Sunday, January 23, 2011

Rail Replacement Safari

Every weekend, rail travel in the capital is blighted by "planned engineering works". We all know it's essential, but that doesn't make it any less bloody annoying. This weekend three entire Underground lines are closed, four others curtailed, and the DLR and Overground substantially buggered. TfL ran as many as ten rail replacement bus services yesterday, from Harrow in the west to Dagenham in the east. I thought I'd entirely waste my Saturday by travelling on every single one of them, from end to end, to see how dreadful the experience was. My rail replacement safari took me ten and a half hours, so I think you can guess how much fun it wasn't. But hopefully I've learned some useful lessons along the way, which you (or maybe TfL) should take to heart.

District line replacement service B: Mile End → Barking
No trains were running, so buses up the Mile End Road were busier than normal. This seemed odd, because most people were crammed aboard buses that cost money, rather than hopping aboard the freebie rail replacements. Fancy travelling to Stratford for nothing, hop on. They don't have Oyster readers on rail replacement buses because it would be too much additional hassle, which is brilliant, because at weekends you can ride all over London for free. OK, so you're supposed to have a valid ticket before boarding, but I rode ten different freebie buses yesterday and wasn't challenged once. Even better, rail replacement buses are express buses. They don't stop everywhere, so you get to sail past normal buses halting every few hundred yards and get to your destination even faster. I hate to think how slow this bus would have been if we'd stopped everywhere. Our driver seemed afraid of exceeding 20mph, occasionally ambling up to green traffic lights just in time for them to turn red. But we still saved time by not going to West Ham, which was a shame because we could have caught a faster c2c train there. And we saved even more time by not going to Plaistow, which TfL cruelly deemed unworthy of any replacement service whatsoever. Free buses aren't for everyone, it seems.
Mile End → Barking: normally 17 min, rail replacement bus 38 min (+120%)

District line replacement service C: Barking → Dagenham East
Once, when a long strip of tube line was closed down, TfL used to run just one rail replacement bus service. Not any more. Now they split the closure into sections and make you change from one to the other partway. Here the main split was outside Barking station and, I have to say, was appallingly handled. The driver dumped us off the bus from Mile End with no clue as to where to go next. Nothing on the bus stop, no staff waiting helpfully, bugger all. Erm. Eventually I spotted three blue tabards huddled in the station entrance across the road, and managed to attract their owners' attention. I was duly directed down the street to a home-made bus stop with a tiny "rail replacement" sticker on it, where the next bus to Dagenham had just left without me. Another bus soon turned up, but with its destination blinds blank and no helpful route card in the window. "And you're going to...?" No, back to Mile End. Rest assured I made it to Dagenham eventually (at roughly the same speed as the 70 year-old cyclist we got stuck behind). But come on TfL. If you're going to force us to change buses mid-replacement, at least tell us clearly how to do it.
Barking → Dagenham East: normally 9 min, rail replacement bus 22 min (+140%)
Mile End → Dagenham East: normally 26 min, rail replacement buses 1hr 10 min (+170%)

Catching the rail replacement bus isn't usually the quickest way to get to your destination. At Dagenham East, for example, some whiteboard scribble strongly recommended catching the tube all the way out to Upminster and then the fast c2c train back the other way. So I tried that, and it took just as long to get to Barking as it had done on the slowcoach bus. Getting beyond Barking, however, proved much much faster, which was good. I was even able to confirm that planned engineering work was indeed taking place at several places up and down the line. Track maintenance at Upney, a trainful of ballast further along, and early construction of the Olympic passenger footbridge at West Ham. Londoners, your weekend travel pain is not in vain.

