broadway on route 297.
Appearances of these vehicles on other routes has rapidly decreased since the 120 takeover, although that didn't stop VWH2272 from sneaking out onto route 297 last Saturday. The buses themselves are decent for Gemini 3 vehicles, being very smooth and quiet and containing a decent amount of power for the Norwood Green "thrash" section. The blind specification has also changed following the contract change, with the new vehicles displaying "Northolt Station" rather than "Northolt", the destination shown under London United. The 120 is a very interesting route, running through a wide variety of areas, including the thriving town centre of Southall and rural Heston and I strongly recommend you take a ride on it soon, but make sure that traffic conditions in Southall aren't too bad, as that will definitely hold up your journey. I wish Metroline good luck for the next five years, and hopefully all of these issues will be sorted within the next couple of months to maintain it's strong passenger growth rate.

I hope you enjoyed this post summarising some of the more recent contract changes- next week we'll be evaluating the success of the controversial Orpington route changes that took place in April. Thanks for reading and stay safe!