It's the Virtual Age

Route 69 is a route in East London, running between Walthamstow central and Canning Town. It is one of the many routes in the area to recently undergo a service change. This route transferred from the operation of Stagecoach London to operation with Tower Transit from Lea Interchange (LI) garage.

10108 on the 69 takes rest in Canning Town Bus Station
© EastLondoner

On the 7th of October 2015, it was announced that the route had been awarded to Tower Transit with existing buses made free from the loss of route 26 to CT Plus. The change was initially due to take place on the 30th of April, however it was negotiated to take place on the 2nd of February instead. This was due to a forthcoming trial of Virtual Electric Enviro400 MMCs on the route. 

The Virtual electric Enviro400 MMCs were initially due to enter service with Stagecoach, however the buses were transferred to Tower Transit when they won the new contract for the route. The buses are a special type of Hybrid bus, which can operate as an electric vehicle for a considerably longer time than a conventional hybrid. The bus would charge at either terminus using wireless electromagnetic charging pads installed on the ground at the bus stand. Upon hearing this news, I was pretty excited to finally get some form of electric bus operating in my area with the added excitement of the bus type chosen was my favourite bus body currently available on the market. 

© EastLondoner
The virtual electric buses entered service during November 2015, while the route was still under Stagecoach London operation. Tower Transit operated the Virtual electric buses as an extra service on the route. During the first few days of operation the buses were running without ibus on, making them extremely difficult to track down and ride. During December the buses started appearing on ibus, and therefore much easier to track using the London Vehicle Finder. A few days before Christmas on December 22nd, I went out to Canning Town Bus Station to get a glimpse of these buses. However once I snapped the bus, the bus pulled up on stand and the blinds started scrolling to blank. However I have to say that I did part expect that to happen due to the unpredictability of the bus's operation. 

I didn't pay much attention to the route after that, the virtual electric buses continued to be very difficult to hunt down. It was on the 2nd of February I found myself going after the route again, the day the whole service transferred over to Tower Transit. Existing ALX400 buses were hired by Tower Transit from Stagecoach London as the buses destined for the 69 were still on route 26. However a few of Tower Transit's own buses were out, including one 12reg bus transferred over from route 23s allocation at Westbourne Park (X) garage. 

DN33639 seen on Tower Transit's first day of operation at Stratford Bus Station
© EastLondoner
© EastLondoner
Service on the first day was pretty much expected. The 69 is not an easy route to operate due to its traffic hotspots, and any new operator on the route will need some time to get used to it. I did take a quick ride on DN33639 (pictured above) however the bus was quite late and part of triple bunching on the route and was very crowded. I did find it very weird that I was on a 69 that was not operated by Stagecoach London, my whole life I have been using the route as a Stagecoach London route. 

As some weeks passed with route 69 at Tower Transit, more and more buses were transferred over to Lea Interchange (LI) from Westbourne Park (X) and Atlas Road (AS) garages, made possible by the conversion of route 328 to Volvo B5LH. These buses started outsting all the Tridents left operating on route 69, and by the start of May all the Tridents had returned to Stagecoach London (and they have since left) with the 69 being operated fully by Tower Transit's own buses. 

In June I went back out to judge how the 69 had been performing under its new operator. By this point the Virtual Electric buses were also operating as part of the main schedule for the route, and therefore much easier to track down and board. Upon arrival at Canning Town Bus Station I was greeted with a full 69 stand. There was also a bus standing at the 69s pick up stop, which then proceeded to break down and block the stop completely. However apart from that little slip up, service was operating better than my previous experiences with the route.

After a slight wait, the virtual electric Enviro400 MMC had arrived and pulled up on stand. A wireless charger was due to be installed at Canning Town Bus Station but there was no sign of it. 
DH38503 takes some stand time at Canning Town Bus Station
© EastLondoner

High back seats on the DH
© EastLondoner
When I boarded the bus, the first thing my attention was drawn to were the high back seats, extremely unusual for a London bus however they were a most welcomed addition. I took my seat at the front of the bus, and we started moving on our way to Walthamstow Central. For the first part of the journey, we were stuck in typical Barking Road traffic, and after that the route uses side roads where you can't really see the potential in the bus. We eventually reached Stratford where the bus started to get very crowded. I was hoping for the bus to convert to operating in Electric mode at around this point in the journey but it continued to behave like a normal hybrid. We travelled along Stratford gyratory before turning off towards Leyton and Maryland. We did get stuck in a bit of traffic here and for the first time in my journey the bus showcased its stop-start ability. 

We then had empty road ahead of us, however my bus did not exceed 20mph. Something I found quite disappointing. The bus was also starting to get pretty stuffy due to the crowd aboard the bus, the high back seats also made the bus feel slightly claustrophobic. We eventually reached Baker's Arms where we were met by traffic which took us all the way to Walthamstow bus station. 

DH38503 sits on its charger at Walthamstow Bus Station
© EastLondoner
Upon disembarking the bus at Walthamstow Bus Station I did feel quite disappointing, the bus did not remain in electric mode for any long period of time, behaving for all its journey just like your standard Hybrid bus. The bus was crawling for most of its journey despite having a few traffic free roads. A very disappointing experience aboard the bus for me, especially for a bus type I was so excited to ride initially.

Overall the service has improved on the route since Tower Transit's early days on the route. But if you are considering riding the Virtual Electric Enviro400 MMC I would not recommend you to keep it as a top priority of yours.