Simon Calder tries out TfL's longest bus route

Why London's longest bus route is perfect for planespotters

Step aboard the X26 for a surprising semi-detached suburban sprint

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
@SimonCalder
Friday 09 March 2018 10:53
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As a place to begin a dream trip, West Croydon Bus Station is not every traveller’s first choice. The terminus occupies a scruffy corner in the deep south of Greater London. Along the street, a forgotten Christmas decoration adds little joy to the setting.

Yet West Croydon is the starting point for a superlative journey. Step aboard the X26, a bus that can be the first step on a global adventure.

Bus travel has never acquired the glamour that attaches itself to railways. The Magic Bus from Athens to London was a pale alternative to the Orient Express. And for a transcontinental American adventure, the railroad trumps the Greyhound bus (at least until Trump’s budget cuts curtail the Amtrak network).

This week, though, the dreary diesel-powered conveyance achieved a degree of acceleration: Swansea City Council is keeping traffic lights on green to help delayed buses get back on schedule.

Transport for London is “looking at” a similar scheme: for people aboard the number 11 from Liverpool Street, bus priority can’t come soon enough. This route is the prime cut-price alternative to official sightseeing buses, taking you through the City, past St Paul’s and the Old Bailey, across Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall to the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. On a good day, of which there are few, the three-mile trip takes half an hour.

I wanted an adventure at a higher average speed than 6mph, so I chose the longest bus route in London. Thanks to the capital’s flat £1.50 fare, it is also the best value.

The X26 from West Croydon to Heathrow airport is the Trans-Siberian of the urban bus world: it covers almost 24 miles, and the X signifies it is one of only two express services in the capital, speeding past all but a few bus stops on its rocket-powered journey across the suburbs of south-west London.

For anyone whose specialist subject is, like mine, looking out of the window, I recommend the end-to-end experience. And if you start at West Croydon you can grab one of the front seats on the top deck; no extra charge. You can’t do that on the Trans-Siberian.

Granted, the beginnings are inauspicious. The bus starts its westbound journey by going east, and after 10 minutes you are further from Heathrow than when you began.

But then you find yourself speeding along an elevated superhighway that for a moment allows you to imagine yourself in southern California, not South Croydon.

The street furniture on display from the upper deck is engaging: at Waddon, I was amused to see that Crystal Palace FC could not manage top billing on a straight signpost fight with a municipal amenity. On the sign, Palace’s home ground, Selhurst Park, appears below Croydon Crematorium.

Architectural flourishes include impressive art deco apartment blocks, Cromer Mansions in Sutton and Brabham Court in Worcester Park, while the mock-Tudor brigade has worked its socks off along Cheam Broadway.

With buses every half hour, the schedule allows the peckish passenger to hop off for a snack: choose from the ambitiously named Madeira Beach Cafe or the Genghis Khan “Korean-style Chinese restaurant”.

After crossing the Thames at Kingston, you can peek over the wall of Bushy Park to view a huddle of deer between skeletal trees, weary of winter. It was in this Royal Park that General Eisenhower planned the D-Day landings in 1944.

In 2018, the landings at Heathrow are spectacular. The X26 races Airbuses and Boeings as they touch down on the northern runway of Britain’s busiest airport.

A quick dash beneath the runway takes you to the airport’s bus station. In 104 minutes, costing just £1.50, the X26 is exactly the sort of long distance, cross-town link that cities need, cutting across the grain of railway lines. With some Swansea-style traffic light priority to get the average speed above 14mph and a higher frequency, the X26 could lure motorists out of their cars.

Even if you have no pressing business at either Heathrow airport or West Croydon bus station, as a travel experience I recommend the surprising semi-detached suburban sprint between the two.

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