Exit Stagecoach Left, Please

Routes 103 and 175 were lost in a surprise tender last month (October), from Stagecoach to Arriva London. Here in this post, we follow what's been happening since.
Stagecoach 18471 (LX55 ERK) on route 175 at Romford Station.

The Tender Announcement
So it was somewhere around the start of this year when a huge wad of tenders in relation to quite a number of East London routes was announced. Routes 150, 150D and 257 were among the list of routes who had their fate for the next 5 years revealed. 

The 257 award proved a good day for Stagecoach, but Arriva had an even better day knowing they had won the 103 and 175, and also retained the 341 and 150 (150D was incorporated into the 150). 

It was quickly announced that route 103 would be heading to Grays (GY) garage and route 175 to Barking's Ripple Road (DX) garage where sister route from Heathway, the 173 also operates from. Both routes were to utilise existing Wright Pulsar Gemini 2 bodied VDL DB300 buses (DW) class released from route 242 earlier this year, and also route 341 which as aforementioned, was retained (with new hybrid buses).

With some background context, the 103 is a route that runs between North Romford Chase Cross Road (advertised as 'Chase Cross' on most maps and buses) and Rainham Interchange for Rainham (Essex) Station for c2c services. The route was only extended to the 'interchange' a few years ago towards the start of a second contract with Stagecoach. Previously before that, it had terminated at the War Memorial just around the corner. 

Stagecoach had ran the route for the last 12 years, since 2005, initially using [at-the-time] brand new ALX400 bodied Dennis Trident buses, before getting a partial new allocation in the November of 2012, to coincide with the start of a new 5 year contract, new Alexander Dennis Enviro 400 buses. The route was stationed at Romford (NS) garage before moving over to Rainham (RM) in 2015, following Stagecoach's successful tender win of routes 498 and 499.

Stagecoach 19741 (LX11 BBJ) with an all-over Homesense
advert, at Dagenham Ford's in 2016.
The 175 is a route that has been around forever, the longest running one along Dagenham's Heathway. Having spent the last 60 or so years at Romford (NS) garage, it came as a shock that for the first time in six decades, the route was leaving the garage. Currently running from North Romford Hillrise Estate to Dagenham New Road, the route was 'temporarily' cut back from Dagenham Ford Works earlier this year. Ford's, the American car manufacturer has a huge, although now mostly redundant, plant in Dagenham with the 175 as the only route running onto the factory grounds during Monday to Fridays and early Saturday mornings.

However, with the access to the plant which is via a bridge that takes you over a small body of water, now weakening quickly, for health & safety reasons it was decided to cut the route back to the New Road terminus full-time.

The Last Day
Stagecoach 10307 (YY15 OYZ) on route 175 at Romford Station.
Those who follow the Romford bus scene probably realised how quickly the Trident model has vanished over the last two years. The area was rammed with these buses on nearly every single route for the last 10 years before that, and somehow had now become drained of it. The 175 was the second-to-last route to have Tridents as the official allocation in Romford, with now only the yellow route 247 left. Stagecoach in London itself does not have that many Tridents left in action now, with many enthusiasts predicting that route 158 (Stratford to Chingford Mount) may be the last route to officially see these vehicles in 2019.

Route 175 for the last few days at Stagecoach East London was curtailed to Chase Cross, sharing the stand with route 103 due to utility works taking place within Hillrise Estate, closing off all access for local buses. This was also ongoing during the first week of Arriva operation. However, as route 175 technically 'doesn't serve Chase Cross' per se by TfL's standards - skipping the turning point by diving down Avelon Road, it meant that iBus could not even be programmed to know that the route was only going as far as Chase Cross, and many of the newer Enviro 400 buses with powerblinds could not be programmed to show the destination and 175 at the same time, as Chase Cross is not specified as a turning point on TfL's blind specification documents. As a result, most buses ran around with Hillrise Estate still on their blinds and all buses were still saying Hillrise Estate on iBus.

Stagecoach 17776 blinded for route 103 to Rainham, War Memorial in 2014.
The Spirit of London is the first ever Enviro 400 to have been built, as I'm sure many of you know the story behind it is that the bus was to replace the Trident destroyed in the 7/7 Bombings. It has moved around from garage to garage on several routes around East London, following tender losses such as route 30 which was its original home (which is now to end at Metroline next year, 2018). It was the victim of its own attack, an arson, back in 2012 whilst on a late night route 69 duty and had to be rebuilt following several thousands of pounds being reinvested into the vehicle. Upon return, it came back to service in late 2013, operating out of Leyton (T) with a new look on flagship route 55 between Leyton Baker's Arms and Oxford Circus. However this was short lived as route 55 converted to Wright Borismaster operation.