DLR replacement service C: Canary Wharf → North Woolwich
They don't want you to catch a DLR replacement bus from Canary Wharf. A sign at the station suggests you hop on the Jubilee line to Canning Town instead and catch the buses there. That's great if you're going further, but no help if you want to head to a station inbetween. I had to guess which Dockland stop the replacement buses were leaving from, five minutes walk away, because directions were non-existent. Thankfully I guessed correctly. The bus took the most ridiculous detour at East India simply to get as close as possible to the station, which involved driving through two security barriers and round a deserted private estate. At Canning Town I was surprised to see as many as ten members of weekend-only support staff hanging around the bus station, although most of them were chatting to each other rather than helping the public. I also spotted a one-carriage test train running on the new bit of DLR they haven't opened yet, which is why half the network was closed to passengers. The remaining two miles of replacement bus after Canning Town seemed unnecessary because there's a perfectly decent scheduled bus, the 474, running along precisely the same route. But it appears that real buses confuse the train-using public, who'd feel lost and cheated if they didn't have a special dedicated parallel service of their own. Is it important to run a "474 Express", or is it a waste of money?
Blackwall → King George V: normally 12 min, rail replacement bus 28 min (+130%)

DLR replacement service B: Beckton → Canary Wharf
At Beckton bus station, more hopelessness. The replacement bus stood empty, door invitingly open, but with absolutely no members of staff around to help. Several of them were sat across the road in a cosy blue bus having tea, or reading the paper or whatever, while a confused huddle of would-be passengers gathered by the bus stop. One lady asked me where the bus was going, because the information on the front wasn't at all clear. One bloke was waiting to swipe his Oyster because he thought he'd get fined otherwise, and there was nobody there to tell him not to. Only by going over to enquire of a driver on his fag break did one enterprising traveller finally confirm the bus's destination and departure time. No brownie points for customer service here, none whatsoever. At least the journey, when it finally began, was mercifully swift.
Beckton → Canning Town: normally 14 min, rail replacement bus 17 min! (+20%)

District line replacement service A: Canning Town → Liverpool Street
The District line doesn't go to Canning Town, so who in their right mind would think of catching a replacement bus here? Nobody, which is why I was the only passenger on board for the first bit of the journey. From Canning Town to Bromley-by-Bow in six minutes flat was a fantastic service for an E3 local, if alas only temporary. We sped on, unhindered by the traffic that often blights the Mile End Road. There were hiccups in Whitechapel, however. A lady in a woolly hat had made the mistake of waiting at the bus stop nearest to the station, which is precisely where you might expect a rail replacement bus to stop, but no. Next stop, by the hospital... where our driver was harangued by a posh lady with a suitcase. How dare this bus go to Liverpool Street not Tower Hill, I mean, what sort of District line replacement bus service does that? Point taken, except there were no trains at Tower Hill to connect to, and this was technically a Hammersmith & City replacement bus. By the time the argument had finished the lady in the woolly hat had caught up and clambered aboard, which made me smile. And we still reached Liverpool Street almost as fast as the train would have done, which was damned impressive.
Bromley-by-Bow → Liverpool Street: normally 15 min, rail replacement bus 20 min! (+30%)

For the second part of my quest to ride every rail replacement bus in London, I headed west. That meant getting from Liverpool Street to Hammersmith - a journey normally possible on one train, but not on Saturday. There was no service of any kind round the eastern half of the Circle line - that's between Edgware Road and Embankment - and no rail replacement buses either. TfL no longer believe in running RRBs through Central London, so leave passengers to find their own way via whatever other tubes (or buses) are running. From Liverpool Street the only escape was via the Central line, hence the platforms were absolutely packed when I came to use them. Carriages too, as if it were the height of the weekday rush hour - the mismatch caused by running only a weekend-level service. Sometimes, TfL, what we need are extra rail replacement trains.

