First look at the new London Routemaster bus
We board the new-look 'Boris bus' to find out if all the investment has paid off
Watch: Time Out's blog editor jumps on board
Review of the new London Routemaster bus
At Victoria bus station on February 27, a heaving mass of grey hair and boom poles spills on to the road as bus nerds and journalists fight to catch a glimpse of the New Bus for London as it completes its maiden voyage on the No 38 route. The bus may be 45 minutes late, having comically broken down while being chased by an original Routemaster filled with anti-Boris protestors at Angel, but it’s finally arrived: the crowd readies to board and ride it back to Hackney.
As the bus pulls into the garage to muted cheers, a woman in a wheelchair eases her way to the front. She hopes to be the first wheelchair user to try the new bus. The doors open, the passengers disembark, and the crowd at Victoria hums expectantly. This is the moment they have waited for since Boris Johnson caught the public mood by insisting he would return the Routemaster to London during his 2008 electoral campaign. Only one is currently in service (there will be eight by summer and a fleet within a year) and following delays, controversies and much sniping, it’s here.
Then the doors slam shut in our faces and the bus pulls off, empty, parking 100 metres round the corner for an hour while men with screwdrivers scratch their heads and try to fix a broken rear door. People queue up to take photographs of the static bus. While at the bus station, the transport nerds are reduced to discussing the new rail stock recently introduced on the Metropolitan Line. The wheelchair user heads home, disconsolate. The bus finally leaves Victoria two hours behind schedule. The nerds pile on board excitedly.
It is, in many ways, classic Boris. A bus has been delivered at great expense (£11.3 million), broken down twice, is two hours late, doesn’t do what it says it does, but people still love it. It’s almost impossible to find anybody – outside of those with vested political interests – with a bad word to say about the Boris Bus. Edward Hammond, 89, thinks it is ‘lovely’; Ian Smith, 71, admits, ‘It’s a lot of money, but that’s what things cost these days,’ while Mark Gale, 37, who won a competition with LBC to be the first person on the bus, reckons it’s ‘nice, a good use of money’. As we watch it being fixed, a man (they are all men, notes a bemused Dutch female journalist) joins the admiring throng. Is he impressed? ‘It’s great to have the Routemaster back,’ he says. ‘They’re much better for fare dodging.’
He’s kidding, I think, but has a point. The key element of the new bus – the one that has people calling it a Routemaster – is the rear platform, open for ease of access. This will close in the evening, but during the day is manned by a conductor, who cannot take fares or check Oyster cards and is basically there to enforce health and safety regulations – precisely the sort of non-job Boris groupies usually rage against but now find themselves awkwardly condoning. The new bus is supposed to replace the bendy bus, partly because Boris insisted the middle doors made fare evasion so easy: the new bus also has a set of inviting middle doors. Boris supporters have decided to blame these inconveniences on TfL rather than the Mayor’s office.
Rarely has a bus been so politically divisive. Left-wingers say that during a time of recession and rising fares it is sheer vanity to spend a fortune on a bus that has a lower capacity than the ones it is replacing, that it isn’t really a Routemaster and Routemasters were rubbish anyway. Right-wingers argue this is a terrific use of public money, defend the conductor (whose combined costs will total £500,000 a year) and insist good design trumps expense.
And it certainly looks good. As we roll through London, heads turn and people scamper into the road to snatch a photo of the passing bus. Its design – by Thomas Heatherwick – is an impressive blend of old and new, clearly inspired by the Routemaster but without looking dated. The bus, like many in London, has a hybrid diesel-electric engine, so the only noise is the aggressive hum of the aircon. On the downside, while it is one metre longer than most buses, it’s also a couple of feet shorter in height, meaning tall people are likely to bump their head on the top deck. But rightly or wrongly, these quibbles and the exorbitant cost can be easily dismissed given the overwhelmingly positive public reaction. As I jump from the rear platform between stops for the first time in years, a passer-by coos admiringly. ‘Isn’t it marvellous,’ he says. ‘It’s great to have them back.’ Strike one to Boris.
By Peter Watts, who blogs on London at The Great Wen