The first prototype of Boris Johnson’s bespoke New Bus For London (cost of eight prototypes, £7.8m, despite the Mayor having misled Londoners into believing the manufacturer would bear the costs of development) has been doing the rounds of ten London boroughs for the past few weeks, appearing on static display and accompanied by a team of project staff from TfL.
Curiously, all but one of the areas chosen to display the prototype are in outer London boroughs (Barnet, Bexley, Bromley, Ealing, Havering, Kingston, Newham, Redbridge, Sutton) whose streets have not seen a Routemaster in use for up to thirty years and will never see one of the new vehicles in use as they are intended for use only in central London.
I made a two-hour visit to the prototype when it visited Ealing today and was able to make a thorough inspection of the interior of the bus. Several TfL staff were on hand to answer questions and I also spoke to many other bus enthusiasts who had made special trips to view the new vehicle. In fact, the majority of the people examining the bus were bus enthusiasts or bus drivers rather than ordinary punters.
My first impression of the bus as I approached it was the same as my impression of the mock-up which I had viewed in the London Transport Museum – it is huge and looks more like a double decker coach than a bus.
The bus has three doors (the same as a bendy bus) and two staircases; three-door, two-staircase buses already exist so this is not a new innovation.
The term “Routemaster” has been bandied about in relation to this bespoke vehicle, referring mainly to the open platform of the 1956 vehicle; double decker London buses featured open platforms and/or staircases right from the days of the horse-bus, this was never a unique feature of the Routemaster.
The new bus does not have an “open platform” identical to that of the Routemaster – view it from the back and it is apparent that boarding the bus when approaching from the rear (as one could with a Routemaster, chasing after it when it had left a stop and jumping on as the vehicle was in motion) is impossible as the rear panel of the new bus presents an obstacle to such a manoeuvre.
This has been done deliberately. It has always been, and will continue to be, contrary to TfL byelaws to get on or off a bus except at the designated stops:
on our bus services, you must board or alight from the vehicle only at official bus stops except in places where we advertise the bus service as being operated as ‘hail and ride’ when the driver will stop where it is safe to do so.
It is intended that the new bus will have its back door permanently open between the hours of 7am and 7pm, necessitating the presence of a “conductor” to:
supervise the safe operation of the rear platform
meaning that the bus requires a member of staff whose main responsibility is to prevent passengers from falling out of the back door. Their other duties:
They will also help those with impaired mobility and provide journey information
as long as passengers who require those services board at the back door, that is.
The Routemaster carried a maximum of 5 standing passengers to allow the conductor to move through the lower deck of the vehicle; the new bus allows 25 ”standees” which means that the “conductor” will be hemmed in next to the rear stairs (or, more likely, bracing themselves against the rear door frame to stop themselves falling off the bus) and therefore unable to circulate through the lower deck.
The conductor of a Routemaster, of course, would be selling tickets or, more recently, checking passes, pre-paid tickets and Oystercards. If the “conductor” of the new bus cannot move through the lower deck, how will they do the same? They won’t:
The conductor will not collect fares, check passes or validate Oyster cards.
One of the reasons given by Boris Johnson (apart from his outright lie about them killing cyclists) for removing articulated buses from London was the apparently high levels of fare evasion due to the open boarding through three doors. The new bus also has three doors and Oyster readers near each door and will similarly require passengers to have purchased a ticket before they board, providing ample opportunity for dishonest travellers to take a free trip.
The design of the new bus, rather than its claimed efficient and economical operation ( it is a hybrid, London’s first hybrid double decker having been launched by former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, in 2006), seems to be the main selling point for the Mayor:
Christmas has arrived early in the form of this revolutionary new bus whose gleaming coat of red paint and sinuous curves will brighten the day of all who see it humming along our great city’s streets.
It is the latest, greatest masterpiece of British engineering and design, and I am certain it will become a much loved and iconic vehicle akin to the legendary Routemaster from which it draws so much inspiration.
Had Boris Johnson not blown almost £8m on the development of a brand new, bespoke bus, he may have been able to keep his promise to have more than 350 hybrids of existing design on London’s roads by March 2011.
The interior of the bus features a lot of unnecessary (and no doubt very expensive) styling which is inexplicably 1930s Art Deco in appearance, despite the Routemaster being a product of the 1950s. Deep red panelling (a fellow bus enthusiast commented that it looked “cheap and plasticky“) with a “stepped” design features throughout the interior and is already badly scratched on the upper deck.
