The New Routemaster Bus – Part 2 : ‘Old On Tight, Guv’nor!

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.

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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.

NRM and SRM - image : busancoachbuyer.com
NRM and SRM – image : busandcoachbuyer.com

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.

A Farewell Wave? Unfortunately Not.
A Farewell Wave? Unfortunately Not.

15 thoughts on “The New Routemaster Bus – Part 2 : ‘Old On Tight, Guv’nor!”

  1. As a Londoner, I am a fan of the NRM. It is distinctive and clearly designed to be appealing to look at and use, and I appreciate this a great deal. My young children think any bus journey is an event, but NRM gives adults a little taste of this magic too. Clearly, though, it is flawed – the hybrid drivetrain is poor and apparently doesn’t work as designed, the ventilation systems have been much criticised, and clearly the rear stairs only make sense if the rear door is in use. The hop on / hop off concept is delightful, but apparently not an appropriate solution for the 21st century, where the roads are so congested and people can’t be trusted to look after themselves.

  2. You will find on most routes the rear most door always opens. In my experience anyway. I can take the 137 to my office and all three sets of doors open when the bus stops. Same on the nr 8 that goes near my home. I think it is only on the ones that used to have conductors that they probably have some silly union rule or something stating they are not allowed to open the door without a conductor – as on the 38 you went on.

    As to the letterbox view from the top deck: I love it. You get that zen-view ONLY from a Roastmaster. Read up on the zen-view and you will understand.

    And yes it is a Roastmaster since you do get roasted on the top in the older ones. The newest ones have a better air displacement system – you will immediately feel the difference between the two.

    You need to test a few more before you make your final verdict. 😉

    1. Johann. I’ll try but, at the rate at which I seem to take public transport, better call back here around 2020. The rear doors on the one I took opened at Victoria – I didn’t notice if they opened at interim stops, but I think not. But what I was referring to was the hop-on/hop-off concept, something very close to Boris Johnson’s heart I’m sure.

      When I first came to London, I used to enjoy jumping off the back of a moving Routemaster before it reached the stop and/or chasing it and jumping on. It made me feel as though I was in some really fun 60s film starring Michael Crawford, Oliver Reed and Judy Geeson, maybe. This ability was implied in all the introductory hype and, in reality, is the only real justification of the third door. But, of course, in a more safety conscious era it was never really going to happen, was it?

    2. Oh yes hop on and hop off a modern man can’t do. Nope. Never. Yet strangely you can on the heritage Routemasters that do route 15 past the Albert Memorial… Different beasts ride those than do the NRM route 9 on the same road?! Peculiar eh.

    3. I have no idea about the numbers Sean! That much of a geek I’m not. But I think an entire fleet on an older line (like the 38) is operated by a company with older ones. And the newer routes that got them got the newer busses. The 137 I take has new ones – they smell and look new inside anyway – as this route only went NRM recently. They are also cool upstairs.

    4. Damn. I was hoping you’d tell me that I could find the coded chassis date on a plate under the rear wheelarch. I’ll try a 137 soon – the route runs near to me. I’ll get my chauffeur to run me down there sometime.

  3. Were the double decker bus to be invented tomorrow, I strikes me that they probably would be shot down on grounds of health and safety. How many times a day must people injure themselves falling down the stairs? As a youth I remember sitting on the top deck of a Nottingham City Transport Atlantean with my gran, in the aisle seat directly opposite the opening for the stairs. Amber gambling at the Beachdale Baths, the driver swung his Lincoln green leviathan into the off camber left hander at some speed. The top of the bus rolled around like a lump hammer deposited head upwards in a coffee can; having none of the presence of mind that comes with age, I was not holding on to anything, and as a consequence I shot straight off the leatherette covered seat and straight down the stairs. Fortunately being a mere child, my bones were made of Indian rubber, otherwise I might not have found the incident so amusing at the time, or be in the position to retell it now.

    1. As someone who has religiously belted up ever since I first started driving on public roads, I do find being loose cargo in a moving vehicle full of hard metal bits feels a bit risky.