Hammersmith & City line replacement service D: Hammersmith → Paddington
"Today this station close" read the scribbled message on the board outside Hammersmith station on Saturday. Not a phrase to raise hopes of high-level communicative ability in either of the two members of staff standing alongside. "Buses all stations to Paddington" said the printed text underneath, before explaining in small type "Not stopping at Wood Lane. Calling additionally at Shepherd's Bush." You had to get up pretty close to read that, which suggests that whoever designs these posters is using an undersized font.
Mini-rant: There were two posters, and from a distance the only obvious wording said "BUS STOP →" on one and "BUS STOP W" on the other. The arrow was very definitely pointing around the corner so that's where I went, but instead found Bus Stop Q which didn't have any rail replacement branding at all. Bus Stop W turned out to have been immediately outside the station, back where I'd started, which was frustrating. I pointed out this signage confusion to a nearby member of staff, but he was from the bus company not TfL and quite frankly didn't care. Then when the bus finally arrived it stopped at both bus stops, W and Q, which seemed bafflingly unnecessary.
Mini-rant 2: Just after the bus pulled up, the TfL employee standing by the bus stop loudly announced "All stations to Paddington". But it's not is it, I said to him, we're missing out Wood Lane. "All stations to Paddington!" he confirmed, in that smug way people do when they're wrong.
The journey to Paddington suffered from a simple problem - one I experienced several times over the weekend. Just because there's a railway line linking a set of stations doesn't mean there's a road. There was no direct road from Latimer Road to Ladbroke Grove, for example, so we had to drive up, across and back down to get from one to the other. There was no direct road from Ladbroke Grove to Westbourne Park either so we had to drive down, across and back up, this time along streets barely suitable for two-way traffic. And there was no direct road from Westbourne Park to Royal Oak (apart from the A40 Westway, which was out of the question) so we had to drive way up, across and back down yet again. These tortuous detours stretched out the journey so much that the bus took more three times as long as the tube journey would have done.
Mini-rant 3: And then at the end, one final bit of customer neglect. The bus ejected us halfway down one side of Paddington station, not at the front. We could clearly see a side entrance to the station, but on the other side of very long iron railings and one level below. We were left to our own devices to decide how best to get down there, several minutes walk away, which especially annoyed the elderly passenger and the lady with a suitcase. If you want to feel like a second-class citizen, ride the rail replacement bus.
Hammersmith → Paddington: normally 14 min, rail replacement bus 47 min (+240%)

Jubilee line replacement service C: Stonebridge Park → Stanmore
You have to feel sorry for the people of Stanmore. They've suffered more than most with the incompetent installation of signalling on the Jubilee line, facing rail replacement bus services at weekends for years. And again this weekend. Not that you'd have known when the bus rolled up at Stonebridge Park, because the destination wasn't visible. If you're not familiar, most rail replacement buses don't have the destination up on the front blind where the destination usually is. That would be too useful. Instead they convey information via a small card plonked behind the windscreen wherever the driver thinks fit. In large font is written the 'letter' of the service (in this case 'C') and alongside that a list of the stations the bus will be stopping at. And the last station on the list invariably disappears, because it slots behind something, so it's impossible to read. In this case 'Canons Park' was the last station name visible, because the word 'Stanmore' had disappeared below the fascia horizon. And this was no one-off. All the buses we passed in the opposite direction had "Stonebridge Park" concealed, leaving "Wembley Park" as the final visible destination. Somebody needs to tell drivers to display these cards properly, consistently, clearly. A serious rethink on front-of-bus signage is long overdue.
Wembley Park → Stanmore: normally 11 min, rail replacement bus 24 min (+120%)

Metropolitan line replacement service A: Harrow-on-the-Hill → Wembley Park
I had to get one eventually - a not-very-nice double decker rolled out of retirement for the use of weekend engineering nomads. Some lucky folk in the opposite direction got Routemasters, but we got some bog standard 20th century workhorse. If I sat carefully enough, I could just about keep my shoes out of the pool of phlegm on the floor. Throughout the journey, even with headphones plugged in, I was forced to listen to the well-urban conversation of the trainee footballer sitting behind me. "You know what club was interested in me, bruv, Yeovil." "I can't sign anything with Barnet until I get an agent, innit." "Watford was an even worse shithole than Barnet, know what I mean." If only the bus hadn't detoured round the backstreets to Northwick Park I might have been spared the full details of his long-term injury woes. The Road to Wembley is never easy.
Harrow-on-the-Hill → Wembley Park: normally 5 min, rail replacement bus 20 min (+300%)