The styling of the bus has been designed not by a vehicle manufacturer, as one might expect, but by The Thomas Heatherwick Studio, who once designed a public sculpture so dangerous that it had to be dismantled. The iBus display screen on the lower deck has been positioned so that it sticks out into the aisle of the bus from the panel at the rear of the front stairs and is so low that it is obscured by people standing in front of it – also meaning it is easy to bang your head on it.
One of the TfL staff said that it would have to be moved when the vehicle went into manufacture; a vertical handrail to the rear of the wheelchair bay would also have to be redesigned as it curves in such a way that it is easy to walk into it – the staff member said he was fed up with banging into it!
In fact, the same member of staff told me that the handrails on the staircases do not meet current regulations. I found this out the hard way as I descended the rear stairs, caught my fingers between the handrail and the rear panel of the bus and shouted “Ow!”.
Another member of staff who happened to be by the rear door said “Oh, we know about that” – he instantly knew what had caused my cry of pain as many others had obviously experienced the same pinch-point. I also banged my shoulder on the plaque reading “New Bus For London” which protrudes from the back panel of the bus into the stairway and then did the same on the curved section of the open back door which obstructs the “open platform”.
The handrail on the outer side of the front stairs has a small, horizontal grab-rail positioned above it at one point which I banged my elbow on.
Handrail on both staircases also turns at right-angles at the top, which means your hand does not slide smoothly down the rail.
The fittings which secure the vertical rails to the seats do not fit properly – a member of staff told me that all of them will be changed, as will the material which covers the horizontal rails on the backs of the seats as it apparently chips easily.
The main area of flooring on the bus is of the usual non-slip type currently used on buses (imported from France) but areas of the floor by the front and rear doors, the stair treads and the parcel rack at the front of the bus are covered with Treadmaster, the material with the familiar grooved pattern which was used as flooring on the Routemaster. A member of staff told me that it is a cork/resin composite and is now mainly used as flooring on yachts since it fell out of favour with bus manufacturers. I wonder why it fell out of favour – too expensive?
The bus features an asymmetric design to the exterior, broad sweeps of glass which follow the outsides of the staircases (a visitor today commented, rightly, that those outside the bus would be able to see up the skirts of women using the stairs), windows on both upper and lower decks which do not open and an air cooling/heating system. The windows are purposely designed because of the air cooling/heating which operates at maximum efficiency when the windows are shut. Fine, but how does that square with the wide-open back door? I wouldn’t turn on my radiators in the winter and leave the back door open as it is a waste of energy so how on earth can this particular feature enhance the “green” credentials of the bus?
The glass is specially manufactured in Italy, meaning it is not simple to source and replace, and the asymmetric design of the bus means that, unlike the Routemaster, it does not have the maximum number of interchangeable parts.
The ceiling of the upper deck is very low, to incorporate the air cooling/heating units – everybody who visited the upper deck whilst I was on the bus commented on this fact. Anyone over the height of about 5’9″ will have to stoop to walk along the upper deck. The ceiling is even lower along the outer edges so those sitting next to the windows can easily smack their heads on it when they get up. A fellow visitor commented that it had “Pendolino styling” – anyone who has had their shoulders and heads cramped whilst travelling on those trains will immediately recognise the problem.
The LED lighting did not appear very bright in daylight – I was assured it appears much brighter when the natural lighting is lower. The legroom for all the seats was good but many of the seats on the lower deck are backward-facing (which a lot of bus passengers dislike) and are sited on a step up which seemed a particularly long way from the floor – this was also commented on by other visitors.
The floor of the lower deck is not actually level – there is a ridge and potential trip hazards in the aisle near the rear door.
There were no wheelchair users present on my visit to test the ramp and access to the wheelchair space.
From the point of view of a passenger, it is impossible to tell what the experience of using the bus will truly be like until it is in service, crowded with people/luggage/shopping/buggies. TfL claim that the prototype vehicle’s fuel consumption under test conditions was a third better than existing hybrids – it remains to be seen whether this can also be achieved in passenger service.
As for the concept of a new bus for London, bespoke and developed at a cost of almost £8m, is it something London actually needs when fuel-efficient hybrid buses are available off the shelf and are already in use?
Viewing the prototype vehicle today and seeing the large number of design issues which need to be remedied before the bus can go into production it was very apparent that the prototype has been rushed through to ensure at least one vehicle would be ready before the London Mayoral elections on 3 May this year.
The New Bus For London – designed for Boris Johnson, not for Londoners.
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