The New Routemaster Bus – Part 1 : Room For One More, Love!

There are two names connected with the New Routemaster London bus, Boris Johnson and Thomas Heatherwick. 

telegraph-co-uk
Two New Routemasters meet – almost – image : telegraph.co.uk

The latter is a controversial designer, feted and sometimes scorned. He is maybe, in stature if not style, the UK’s Philippe Starck. Someone who is obviously clever and ambitious, and doesn’t want to be hemmed in by specialising in a particular field. The same, of course, can be said of Mr Johnson which, one might assume, is why they gelled. The original Routemaster, let’s call it RM, a vehicle never a bus stop away from having the ill-used adjective ‘iconic’ added to its name, was a product of a very different era. It was never designed to attract tourists to Brand London but its longevity on the roads meant that it became an ingrained part of the city, viewed with affection by all those who didn’t get stuck on the rear platform on a freezing Winter’s day.

Commissioned and developed by London Transport and finally built by AEC and Park Royal Vehicles, the RM’s gestation period was long. The project started in the late Forties, the first four prototypes ran from 1954, but it didn’t enter service in any numbers until 1959. RM was innovative. Although superficially similar to the previous, pre-war design, RT double decker, it had power steering, power braking and an electro-pneumatic automatic transmission and it employed unitary construction, using lightweight aluminium material derived from the aeronautical industry. The engineering was handled by a team under engineers Durrant and Curtis, but the project was also innovative in employing Douglas Scott, an industrial designer, to style it.

Before the Second World War, Scott had worked for Raymond Loewy’s London studio where he redesigned that aspirational totem of the country-dwelling middle classes with time on their hands, the AGA cooker. During the War he worked in the aeronautical industry at De Havilland, learning a lot about structural engineering. Afterwards he became a freelance designer and, in 1955 he formed his own consultancy and designed items such as stamp-vending machines, washbasins and tape recorders. As an industrial designer, he wasn’t responsible for the basic engineering of these items, but he was from a discipline where you studied a brief in detail, understood how an item functioned in depth, and ensured it could be produced in practice.

His spell in the aircraft industry would have ensured that he was not viewed by the LT engineers as ‘the creative’, to use a contemporary term of disparagement, and he carried out the exterior and interior styling of RM, even including the tartan seat fabric. His work gave the Routemaster character, but never allowed his ego to swamp its essential function. Scott said “I have always designed for the market…private and personal aesthetics are out of place in industrial design”

These are the principles he had which, for many years now, have seemed very admirable to me. Unfortunately, when I was in my early twenties, I saw none of this. Douglas Scott was our course tutor in my final year and, although I respected his achievements, I found little attraction at the time in this self-effacing method of working. I’ve mentioned this before on these pages, but he seemed a very decent man, and what, at the time, I took as a certain conservative disapproval of me was probably just complete bemusement that I wasn’t grabbing a privileged opportunity with both hands.

Anyway, that same Routemaster, that he styled and that I took to college every day, was finally put to rest by Transport For London under Ken Livingstone’s mayorship. Over the years the fleet had been restored and re-engined, but none had been manufactured since 1968 and various closed door double deckers had been introduced to supplement them. A particular concern for TfL was occasional lawsuits from litigious folk who fell drunkenly off the open platforms. Additionally, they required expensive two person operation. So their abandonment made some sense, but their replacement with long Citaro articulated single deckers, bendy buses, designed for the streets of Wuppertal not those of a medieval city, must have involved a prodigious amount of wining and dining from Mercedes, combined with a mayor who, as a non-driver, possibly didn’t understand how things go round corners.

Citaro londonparticulars-wordpress-com
Cyclist. What cyclist? The notorious Bendy Bus. image : londonparticulars.wordpress.com

So, in principle, Boris Johnson’s mayoral pledge to replace the Routemaster was popular, with a return to the more agile double-decker, a conductor to keep you company and the attraction of being able to hop on and off whenever and wherever you wanted. What’s more, to make it even more Boris-funtastic, and to involve us all, he announced a competition. Look at various of the 700 plus proposals and, rather like Ford’s stewardship of Jaguar and BMW’s stewardship of Rover, it’s clear from the overall retro-heritage look, that many of the Routemaster’s admirers had lost track of, or never knew, the fact that it had been, in its time, a very innovative vehicle.

Pared down to a joint two prizewinners, by Aston Martin/Foster+Partners and Capoco Design, the final production version actually looks like neither. After the contract for production was awarded to Northern Ireland’s Wrightbus, it was announced that their hybrid would be 40% more fuel efficient and cut particulates by 33%. In addition, to ensure it became a future icon, Heatherwick Studios were called in.

Thomas Heatherwick has a far more ambitious quotation than Douglas Scott. “At the root of everything I do is a fascination with ideas – what ideas are for, what jobs they do.” But does this actually mean anything? We are post-modernism, we are post-irony, we are post-language. How exactly do you address the idea that you should re-create an ‘icon’?

