TfL’s least frequent bus route

Tuesday 9th April 2019

IMG_3806.jpgTransport for London’s bus service 969 is the last route standing of a once substantial ‘Mobility Bus’ network of routes operating one or two days a week to a local shopping centre from relatively low-density neighbourhoods where no alternative mainstream route in the main bus network served the area. In the old days the buses were wheelchair accessible so also provided a service for those with impaired mobility.

Improvements to London’s bus route network over the last twenty years or so has seen new smaller buses able to penetrate residential areas previously off limits to bigger buses, as well as the widespread introduction of low floor accessible vehicles, so the Mobility Bus network as was is no longer relevant to the Capital’s transport network, particularly as TfL also fund an extensive Dial-A-Ride network of minibuses operating all over London for those with severe mobility needs.

Route 969 runs one return journey on a Tuesday and Friday at 10am starting in a couple of micro-sized residential areas in Whitton (near Twickenham) to the south off the Chertsey Road before heading north and joining the more frequent H37 route past St Margarets and then joining five other routes into Richmond.

Screen Shot 2019-04-09 at 16.11.22.pngFrom Richmond it heads east towards Barnes along the Upper Richmond Road, also served by three other bus routes, except our 969 bifurcates to pass by Mortlake Station, the River Thames (pictured below) and Barnes Bridge Station as well as the delightful Barnes Pond before heading back south at the Wetland Centre passing Barnes Station and then deviating off into another small residential area unserved by other bus routes called Lennox Estate.

IMG_3715.jpgThe 969’s final furlong is south again via Roehampton Lane turning right on to the A3, Roehampton Vale and Kingston Vale, where it terminates at the large Asda.

The journey time is scheduled for 62 minutes with an 11.02am arrival at Asda allowing for around two and a quarter hours shopping time before returning to Whitton at 1.15pm.

Aside from School and Night Buses it’s the one bus route in London I haven’t had the pleasure of riding, so intrigued as to why it continues running as TfL responds to its financial crisis by cutting frequencies and routes across the Capital, I decided to take a ride this morning.

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IMG_3669.jpgThe Abellio operated bus arrived in Rosebine Avenue, a short nondescript link road from the A316 Chertsey Road into a small cul-de-sac triangle of roads at spot on the scheduled time of 10am and despite there being a timetable posted on the opposite side of the road, the bus pulled up and an empty shopping trolley wheeling passenger who, like me, had been lurking for the previous ten minutes climbed gratefully aboard across the grass verge.

IMG_3699.jpgI’d done a little recce around the Gladstone Avenue triangle and already clocked a lorry delivering bricks to one of the bungalows which would cause a problem when the bus arrived; but luckily unloading had virtually finished by the time we got there and the delay was only a few minutes.

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IMG_3703.jpgWe’d picked up four more passengers outside their bungalows as we cruised around Gladstone Avenue and Rosecroft Gardens (meeting another obstacle as a van gingerly reversed into a parking spot) ….IMG_3705.jpg….. before rejoining the Chertsey Road for our next loop along Lincoln Avenue where Google Maps identifies four ‘recognised’ bus stops but I spotted only one timetable case at the beginning of Lincoln Avenue with no identification at the other three locations.

And that was it, as we got back on the Chertsey Road and headed south to the roundabout with the B358 (Hospital Bridge Road) and then retraced our route northwards.

IMG_3664.jpgThe Chertsey Road (A316) is a fast dual carriageway which feeds directly to and from the M3 so there’s no scope for any more bus stops along the way, even though no other bus routes use it, until we turned right on to St Margarets Road and could safely stop by the station where we picked up two passengers who confidently boarded us even though the normal H37 pulled up behind. One of these travelled just a couple of stops and the other rode the six stops into Richmond where two of our original five Gladstone Avenue boarders alighted. Another had already left us just after St Margarets leaving just two on board.

