The capital’s ‘Boris Buses’ may be permanently withdrawn from service because TfL is so short of cash. The ‘New Routemasters’ first ran in 2012 and were intended to have a working life of 14 years. But now the fleet of 1,000 buses needs a refurbishment and poor old TfL simply doesn’t have the money.
The famous buses were introduced by the then-mayor of London – now our prime minister – and immediately became known as ‘Boris Buses’, in the same vein as Boris Bikes (clearly Londoners are obsessed with alliteration). They were meant to replace and honour London’s famous Routemasters, which were introduced in the 1950s and were still running well into the twenty-first century. However, the design, by Thomas Heathwerwick (Olympic Cauldron etc), almost immediately ran into problems. The new buses were huge and complex. Their eco-efficiency was questioned after it transpired that they were running their diesel engines far more than their hybrid design originally intended. Passengers complained of their stifling heat and lack of openable windows. They also ran a two-man crew of driver and conductor (since abandoned), so were more labour-intensive than other buses on London’s streets. Finally, there was the price. Each New Routemaster cost an eyewatering £355,000 – roughly twice the amount of a regular double-decker. Let’s not forget that the same Boris-Heatherwick team was behind the elaborate and aborted Garden Bridge. In 2017 it was announced by Mayor Sadiq Khan that no more New Routemasters would be bought by TfL.
However, these eccentric vehicles are still kind of great. The interior is a darkly elegant oxblood red and upstairs is like being in the library at Hogwarts or something. The exterior is a steampunk retro-futuristic confection, and they’re way cooler-looking than almost any other buses in the world’s cities (presumably Boris’s intention was to shoot Blighty up the global-infrastructure-public-transport league table). So it’s a shame if they don't have a slightly longer innings on our streets. Problem is, TfL has been absolutely shafted by the pandemic with its new working-from-home model and lack of tourists. It just doesn’t have the £31m that the fleet refurbishment will cost.
But what on earth do you do with 1,000 super-complicated twenty-first-century megabuses? When Boris canned London’s ‘bendy buses’, he at least managed to flog them to Malta, and their Mercedes design is used all over the world, so they can be endlessly fixed up. The uniquely London New Routemaster, however, is much more of a white elephant, as this current dilemma illustrates, so in practical terms, its future looks pretty uncertain. Maybe we’ll wait for ages, then two solutions will come along at once.