I’ve been on a course up in the City this week, and thus, armed with a 7-day Oyster Z1-3 Travelcard (which, as an aside, repeatedly failed to open the barriers at Waterloo) have been trying out some unusual bus routes.  I tried using the 521 every morning to see what it’s about and here are some observations:

  1. Two-door boarding is essential – the buses load in about a minute or less through two doors and given the rate people arrive that’s just as well
  2. The service is relatively reliable at around 8:30am but deteriorates rapidly around 9am – I put this down to increasing bunching of the buses through the rush hour
  3. They often travel in pairs, as expected.  It doesn’t take much in the way of delay for the bus in front to slow down sufficiently to be caught by the bus behind when they’re leaving that close together.  Three of a kind wasn’t uncommon and I did see one row of four 521s heading back to Waterloo, containing a handful of passengers each.  It’s not clear to me that this is a new dawn in transport efficiency (not least because this explains the occasional long gap around 9am at Waterloo – the buses have got stuck coming back from their 8am rush).
  4. The buses don’t load to capacity at Waterloo – I counted 55-60 people before the queues decided that it was too full to board.  In particular people seem to avoid standing near the back despite it being liberally equipped with hangers.  On the other hand this could be faith in the frequent service or people deciding they’d rather risk a late arrival in order to get one of the seats on the next one (I did this at least once).
  5. The queue length is highly dependent on the gap between buses – the best I saw was just past the bus stops, the worst was all the way back to the bottom of the escalators down from the station and would have been a couple of hundred people or around four buses full.
  6. At good times the buses turn up extraordinarily frequently.  Yesterday morning, however, the first three to arrive after I hit the queue were short-running to Holborn, out of service and out of service by which time the queue was back down the stairs again and the first usable service was a whole 11 minutes after I’d joined the queue.  As it turned out, there were roadworks just east of Holborn that caused all the buses down there to be diverted via Theobalds Road leading to a massive bus jam.  How’s that for smoothing traffic flow?
  7. There must be some transfer of passengers to other buses when the 521 service is bad – the day the queue was longest I eventually got a 68 instead, which is far slower but at least had seats and the speed advantage of the 521 using the Aldwych underpass is negated if you have to wait for the fourth bus to take advantage.  Curiously there was a big scrum for other buses in the same direction, too.  Catching buses, as anyone who regular uses them knows, is a common application of game theory – is it worth waiting or trying another route?

For a more scientific analysis of this we need to wait until the EWT (Excess Waiting Time) figures come out.  The current published figures only cover up to late June, unfortunately, and show a decent EWT of around 0.5 minutes against a target of just over 1.5 minutes (and were better than in 07-08).

Finally some photos from the first day’s trip:

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