The New Routemaster’s development didn’t take the leisurely, if thorough, decade or so of the RM. The final design was approved in mid 2010 and the first New Routemaster entered service 20 months later. From criticisms, this shows. In common with today’s cars, the upper glasshouse is not as generous for passengers as it seems, and the windows don’t open. There is a cooling system for both its decks, but not a proper refrigerated air-conditioning, and the bus is not a popular place to be on hot days. Also like many cars, consumption and emission figures seem to have remained well rooted in the land of theory. It’s reported that problems with the hybrid system’s batteries mean that the vehicles end up running too often on their conventional diesel engine, resulting in emissions that are actually higher than on the vehicles they replaced. And the much trumpeted open platform spends an awful amount of time closed. With that last point in mind in particular, shorn in practical application of its open platform USP, why did London need its own double decker when perfectly good alternatives were already in service?

Manufactured in Ballymena and thus fitted with age-unrelated Northern Irish registration plates to further underline its would-be status as a timeless classic, Johnson had blustered, with his usual rigorous respect for figures, that 2,000 NRMs would be ordered but, at £350,000 a pop, London’s new Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has labelled it the most expensive bus in the world, so it’s unlikely that the current figure of around 1,000 in service or on order will be exceeded. The original had a production of 2,876, although this comparison means little more than the fact that, compared with a Rolls Phantom, the NRM is actually a lot of metal for the money.

11 November 2010. Then Mayor, Boris Johnson, with the New Routemaster Mock-Up.
11 November 2010. Then Mayor, Boris Johnson, with the New Routemaster Mock-Up.

 

In Part 2, we step away from our screen and actually experience the New Routemaster. Future Design Classic or Boris’s New Clothes?

32 thoughts on “The New Routemaster Bus – Part 1 : Room For One More, Love!”

  1. I remember seeing someone fly off the platform of the 73 on a fast right-hander in Newington Green about 15 years ago… I thought that it added to the excitement of a night out in London. Good times.

  2. Bendy busses don’t work in Wuppertal either. It’s a city crammed in the valley of the Wup river. Maybe they’d work in Bremen or Berlin – somewhere spacious. Possibly not there either. We have a few in Aarhus and they are excused from any sharp turns.

    1. I’m sure there are some London bus routes which are well suited for bendy buses. 73 from Victoria to Stoke Newington isn’t one of them.

    2. It is over 50 years since I visited Wuppertal. Possibly my view of it as a more modern city is clouded by my memory of its fine suspension railway. When I saw it I assumed we’d all be travelling along like that by now. Looking at a map, I’ll agree there could be some tight turns, but there are quite a few more unimpeded runs than you’d find in Central London, so I’ll stick with it. At least it’s a better fit than Rothenburg.

      For a long time, I thought the monorail in Truffaut’s Farenheit 451 was filmed in Wuppertal, but it was actually a prototype test track in France. Laurent could probably have told me that.

    3. Wup is a very funny sounding name for a river, but, alas, it’s actually called the river Wupper. And ‘going across the Wupper’ means ‘going south’. Woop woop!

  3. Bordeaux in the late ’90s was ( I’m open to correction) the only city with bendy buses possessing two articulations. The third segment used to bounce and sway quite alarmingly. That said the tight turns they could take was quite impressive. They were done away with when the tram system was built.

    1. There are plenty of them in Paris. Arguably a city which was rationalised in the 19th century, but there are plenty of narrow roads too. I guess bendy buses run mainly on those roads which are mainly on Haussmanian avenues and boulevards, but they still have to take turns occasionally. Yet I’ve never heard anyone complain about them.

    2. Hamburg’s bus route 5 (Europe’s busiest, at least a few years ago) is being regularly serviced by double-articulated bendy buses (if that’s the proper term – Laurent is, of course, free to correct me). They haven’t turned out to be a traffic hazard, but reportedly are a nuisance, as far as maintenance is concerned. If memory serves me correct, the double-benders are made by van Hool, rather than Mercedes.

      For some reason, bendy busses don’t have the kind of bad reputation they enjoy in the UK over here. It actually is double decker buses that haven’t really taken off on these shores, mainly due to height restrictions, which means they aren’t used by the Hochbahn (Hamburg’s public transport authority).

  4. Leicester, another largely Victorian city, has inherited a number of Bozzer’s banished bendy buses, as evidenced by their unsprayed red inner wheel arches. I can only assume that Arriva, the major franchisee in the area, also operates in London and did a straight swap for a brace of double deckers. The entrance to the road where I work was specially widened to take the bigger sweep of the bendy bus, which didn’t stop some poor old fella being knocked stone dead by one transcribing its huge arc the other month. Really I do not think that bendy buses are fit for anywhere other than the large, empty proving ground outside the Mercedes factory in which they are built.

    1. When I first saw a bendy bus in Germany many years ago, I thought it was a fine thing and, if you can route it along straight-ish roads, I see no problem. But they were totally unsuited to Central London and their use was no less than irresponsible – I don’t know what the final casualty count was, but the one gruesome accident I remember reading about would have been less gruesome had the driver been aware of what was happening far away at the other end of the bus.

