About time we caught up with the state of play here.

There are now two, repeat, two, Borismasters (there is, as yet, no official class name for the thing, ‘New Bus For London’ currently being tacked to it, but surely not permanently?) -these are

  •  LT1, registration LT61AHT
  • LT2, registration LT61BHT

Now, you may recall this is down a bit from the original eight announced as being ready on the 20th, and indeed it seems there’s been a substantial slip somewhere – LT2 was only delivered within the last week which does rather indicate a compressed timetable, presumably for political considerations.  The New Paint website also says that deliveries this week included two Wright/Volvo hybrids (one of the two main types in London with the ADL Enviro400H, the latter being far commoner and the manufacturer is even boasting of 59% fuel savings in Edinburgh in the advertising) which further indicates how remote the New Bus is from the actual process of hybridising London’s bus fleet (which is happening slower than expected, with the plan for all new buses to be hybrids from this year falling by the wayside somewhere).

Boris isn’t allowed to use the things for political capital after 20th March for purdah reasons, so has under a month to make hay.  This latter explains the blizzard of publicity that’s rather intended to distract the press from the lack of a blizzard of buses – not that this has stopped the prat end of the market from talking crap:

Britain’s capital will soon be teeming with an updated, high-tech version of the Routemaster bus

No it won’t.  There are still only nine on order, it’s now costing £11m for them, so a bit over £1.2m each.  There’s a mention in the January 2012 Finance Committee papers that the final cost is expected to be £11.065m with project completion in May 2012 and close in September 2012.

Boris has, of course, racked up a considerable operating surplus which has been the subject of argument with Ken Livingstone – it’s definitely there (£89m more coming in, £249m less going out as of Q3 2011-12), but is curiously now appended with this sentence:

As discussed at the last quarter, these funds have been allocated to expenditure in future years of the Business Plan

I’ve long suspected that some time before March 2012 Boris will pull a magic £300m out of his arse for 40 or 50 of the things – that should be capital expenditure, of course, not operating expenditure, but hey, what’s a bit of financial irregularity between friends? (less flippantly, that could cover the Boris Bus Premium which would be charged on renegotiated bus contracts to force operators to use them, although you’d still have to find a leasing company willing to put up the cash considering that Livingstone has said outright he wouldn’t buy any more than eight).

The other major development, and one which has had almost zero coverage (it’s almost as if the press desperately want to believe the Emperor has clothes on) is the release of a PDF by Capoco’s Alan Ponsford, who has unloaded both barrels at the project, mostly saying what we’ve said for years but also with some highly interesting comments about the procurement process.

Ponsford, of course, along with the neocons at Policy Exchange, is partially responsible for the whole pointless exercise in the first place, his updated RMXL design being the one that got into Autocar and thence Boris’s manifesto and ended up being one of the co-winners of the competition.  After that no more was heard from him and we now find out why:

Our Capoco RMXL design study, with the full colour 3D CAD cutaway seen above, was a Xmas bit-of-fun for the December 2007 Autocar magazine. The modest £750 fee we received perhaps gives signal to the seriousness of the original intent

Now he tells us.  What of the original RM?

[T]his is a program that took place from 1947 to 1959, and even after this glacial development, most of the fleet were off the road in the early 1960s with service problems

Bodes well for its successor vehicle being rushed into service to meet a political deadline, then.  But surely the RM was a roaring success?

So slow was the RM development, by the time it was ready, both LT and the rest of the bus industry were removing open platforms, fitting rear engines and front entrance doors. This would permit significant savings by avoiding the critical double manning. Even with just the driver, over half the running costs are the onboard labour

It wasn’t a roaring success.  It was, in fact, classic 60s British industry failure – late, expensive and for a market that moved on.  A bit like Concorde, in fact, and like that plane, attracts the same degree of rational consideration from romantics (i.e., none).  What always strikes me as odd is people (and I’m thinking particularly of James May and Jeremy Clarkson) who can simultaneously hold right wing, supposedly pro-market forces policies, yet think that Concorde and the Routemaster are symbols of the lost greatness of British engineering, rather than the heralds of its decline.  It’s almost as if they’re, like Andrew Gilligan, merely hacks whose rose tinted spectacles need to be flung in a corner and stamped on before they ruin us all over again.  The RM was a great design the heyday of which saw a catastrophic decline in London’s bus network, reversed only in the 1990s, while the massive numbers using the buses today are testament to the real truth nuts like Gilligan try and pretend away – people don’t actually care what the bus looks like.

But I digress. Surely the loss of the RM means London is forced to put up with sub-standard generic buses rather than ones specifically tailored to the capital’s needs?

This brings to light the great divide between London and the rest, which are termed UK Provincial buses. The former has 2 doors whilst the latter only 1 door.

Nope. Actually, since TfL is the largest body in the country capable of steering the bus industry, it carries considerable weight – privatisation and competition mean that it can’t actually direct the manufacture of buses (until Boris came along, anyway, apparently oblivious to the reason why his party made a point of stopping the state directing manufacturing industry in the 1980s), but TfL’s massive spending power and nudging means that bus manufacturers have invested in producing cleaner engines, two door double decker models, hybrids, low floor buses, CCTV, iBus etc. in order to sell into the London market.  These investments are partially applied to buses for elsewhere, of course, and the net result is quite successful for UK plc., with both Wrightbus and Alexander Dennis selling well in the UK. As Ponsford points out:

Currently the whole modus operandi of the UK bus market is having several competing bus operators purchasing very keenly from several competing bus manufacturers.