Jubilee line replacement service D: Wembley Park → Finchley Road
Four possible rail replacement destinations from Wembley Park, and three empty buses lined up. But which one was which? Not a bloody clue. The crowd mustering impatiently on the pavement wanted to know, waiting for one of the many customer service agents to finally point at one and say yes, get on that. As a prime example of rail replacement directional incoherence, this was hard to beat. When the pack finally swarmed aboard bus number two I ended up on the top deck beside a flapping copy of the Sun and an empty packet of onion garlic potato snacks. There then followed a depressingly slow meander through the streets of northwest London. Beyond Neasden most of the streets along the railway were residential, and deemed too narrow for double decker buses. We therefore took some ridiculous detours merely to ensure that we passed all the same stations that the train would have done [map]. Neasden to Dollis Hill was particularly convoluted, three times longer than it could have been, and delivered us into the hands of some annoyingly bouncy speed humps. Willesden Green to Kilburn was a right pain too, and we ended up stuck in nasty traffic on the Kilburn High Road because our driver wasn't allowed to turn off sooner. What would've really helped would have been an additional Metropolitan replacement express - Wembley to Finchley Road without deviation, repetition, or hesitation. But no, every city-bound passenger got to take the slow route through Jubilee purgatory. I hated this one, never again.
Wembley Park → West Hampstead: normally 11 min, rail replacement bus 45 min (+310%)
Harrow-on the Hill → Finchley Road: normally 12 min, rail replacement buses 77 min (+540%)

Overground replacement bus service: Hampstead Heath → Stratford
And finally, the granddaddy of TfL rail replacement buses. This one's been running so often over the last few years that local residents must think it's a permanent service. Rest assured it won't be around forever - the engineering works on the old Silverlink line are scheduled to end in May, heralding an improved, more frequent Overground service. But in the meantime, sorry, orbital rail passengers face four-wheeled double deckers for several more weekends yet. They really ought to have arrangements perfectly sorted by now, you'd think. You'd think.

I arrived at Hampstead Heath by Overground - the driver having urged everyone to get off one stop early for the rail replacement bus. Now all I had to do was find one. A poster in the ticket hall told me to go to Bus Stop A in Constantine Street, which was no help, and included a map, which sort of was. I attempted to match the map to my mental image of the surrounding area, and rushed off down the hill. I'd probably have spotted the blue directional signs attached to lampposts quicker if it hadn't been dark. I then had to run the last bit because the bus was about to leave. Some idiot had scheduled the replacement bus to depart almost immediately after the train arrived. Only by being the first person off the platform, and the first person out of the station, and the first person round the correct corner, had I managed to board it on time. Some further research later revealed the reason for this lunacy. Eastbound Overground trains arrive at Hampstead Heath every 15 minutes, but eastbound rail replacement buses depart Hampstead Heath every 20 minutes. There is bugger all attempt to synchronise the two services to assist through-travellers, just two disparate systems existing in mis-timed silos.

I wasn't looking forward to this particular journey because I've made it before. My enduring memory is of battling through the treacly backstreets of Islington trying to get close to a station nobody really wanted to get off at. Good news, TfL have streamlined the route. No jobsworth regulations here insist that buses must stop outside stations. Instead we missed Gospel Oak by seven streets, Kentish Town West by 300 metres and Caledonian Road & Barnsbury by a full mile. Brilliant for those of us passing through, it speeded up the journey no end - but not quite so good for those at bypassed stations attempting to work out where the scheduled bus stop was.

It being dark, and with windows steamed up, it was often quite difficult to work out where the bus was. To assist passengers our driver yelled out the name of each station as we reached it, and the sound just about carried up the stairs. He yelled in a language resembling English, but I was eventually able to decipher "Keshdownwet" and "Durlstenking" after a few seconds thought. Meanwhile the electronic iBus display at the front of the top deck was firmly switched off. Over the last few years we Londoners have got used to being spoilt by instant scrolling displays announcing the name of the next stop, and here it would have been exceptionally useful. I know that not all rail replacement buses have this system fitted but, for those that do, would it really be so difficult to program the route and turn it on?

One thing that struck me was the number of people on their mobiles uttering the immortal phrase "I'm on the bus". They were apologising to friends, mostly, because when they'd set out on their journey they were expecting to be "on the train". But no, they'd completely missed the fact the Overground was suspended until it was too late, so found themselves rumbling slowly towards social events they were going to arrive late for. TfL do try hard to invite travellers to check for service disruptions, especially at weekends, but most people obviously don't. These days there are far too many planned engineering works for even the hardiest geek to remember, so what hope for the general public? They still wander round clutching paper maps of the weekday network, so lengthy bus detours always come as a surprise.