    2. I often think exactly the same, as I walk up or down the stairs in a bus doing 30 mph… And that is before you think of being seated anywhere without a seatbelt.

  4. Yes, but what’s the NRM really like? Noisewise, that is. Hybrid bus. And how is the ride? And acceleration?

    The old Routemaster was a bit of a revelation for me coming to London in 1969 for postgrad studies. Our GM “New Look” buses back home in Nova Scotia were awful things, with a braying GM 2 stroke diesel with scavenge blower shrieking so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think. The one speed, yes one speed (!) Allison automatic transmission operated in major torque converter slip in what seemed like a cacaphonous ode to noise, noise and more noise. If there was road room before the next stop, after a half a minute roar, the thing suddenly would clonk into direct gear lockup mode with a gigantic lurch at about 30 mph, followed by several bucks as the mechanicals wobbled around on immense rubber blocks and got used to direct drive as the excess energy of a giganto flywheel was absorbed by a sudden dictated 500 rpm drop with nowhere to go. What mechanical nonsense! The bus itself was the first monocoque anywhere with air suspension, but the rest was rubbish. It was unfortunately also rugged, so these things lasted for ages as a paean to engineering by heavyweight blocks of iron stuffed into a lightweight yet stiff ally structure.

    Then I got on a No 73 RM one sunny late September day and the thing just purred. And with a proper 4 speed, it scarpered very well if you had a bit of a boyo from Glamorgan behind the wheel at non rush hours and five passengers total. I, as a mechanical engineer, and thus an aesthetic slob was delighted by the mechanical harmony, and thought the front-end styling very clever. Minimalist but not industrially ugly, merely ruggedly likeable, I liked ’em a lot and always took a bus when I could over the tube. Of course, there were still a fair number of what seemed like pre-war buses with solid front axles and an engine bonnet that vibrated out of sympathy with the body and which always smelled oily on a warm day – those were a bit ordinary.

    So, I find the Boris bus a bit over-contrived to gaze at, wonder if the engine really lives half upstairs, and what the noise and ride is like. Those other two buses mentioned in the article both suffer, to me, from styling that makes the front of the bus look exactly like I imagine the rear of a bus should look like. Awkward.

    So many years ago now, I got used to leaping for the platform, and always went for the upper front seats, while behind me seedy blokes smoked Woodbines and coughed a lot. Been in a fair few buses around the world, but still think an RM with a few dents here and there flaking the red paint off the ally below in the accident creases was a sort of tribute to rugged yet spritely public transport.

    1. Bill. The ride and acceleration seemed perfectly respectable. As for the engine, I’d thought to write a paragraph on this, but didn’t, basically because I view the vehicle more as an exercise in style, unlike the original RM, which was certainly an engineering-led solution. That said, it doesn’t detract from the achievement of Wrightbus who, teething niggles or not, did a remarkable job of delivering the NRM is such a short time.

      As you suggest, the 4 cylinder Cummins diesel lives on the right under the stairs. This means that a series hybrid was the natural choice since you can put the engine anywhere with such a system. But, for me, although I like the idea of a series hybrid powered by a Wankel or gas turbine running at a constant speed (and suitably soundproofed), one driven by a standard clattery commercial diesel engine is no aural treat. Even less so because the engine’s progress has no synchronisation with the bus’s progress, so it can cut in at any time and, bearing in mind the battery problems, historically at least that means frequently. So, although since direct drive always comes from the eIectric motors, meaning progress is smooth, to the ears it is less so. It might be noted that the SRM mentioned above that will reach the streets later this year, will have Volvo’s parallel hybrid system.

      The original Routemaster proceeded smoothly thanks to its auto box and, although its big AEC diesel, as originally fitted, was by no means silent, it was characterful with its distinctive induction sound and, of course, like most conventional ICE vehicles that don’t have CVTs, the engine’s behaviour was in full sync with the vehicle’s progress.

    2. The engine sound being at its optimum rpm for the powerband and staying there, does sound peculiar but it is of course the most efficient way for an engine to work. You soon get used to the engine cutting in and out randomly. The silent acceleration when the engine is off is very nice though and they do seem to be able to accelerate pretty fast for a bus.

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