In Richmond we picked up another befuddled passenger wondering what a 969 was and who was just doing a two stop hop, and on the outskirts of East Sheen our driver implored a passenger waiting at Berwyn Road to board us even though she also was just hopping along for two stops. We were back to just the two original Gladstonians on board again.

By the time we passed Mortlake station we were thirteen minutes behind schedule and then we hit trouble at the Wetland Centre in Barnes as a long queue of traffic heading south along Rocks Lane towards Barnes Station was confirmed on Google Maps to be caused by roadworks and tortuously slow temporary traffic lights.

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We eventually made it to the junction of Roehampton Lane and Upper Richmond Road where we headed off to the Lennox Estate and I was astounded to see we were besieged by nine shopping trolley wielding passengers all relieved to see us at last, by then being around twenty-five minutes late.

IMG_3728.jpgAs everyone clambered aboard with our driver sorting out the trolleys so they were neatly stacked he also warned there was another building supplies delivery ahead with the offending lorry completely blocking our path around the estate.

IMG_3733.jpgOur driver Sina, who until now had been ably deputising for regular driver Steve who was away on his holidays (you pick these news snippets up on bus routes of this kind, although no-one knew whether Steve had gone abroad) doned his high-viz and wandered down to see what the prognosis was.

IMG_3730.jpgHaving been sitting awkwardly for around an hour in my favourite single deck London bus seat immediately behind the centre doors (where you can keep an eye on most things) due to bus manufacturers once again not catering for anyone with a shoe size larger than size 5, I’d already decided to give up my seat to those boarding with various walking aids and needing it far more than me, so now got off the bus to see what might be done to alleviate the lorry blockage.

IMG_3711.jpgSina soon returned and announced there’d be a twenty minute delay while the unloading continued, but our nine regular Lennox Estate passengers were having none of that, and explained Steve often reverses back up and goes around the estate the “wrong way” before making a u-turn in a lay-by and retracing his steps.

Screen Shot 2019-04-09 at 17.37.02.pngGallantly I offered to help Sina reverse back and we performed the ‘Steve contingency plan’, but in the event not picking any more passengers up. Turns out Mavis wasn’t up for shopping today and had given the bus a miss.

We made it back to the junction of Roehampton Lane and Upper Richmond Road we’d last seen about 10-15 minutes ago, and it was foot down all the way to Roehampton Vale arriving at Asda around half an hour late.

IMG_3742.jpgSina helped unload all the shopping trolleys before taking the bus off to the official ‘Bus Stand’ on the slip road off the A3 where he parked up until the return journey at 1.15pm.

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What an extraordinary journey. What an extraordinary bus route. Aside from those who just jumped on board the 969 rather than taking a bus on a standard route following behind for their short hop rides; we’d taken three Gladstonians shopping in Richmond and two all the way to Roehampton’s Asda (which was strange as, aside from Richmond’s supermarkets [OK, inevitably a Waitrose] there’s an Asda in Twickenham just off the Chertsey Road about five minutes into our journey; although I appreciate it would be a bit of a walk and no real return journey option other than waiting for the 969 to come back, so you might as well enjoy the hour’s ride to Roehampton Vale and back I suppose). Then there were the nine (including two school holidaying children) Lennox residents who with a short walk to Roehampton Lane could get the standard route 265 which also serves Roehampton Vale’s Asda.

There was one other passenger who boarded in Lincoln Avenue at the start of our journey and travelled all the way to the terminus, like me, it turned out the young man was enjoying his school holiday taking a bus route just for the intrigue of it.

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I’m puzzled how the 969 can survive TfL’s funding challenges. But then TfL have always been an organisation with quirky aspects to its policy decisions. Not least the bus stop I spotted in Sheen Lane, Mortlake – a road only served by the two-journeys-a-week route 969 and where more frequent bus routes pass at either end of the road, as well as South Western Railway trains to everywhere you’d want to go …. yet, someone at TfL Towers authorised a fully fledged bus shelter just in case anyone wanted to wait for those two occasions a week to go somewhere you can get to more easily another way. I’m willing to wager no-one has ever waited at that shelter; ever.