These investments have also made UK built buses sell abroad, particularly in the USA and Hong Kong.  Boris bus boosters are surprisingly fond, on no evidence, of flatly stating that the NB4L will export well.  I beg to differ – only Hong Kong, Berlin, the USA and Canada are big on double decker buses and of those only Hong Kong buys right hand drive models – they buy ADL’s massive Enviro500, in fact, which is also selling in North America.  That means, therefore, that it’s available in LHD and RHD models, being designed as such. The NB4L, however, is asymmetric, with the open platform and staircase layout at the back dictating the engine location on the right.  This makes conversion to LHD operation (doors on the right) extremely expensive and probably limits the export potential to Hong Kong, where Ponsford points out another issue:

That move would require a terrific re-engineering challenge as they fit massive air conditioning units, which would then fail to operate properly with an open platform

Yes, amazingly tailoring a bespoke bus for the needs of one city as perceived by a Mayor with no experience in the bus engineering industry turns out to result in one that isn’t suitable for export.  Classic fail.

That illustrates the key point – what Boris is doing is planting the great dead hand of the state across the quiet success story of UK bus manufacturing by mandating (assuming he does mandate it further, and he shows no signs of accepting reality) the purchase of one type of highly specific bus from one manufacturer, removing competition from the market.  Considering the market for hybrids (pushed by both TfL and, since 2009, by central government Green Bus Fund grants not to mention the fuel price) is evidently stimulating innovation there’s a strong case for saying the NB4L is already a bus of the past in the same way the original RM was by the time it was widely in service.  Certainly Mr. Ponsford is implying that:

So whilst Wrightbus are projecting a 40% fuel saving on the new London bus, their ADL competition is now getting savings of 60% in current service, and up to 80% in future

At this point it’s worth noting (and I have a spreadsheet of all operating London hybrids I can find to back me up) that Wright’s previous double decker hybrid venture, the Gemini 2 HEV, was a failure – the use of a van engine apparently rendered the things rather underpowered and I can only find that 12 were ever in service in London (one of which came to grief at Monument a few years ago), despite getting very high nominal fuel savings at Millbrook.  The 70+ Wright Gemini 2 hybrids in London today are all on Volvo B5LH chassis, which is a parallel hybrid rather than the series diesel-electric technology used in the Enviro400H, the HEV and of course the NB4L.  It’s also noticeable that Wrightbus’s hybrid strategy is now based around the same Cummins 4 cylinder engine as the Enviro400H, except that ADL managed to get it right first time without £11m quid from TfL.

However, ADL are now presumably excluded from the key central London routes in favour of the NB4L, so unless Boris backs down London’s hybrid technology will be playing catch up.  As it turns out, Capoco were working with ADL on their design concept before the contract was awarded to Wrightbus in December 2010.  So, as it turns out were the other competition winner, Fosters and Aston Martin:

 [I]t was, in fact, a three way pitch, as there were two, not the commonly assumed one, tenders from ADL. One ADL design proposal was in collaboration with Capoco, the other with Fosters & Aston Martin so encompassed both the TfL design competition winners.

So, three tenders came in, and TfL picked the one that came from a bus company whose previous hybrid double decker was a failure and whose design was the only one that hadn’t won the much trumpeted competition judged by Boris himself?  What on earth is going on here?

It was therefore a surprising choice that continues to puzzle (and irritate!) us that after a few years of speculative design, competitions and tendering, the design contract was awarded to Heatherwick Studio, given they took no part in said process.

[B]izarrely they were appointed by TfL, not Wrightbus who had no previous knowledge of the outfit.

So, the allegation here is that the partnership that built the bus was a shotgun marriage arranged by TfL.  So why were Heatherwick chosen?

One does hope that the TfL selection of Heatherwick Studio was a lot more rigorous than that used by certain parties for their similar contract for four newspaper stalls in Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (search: rbkc & Heatherwick)

That’s an invitation to Google and draw conclusions, isn’t it?  So I googled it.  The first result is a PDF from Kensington and Chelsea council from 2005 which starts:

I am writing to seek your approval to let a contract for the  provision of four newspaper stalls

How interesting. What’s so important about four newspapers stalls in Kensington?

Negotiations have taken place with Manage Limited who provide management and project management services for unique and extraordinary projects to Thomas Heatherwick Studios. Thomas Heatherwick Studios is one of the country’s leading designers and through Manage Limited will design and provide four new stalls to the Council.

That’s the same Heatherwick who got the New Bus for London design contract on the quiet without apparently entering the public competition?  What an extraordinary coincidence.  Who was the RBKC cabinet member responsible, then?

Councillor Daniel Moylan, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Planning Policy, Housing Policy and Transportation

Who by another amazing coincidence is the Deputy Chairman of TfL, which considering the Chairman is the part time Boris ‘Chickenfeed’ Johnson effectively means he’s the political boss of TfL.  His most recent pronouncement on the thing indicates the way his mind works:

“The James Bond people want it for their movie. We have received approaches. When people see the bus they love it.”

Clearly a man with his priorities in the right place – the Exhibition Road ‘shared space’ is another example of Moylan’s obsession with aesthetics over utility.  Oddly enough he wasn’t one of the original bus competition judging panel, who were Boris, Kulveer Ranger, Peter Hendy, David Brown, Clare Kavanagh, Mike Weston and David Quainton.  Quite why their judgement was subsequently overturned and by whom remains a mystery, but one I’m sure Cllr. Moylan would be able to help clear up if someone asked him.

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.