In Part 1, we charted the genesis of the New Routemaster. Now, after intense anxiety counselling, DTW’s intrepid correspondent braves the world of public transport in order to see what it’s actually like.
My own view of the New Routemaster’s aesthetics is that they deserve full credit for avoiding any direct references to the original. The lines of the windows are not all mere graphics, they follow the stairs as they drop from the top deck, which would be more pleasing, rather like a piece of old-school modernist architecture, if they didn’t sit at odds with the curved roof, and the pinching as the line drops from the rear right hand corner is clumsy. Rival manufacturer Alexander Dennis was certainly impressed since their recent Enviro 400H copies the glazed staircase. At the front, the asymmetry of the original is hinted at by the diagonal windscreen line dropping right down to the bottom of the door. Little items such as the rear view mirrors seem a crude afterthought, but I like the fact that the exterior avoids some of the fussy detailing favoured by many in the bus and coach industry in the false belief that they make their vehicles look less ‘municipal’.
But criticism is pretty futile if it’s second hand so I felt I should actually take the New Routemaster for a test ride – after all with my Freedom Pass, I don’t need to ask Simon for the petty cash. Now, you could say that, with my antipathy to public transport, this is like asking the previously-mentioned, non-driving, Mr Livingstone to test drive a Pagani so, for comparison, I first took an Enviro 400 from Wrightbus rivals Alexander Dennis from Victoria to Piccadilly. It seemed standard 21st Century public transport. Individual seat cushions, a bright upper deck with big windows, durable fittings, comfortable if sometimes lurching ride. Remember, London never lost its double deckers and, after the original Routemaster went, the Enviro and its like would have been around with or without Boris’s initiative, since the short reign of the Bendy Bus was always doomed.
Alighting in Piccadilly, I crossed the road and waited at a stop for a 38. As it approached I was disappointed it wasn’t red, but wrapped in a Coca-Cola ad which lost the diagonal swath at the front. Somehow I felt that my first NRM experience should be undiluted. A moment’s indecision and the bus was pulling away without me. No problem – traffic was thick so I could hop on the back platform. Except, of course, it was closed. Another wait and I was finally on a New Routemaster, a proper red one this time.
Once inside, at first glance it seems that care has been taken over the detailing and, rather than hinting at the Routemaster of the second half of the 20th Century, there is more of a Pre-War Art Deco look to it. In fact, the interior gives me the feeling of a bus designed by an architect, rather than a vehicle designer, and one who likes 30s cinemas but who, ultimately, hasn’t managed to reproduce the innocence and joy of such places.
With the rear door closed, there was of course no cheery conductor. As I climbed the stairs, I immediately noticed the atmosphere was stuffier than that of the Enviro I had just come up the same road on. A trickle seemed to come from the air vents and, as mentioned, no-one had thought to open a window, because they can’t be opened. Most noticeable is that the view from the upstairs windows was considerably more restricted than on the Enviro. It is probably a bit greater than on the original Routemaster, but glass technology has come a long way since then and, for me and I’m sure many others, the great pleasure of a double-decker is sitting on the top and watching the world outside, from passing cyclists to the tops of buildings and even the planes overhead. So the relatively mean view offered by the New Routemaster seems pretty indefensible for a bus designed to showcase London and, presumably, to appeal to tourists. As a contrast, the Aston+Foster competition prizewinner actually had a glass roof.
The rear platform and stair take up a lot of room and, although at busy periods a second stair might make disembarking a faster process, it only really make sense if the bus is being used in open platform mode, which seems to be rarely, or maybe not at all. Unless you get pleasure from repeated viewing of design details and seat fabric, for me the upstairs of a bread-and-butter double decker, such as an Enviro 400 or Wrightbus’s own Eclipse Gemini, are brighter, more pleasant places to travel. Overall, it doesn’t please in the way that the original did, and also that an AGA cooker might, in being a true product of function. That’s not really a criticism of the design, more of the brief or, as Mr Heatherwick might say, of the original idea. It’s a product of a different age and aims to push buttons that were well outside the original’s remit. In this, for some, it is successful but, after four years in service, it is already beginning to look unremarkable to my eyes.
Wrightbus are currently working to Transport for London’s brief on the SRM (from an internal joke ‘Son Of Routemaster’) which looks similar from the front but has a squarer back, does without the rear stairs and platform, is shorter but has 4 more seats. Unlike the integral construction of NRM, it sits on a straightforward Volvo chassis and, for London at least, it will reportedly have opening windows, though still the same curtailed upstairs view. This sounds much cheaper and, viewed objectively, better that the New Routemaster. It still answers London’s questionable desire to have its own bus, though I think I’d prefer a general market Gemini, and the SRM’s existence suggests that the indulgence of the NRM’s layout has been acknowledged.
Thomas Heatherwick is involved in another of our now Foreign Secretary’s vanity projects, London’s Garden Bridge. Based on three questions to which you can only answer yes (Do you like a Garden? Do you like a Bridge? Do you like Joanna Lumley?) the idea has, so far, stormed ahead, despite respected dissenters who, amazingly, don’t seem to accept Ms Lumley’s desires as edict. Personally, as someone who was obsessed with Derry & Toms’ Roof Gardens in Kensington as a kid, I’d probably be a sucker for a garden bridge …. if it existed already, but I actually think there are better things to do with the money.
Since he seems intent on preserving his name for posterity through alliteration, it’s fortunate for Mr Johnson that so many words start with the letter B. Boris, Blond, Bikes, Buses, Buildings, Bridges, Brexit and Bollocks. Whether he is actually incredibly vain, or whether he really does think that he ups the value of our lives with his ‘fun’ projects, I really don’t know. My previous ambivalence to him has been totally polarised by his behaviour during the EU Referendum and I can’t feel anything but embarrassment that he now represents the country I live in to the World. I can see why he championed a new Routemaster – Tory Toffs have always liked buses, ever since they drove them during the 1926 General Strike. But as for the Boris Bus, somehow I don’t think that is what we are going to remember him for.