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It must be London’s least used bus shelter, by far!

IMG_3814.jpgAnd ironically the spider map it displays doesn’t show the 969; the one route passing by; it’s relegated to being classified as an “other route”. It may not have a coloured line on a map; but it’s got a bus shelter!

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A quirky ending for a quirky bus route tale.

Roger French

 

Sparks are flying on GOBLIN

Monday 28th January 2019

You’ve got to feel sorry for the growing number of passengers who rely on the GOspel Oak to Barking orbital railway line in north east London, known affectionately as GOBLIN for short.

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The former down-at-heel and unloved Silverlink Metro line transferred to TfL back in 2006 when the future was bright, the future was orange, as it became born again as part of TfL’s Overground network. This higher profile, together with greatly improved service quality, released huge latent pent up demand as passengers soon discovered the extensive travel opportunities this Cinderella of commuter lines offered. Boarding a train just a stone’s throw from Hampstead Heath in north London and arriving in central Barking in East London in little over half an hour is impressive. Many passengers also transfer at Gospel Oak to and from the West London line from Clapham Junction/Richmond via Willesden Junction continuing into the North London line via Highbury & Islington to Stratford and the East London line south of the Thames offering a fantastic number of convenient interchange possibilities.

It’s undeniably one of the most successful rail line turnarounds in a decade with 10,000 passenger journeys now being carried a day. Plans to electrify the line and introduce a brand new fleet of 4-carriage trains to replace the 2-carriage diesel units were therefore hugely welcomed when first announced. What a shame things haven’t quite worked out as planned.

The eastern end of the line closed in June 2016, with the western end following a few months later in September to allow Network Rail to install overhead electrification. This extensive work included rebuilding ten bridges as well as lowering the line in four places to allow for the necessary clearances. Weekday services were reinstated in February 2017 while weekend services resumed in June 2017 but passengers didn’t get to benefit from electric trains as the grossly over crowded 2-carriage diesel operated Class 172 trains carried on running with a promise of brand new Bombardier built 4-carriage Class 710 electric trains to be introduced with a new timetable from May 2018.

In pre-overhead wires days at Harringay Green Lanes

As well as an absence of electric trains, it wasn’t long before it became evident the electrification works hadn’t been properly completed either and a further eight week full line closure became necessary between November 2017 and January 2018 to finish things off.

Never mind, at least the new electric trains were due to appear in May 2018; except they didn’t despite the first train being delivered to Network Rail’s test facility in Leicestershire at the end of 2017. To make matters worse the May 2018 timetable initially removed five vital peak hour extra journeys (known as ‘PIXC-busters’ – ‘passengers in excess of capacity’) designed to cope with the crush loads. These were subsequently reinstated by TfL, except within a matter of weeks, they were withdrawn again. The problem being Class 172 diesel train availability – all eight trains were due to come off lease and transfer to the West Midlands by December 2018 and to meet this deadline one train, effectively the spare used on peak hour extras, was withdrawn so it could be overhauled and refurbished for its new owners.

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As is the way with these things, for reasons best known to PR and media people, despite no chance of the new trains being imminently introduced, TfL held a high profile launch of the brand new Class 710 trains in June 2018 (just as the ‘PIXC busters’ were withdrawn again) reassuring passengers understandably frustrated and annoyed at having a new train dangled in front of them only to be swept away again back to the test track with the rather limp commitment that “the new fleet will be in service by November”.

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The only thing that happened in November 2018 was the announcement of a reduced timetable at weekends to allow for engineers to service the fleet of hard pressed Class 172s as another was withdrawn for its new life in the West Midlands.

As 2019 began and still no sign of the much promised (and publicly launched) new trains and all the Class 172s having to be withdrawn at the latest by mid March, TfL’s been forced to come up with a Plan B, the first part of which was rolled out this morning as a modified spare Class 378 5-carriage electric train set reduced to just 4-carriages (so it will fit into the platforms along the line) took to the tracks as another Class 172 train has been withdrawn. Two more spare Class 378s are being similarly modified to hit the tracks as two more Class 172s are withdrawn in mid February.