I wish the girl who sat behind me at Dalston Kingsland had been using her mobile for a late apology. Instead she seemed to be having some sort of emotional breakdown, by phone, in public, with someone who was no longer her beloved. By Hackney Central she'd told the top deck how her plans for motherhood were wrecked, by Homerton she was considering pissing off abroad for six months unable to cope, and by Hackney Wick she was blaming it all on her au pair. You don't get this kind of comedy soap opera on trains. I was semi-delusional by this point, so was more than pleased when we finally reached Stratford station. And then, alas, drove straight past it to the official alighting point, so that everyone had a two minute walk back again. Even at the end of ten and a half hours of rail replacement purgatory, there's always one last unpleasant extra.
Hampstead Heath → Stratford: normally 32 min, rail replacement bus 76 min (+140%)

Lessons learned
1) Every weekend, TfL and local bus companies throw hundreds of staff out onto the streets to assist passengers using rail replacement buses. Some are wonderful, but far too many just stand around passing the time without being of any help whatsoever. Cull them, it'd save money.
2) The weakest link when travelling by rail replacement bus can be trying to find the correct bus stop in the first place. A generic "rail replacement bus service stops here" sign is often inadequately non-specific. Which bus, in which direction, to where? Don't always leave us to ask a member of staff.
3) If TfL want to force people to change replacement buses halfway through their journey, they need to explain how to do it. Don't just dump people somewhere unfamiliar and leave them to work it out for themselves.
4) Just because TfL's laid on a rail replacement bus service, don't act like a sheep and assume it'll be the fastest way of reaching your destination.
5) Some replacement buses are distressingly snail-like, others are expressly speedy. Learn to use the latter and avoid the former.
6) People of London - stop thinking of rail replacement buses as annoying hassle, and start thinking of them as a free way to travel around town.
7) When several lines in Central London are closed, a more frequent service on any parallel lines would help to absorb increased passenger numbers.
8) Simply displaying "Rail Replacement Service" on the front of a rail replacement bus isn't good enough. If the correct destination's on the roller blind, show us that. Please.
9) Tiny cardboard rectangles on the driver's dashboard are not the solution to rail replacement bus signage. They're surprisingly illegible from a distance, inconsistently placed, and the bottom line often disappears from view. Design something bigger and clearer, and use that.
10) Rail replacement buses can be told apart by a single letter code, but members of the public rarely notice this. They're looking for a destination, not a letter.
11) Certain rail replacement bus routes would be much quicker if they passed 'close' to a station, rather than all round the houses to stop right outside. Excessively tortuous routes are a curse, not a blessing.
12) The London borough of Brent was pretty much tube-free on Sunday. Do try to coordinate your line closures more carefully, TfL, otherwise residents will think you've got it in for them.
13) On railway lines with a less frequent service, it shouldn't be rocket science to synchronise the replacement buses with the trains.
14) After dark, if the bus's destination is only written on a small piece of cardboard in the front window, that's not very useful is it?
15) If there's a 'next stop' display system aboard a rail replacement bus (and I know there isn't always), please switch it on.
16) Many of the problems here aren't the fault of the bus companies providing the service, they're the fault of whoever it is at TfL that writes their contracts.
17) Those "planned engineering works for the week ahead" posters on display at tube stations are misleading. They show an amalgam of Saturday's and Sunday's closures, not the closures in effect today, which makes them less than practical for instant use. One day in the far future these maps will be on an electronic screen, not a sheet of paper, and that'll help no end.
18) However much TfL tell people there's rail replacement work coming up, people still aren't listening.
19) People of London - if you're travelling at the weekend, always check for planned engineering works first. There's probably a quicker way to get around them if you plan ahead. And, really, you don't want to get stuck on the bus.
20) If anyone ever suggests riding every rail replacement bus in London to see what it's like, query their sanity.

[these posts originally appeared here on diamond geezer]

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