      Poor old Leicester – obviously another bunch of theorists running the transport system. I wondered where the Citaro’s had all gone.

    2. So what you’re saying is that bendy buses don’t kill people, people do…
      It seems to me that there’s nothing inherently wrong with bendy buses in London, provided they are implemented on the right routes and drivers are trained properly.

    3. On the first point, maybe bendy buses would have been OK in the outer suburbs but, within Central London, even on straightish runs, there are always obstacles (delivery vans, taxis stopping, etc) which aren’t easy for a very long vehicle to get round, especially one where the driver sits low. Actually, the photo I’ve used of a Citaro going round a 90 degree junction speaks for itself.

      As for driver training, my own observation is that, generally, bus drivers are certainly not as well trained as they were. Years ago, when I was delivering cars for a job, a fellow driver applied to London Transport as a trainee and was rejected. He was an OK driver, but their standards were very high. It’s apparent that many of today’s drivers aren’t that good – I often see them dithering in traffic when their vehicle is more than wide enough to get through. Also, there’s a fair amount of aggressive driving, particularly through red lights. Obviously that’s a generalisation, and it’s only the bad drivers I notice, but I seem to notice them a lot. Would better driver training help? I have no idea how the various private companies do this, but I suspect that the need to turn a profit would affect their attitude. But there is also the factor that bus driving was once seen as a responsible profession you could take pride in – possibly today that is less so. In addition, one-person operation means they potentially have a lot of distractions whilst they are driving.

    4. Most major routes in Central London are relatively straight, so in theory it’s only a handful of corners that need some attention to better protect cyclists and pedestrians. As for delivery vans and taxis, they operate in most cities. So the question remains: why are bendy-buses more of an issue in London than elsewhere?

    5. I don’t know if it’s a driver training issue, or if the street usage is very different here, but I don’t see many problems with the long buses here. It might have to do with the fact that they have been around our cities for sixty or seventy years, so people are used to them and know how to behave around them. It probably also means that all major bus routes have had their curves and track widths adjusted a long time ago. In critical areas, they’re also given their own lanes if possible.

  5. Bendy buses are very common in Swiss cities – which aren’t generally known for their spaciousness. But the lines going into medieval city centres usually don’t use them. For going to the suburbs, they are perfect. I also remember them on a cross-country bus line nearby, but they have been replaced by double-deckers (for their touristic appeal, I guess).

  6. Regarding the New Routemaster, I really quite like the design, which references the past without being beholden to it. Given that the open rear deck precludes air conditioning, the omission of opening windows is perplexing. Modern Volvo buses have excellent flush fitting opening windows that would not have compromised the exterior.

    1. I don’t want to give away what happens in Part 2 (same time next week – I know you’re all on tenterhooks) but the perceived need to provide visual entertainment on the outside of today’s buses and coaches puts them almost on a Gorden Wegener era Mercedes level of irritation in my eyes. Chris’s Volvo looks fine from the side, but the smiley front is dumb.

      I always admired the Leyland National, as a piece of functional design.

      But, as always, I’m inconsistent in this attitude, since I do retain a regard for the ridiculously overblown look of the likes of the Duple Vega.

    2. Buses, boilers and caravans all suffer from a similarly lacklustre approach to styling. The flanks and a large part of the rear are usually kept plain to accommodate advertising, with unharmonious “emotive” elements relegated to the front and rear clips.

  7. Unconstrained by the need to accommodate standard external advertising, coaches can offer a slightly different approach than their more prosaic local transport cousins. That they often do not is a sad indictment of a lack of manufacturer ambition, or perhaps the decline of the international coach travel market in the face of Easyjet or similar. A Plaxton Panorama or similar from the 1960s is positively redolent of luxury, even if their operators were as guilty of cramming in one too many rows of seats as modern day airlines.

    1. That front twin axle coach is a fine looking thing. I believe they once made a full (over?) sized replica of Lady Penelope’s Rolls Royce from Thunderbirds using a twin axle Bedford chassis.

      But structurally they were, as is obvious, a horror in an accident. Compare those narrow pillars and huge areas of glass with a Mercedes of the same era and there is little doubt which one you’d want to be in on a motorway if the driver fell asleep.

  8. A lot of bendy buses were shipped out to Malta where Arriva have a monopoly of public transport. Needless to say, they are even less suited to the chaotic streets of Valletta.
    On the subject of Routemasters, another noteworthy first for these buses was independent front suspension and coil springs all round. I used to drive them for a living back in the mid 80’s and can testify to the fact that they were better than later buses like the Leyland Atlantean.
    It’s true that driver standards were higher then but it’s not surprising that standards have fallen as a result of privatisation and the awful pay and conditions in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

    1. And, certainly a few years ago, routes were being timed, hence the odd sight of same numbered buses trying to outdrag each other at bus stops

  9. Timed busses might sound sensible. However, keeping to tight schedules means rapid acceleration and more braking. Elderly people (and everyone else) find this unpleasant and anyone with a balance problem will feel insecure. That tends to deter some people from busses.

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