The final three Class 172s leave in mid March when Plan C comes into play. This entails the timetable being halved to run every 30 minutes instead of every 15 minutes. TfL say in such an event “there should be adequate capacity for anyone wishing to travel along this route” pointing out four-carriage trains running every half an hour equals two-carriage trains running every fifteen minutes. Except the less frequent service will be more than twice less attractive (you really have to adjust personal travel schedules for a half hourly service in a way you don’t for a fifteen minute one) and the longer trains have much reduced (longitudinal) seating meaning more standing passengers, albeit “standing in greater comfort”.

I gave the new slimmed down Class 378 train a ride this morning. Obviously the interior and ride quality are well known from travels in these trains on other parts of the Overground orbital lines, but it was a novelty to ride the line from a longitudinal seat which is not welcome as you have to sit askew to look out of the window behind you to enjoy the fascinating suburban scenery the train passes or you have to spend the journey avoiding eye contact with the passenger opposite.

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Today’s train was well able to cope with the numbers of passengers travelling who are used to squeezing on to a two-carriage diesel. Passengers were noticeably pleasantly surprised at the extra available room, all the more so as they must have initially been disappointed thinking our train was not operating as it failed to appear on departure screens, nor, mysteriously, is it recorded in Real Time Trains records.

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It was noticeable how acceleration between stations was much better than with the Class 172s and we easily reached the termini ahead of schedule, even with the padding at the Gospel Oak end. I reckon passengers really will welcome the new Class 710 trains and hopefully this hiatus will be forgotten once they’re introduced just like the summer 2016 closure for bodged electrification works is now a distant memory.

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Of course, Bombardier don’t come out of all this at all well. TfL’s latest public statement claims the manufacturer “has still not been able to fix the software problems that are causing the delays”. There’s not even a date for “when the new trains will be ready for driver training to start”. No doubt TfL are hammering them with compensation claims for extra costs and loss of revenue – they’ve already extracted a promised of a months free travel on the line when the trains are finally introduced.

Meantime, it look’s like another Spring (and probably Summer) with crowded trains and longer waits for the hard pressed GOBLIN passengers.

Roger French

 

 

 

New Keep Fit regime for commuters at Victoria

Kings Cross St Pancras Underground station is renowned for its deliberate policy of directing unfamiliar passengers via strategically placed signs to take the longer circuitous route from Kings Cross National Rail station exit via the northern ticket hall and barriers to reach the deep level lines.

Those in the know ignore the signs and within  a few strides are through the barriers in the original southern ticket hall, down the escalator and on the platform.

TfL’s attempt to spread the load by nudging passengers by clever signage works well as time precious commuters know how to avoid leisurely wheelie suitcase carrying dawdlers.

No such luck at the new look expanded Victoria Underground ticket hall which showed off its new subterranean route march to weekday commuters this morning. We’re all forced to take the longer route to the platform while the old escalator down side stands idle and taped off. Even the announcements playing out regularly over the PA warn it’ll take three minutes to walk to the platform.

And after two escalators and what seems like a mile of passageway you arrive at the same crowded platform except at its northern end rather than the southern end. Those of us who knew the trick of using the Circle/District Line entrance and easily nipping down to the Victoria Line platform are now thwarted as that’s where everyone else now arrives after their labyrinthine journey.

It was always obvious that with virtual continual tube running on the Victoria and ever over-crowded peak hour platforms, the only thing a new entrance would bring is a way to stop the queuing in the ticket hall backing up to the main line station and instead occupy everyone on a bit of a walk underground for a few minutes. Still, at least it gets the step count up. And should work for another few years until passenger numbers grow and the queues build up again along the new passageways. Just remember to allow for that extra three minutes in your commute.

Roger French (live from Victoria Undergtound station).     27th August 2018

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