It was decided that the bus would move over to Rainham (RM) garage and was selected to live on routes 103, 248 and 252. The bus spent most of its days on the 103 and so after a good two years of seeing the route on a near daily basis, the Spirit of London, one of London's few named buses, subsequently formed the last ever Stagecoach 103 working in the early hours of Saturday 14th October 2017, bringing a lovely end to Stagecoach's chapter on this route. Whether the allocators have done this on purpose or whether it was genuinely a happy accident remains unknown to at least most of us, but either way a lot of enthusiasts were grateful for a nice send-off. 

The bus itself still lives at Rainham (RM) garage, although spends much more of its days on route 252 between Collier Row, Romford and Hornchurch now with very few trips on the 248 up to Upminster.

Arriva has Arrived
Arriva took over the routes on the 14th October 2017 using existing buses displaced from routes 242, 243 and 341. Route 103 has been at Arriva before, prior to 2005, so this was another route added to the growing list of homecomings that have occurred lately. Although it is noteworthy that the route was stationed out of Barking (DX) garage prior to the loss, it is now to operate instead out of Grays (GY). 

Grays (GY) already has had around 12 DW-class buses of the same age since 2014 or 2015, from when route 66 converted from single decker operation to double decker operation. This was an increase in it's portfolio of these buses as the garage now has about 44 of these, with the other 30 or so buses joining this summer to form the 103 allocation and also following the successful retain of the garage's flagship route 370, which will also be using these buses.

For Barking (DX) however, it was their first foray into these vehicles. Although most of their fleet is modern, bar the much loved VLAs that live on purple branded route 128 that miraculously don't age, the garage has always been an Alexander Dennis stronghold. Filled top to bottom with a variety Enviro 200 and Enviro 400 buses that can be found on the 150, 173, 325 and 368.

It was decided that route 175 would join the garage instead as it is much closer, with the option of having 175 drivers use the same ferry that the 128 and 150 use and dropping them at the Becontree Heath Leisure Centre, making the operation of the route some bit cheaper. 

DW258 (LJ59 GVK) showing the incorrect display of 'Dagenham, Fords'
whilst working route 175.
The first bus to join Barking's fleet was ex-Tottenham DW327 (LJ60 AXK) in mid-August on route 173. Drivers and engineers had been training on these vehicles from as early as July to ensure a smooth transition into using these vehicles when they rolled out on a larger scale in the Autumn. Quite a large number of DWs rolled out over the coming weeks primarily on routes 173 and 368 as they aren't part of the branding trial, especially with 173 the garage's most flexible route in terms of allocations. 

Route 175 was still curtailed to Chase Cross for about another half week, meaning the same issues that Stagecoach had suffered on their last day in regards to blinds and iBus announcements had carried on here. Interestingly, Transport for London still has put 'Dagenham, Ford Works' as a destination on the blinds specification although the likelihood of buses returning there seems to be slim at best right now. Mistakenly, drivers do still keep showing this as the destination of their bus when it should, at all times until further notice, display 'Dagenham, New Road'.

Route 175 descending the Hillrise, North Romford.
The reaction to DWs being used on the 175 was mixed: it wasn't exactly as welcomed by quite a number of enthusiasts, the roots of the 'rejection' being primarily down to the poor state of some of the buses, in particular the ex-Tottenham ones, which weren't looked after well. Buses were heavily restricted and are slow, and quite a number were said to have sounded quite unhealthy, releasing a lot of particulates into the air: DW245 (LJ59 AAF) was a prime example of this. But obviously in a mix, praise has risen for some of the other buses used that has come over to the garage.

The first day was really patchy, the well known 'first-day syndrome' having struck before 8 that morning on both routes. Buses were all over the place at the wrong time, with a lot of overtime for drivers going up. There were instances where there may have not been a bus for over 30 minutes, meaning passengers had to rely on other routes such as the 499, 173 and 174 to get across Dagenham and Romford. A lot of buses had curtailed short of their destination, with one point on the 175 that evening where Heathway traffic had played up again that the service was 'lopsided', of about 12 or so buses, 3 were heading to Dagenham and 9 heading towards Chase Cross with many of the northbound buses running in pairs or triplets. 
Luckily to the relief of anyone who takes interest in these routes, the service has much improved since then. Buses are slowly starting to come at more regular intervals, with a lot less turns in the service. 

A 370 bus appears on the 103.
The buses haven't yet to have a refurbishment, although are expecting this to happen relatively soon. Interestingly, DW246 seems to, as a one-off, have had a repaint which was carried out earlier in the year back when it was housed at Clapton (CT) garage. Barking (DX) does have more buses than it actually needs right now, with the ex-Tottenham (AR) hanging about as spare buses. Their presence at the garage probably indicates that a much needed refurbishment of these buses is in due course. A similar situation at Grays (GY) where a few VLAs made redundant are still hanging about.

Although a bit of a shaky start, Arriva are slowly getting there. Here's to 5 years of Arriva's service on the routes 103 and 175.

Stay safe!