Er, this ain’t no Routemaster, Boris

On the day when the new chancellor stood up in front of the press in Whitehall and warned us all we’re going to have to tighten our belts, the man who wants to be his boss stood up in front of some other press at a bus garage and showed off what he’s spending great wads of Londoners’ money on.

So, probably not coming to a south-east London street near you, it’s….
The New Bus For London, copyright Transport for London
What do you reckon? It’s a little… odd. It’s a little bit difficult to picture on the street, but I could grow to like it. Boris Johnson’s desire to recreate the Routemaster has been one of the most controversial acts of his mayoralty. I’m not as down on it as others are, but let’s be clear about this – it’s a vanity project. Ken Livingstone’s most enduring legacy may be the skyscrapers starting to pierce the views in unusual parts of London, Boris’s may be a bus. (It’d better not be that ugly heap of crap he wants to build at the Olympic Stadium, which is now quite nicely viewable from my street.) But it’s the whys and wherefores that mark this project out as just a little odd.

Let’s get one thing out of the way – this isn’t a bendy bus versus Routemaster issue. London was doing quite nicely with both. I reckon bendies would have been more popular if they had conductors. Boris’s desire to free the twisty streets of Stoke Newington from 73s snaking around tight corners isn’t unreasonable, but claiming they are more dangerous than other buses is; and his bendy-phobia means other services where bendies would really work well (the 472 from North Greenwich to Thamesmead, for example) are now denied the chance of real improvement.

For a start – it’s a bit unusual for a Conservative mayor to be commissioning his own buses, isn’t it? Isn’t that the kind of thing that’s best left to the free market? Of course, London Transport used to commission its own buses all the time, the Routemaster being among the last to be made specially for the capital. Indeed, it was the Conservatives who broke up and sold LT’s bus division in the 90s, making it harder to commission these things centrally anyway (although TfL does specify which bus is used on which route). Does London even need its own buses? And is there a chance of the taxpayer even making a bit of money back on this flutter on designing a bus? If Ken Livingstone had come up with this idea, he’d have been pasted for it. But because it’s Boris, he’s getting away with it.

Secondly – that design. This ain’t no Routemaster – it’s a bus with three doors. It has more in common with a bendy bus than its illustrious predecessor. For me, the Routemaster had two unique features – the open platform at the back, and the upstairs back seat from where you had the best view from the top deck. This bus has neither – the door at the back is going to be left closed at night, and there’s no windows upstairs at the rear. That spot on the Borismaster could get very unpleasant, very quickly. One of the design conceits is having windows next to the stairs, which isn’t going to be appreciated by vertigo sufferers. It’s not as bad as it could have been, but it’s hard to see why Boris is determined to throw cash at it instead of holding bus fares down and improving services.

Who’ll get to use it? Only a handful are likely to be in use by 2012, and yet London’s busiest routes need 50 or more buses on the road at any one time. The suburban voters who backed Boris for not being a “zone 1 mayor” are likely to only ever see this bus on TV – Routemasters were withdrawn from most London routes during the 1980s, and it’s hard to see this suddenly appearing on the streets of Bexleyheath. If a new mayor is elected in 2012, what happens to the scheme then? The increased cost of staffing this bus means it’s likely only to appear on central London services only.

Maybe that’s the point of it – less about something that’s practical and useful for Londoners, more about something to sell the city – and its mayor – around the world. Nothing wrong with that, but now we’re all being lectured on the need to save money, now seems like an odd time to throw money at designing buses when the network still needs improvement and fares are going up.

(More: Boris Watch, Tory Troll, Ross Lydall, Dave Hill.)


  1. Pingback: Borismaster First Thoughts
  2. marmoset

    Borismaster plus routemaster = brutemaster. I think that’ll do as a working name.

    Well done for managing to avoid the word iconic. I have developed a severe allergy to it.

  3. Charlie Easton

    Tapping into popular sentiment is not the sole preserve of the Left, nor does putting a contract for a new bus design out to tender imply that the mayor is a proponent of municipal socialism. The unveiling of a new piece of transport technology by a Conservative Mayor isn’t unusual at all, other than by providing some rare discomfort to those on the left by challenging their prejudiced views of those on the right as horrendous un-people whose sole political ambition is to derive enjoyment out of cutting public services.

    You simply have to google “Boris unveils” if you want to see all the projects (some of them useful, some perhaps arguably less so) the Mayor has been involved in to improve the lives of Londoners.

    Secondly, government is (theoretically, as we both know too well!) elected to serve the will of the electorate, and Boris’ two most memorable pledges were to cut the waste at City Hall and scrap the bendy buses in favour of a new Routemaster design. He was elected on that platform, and I wager pound to pennies that had the Routemaster project been scrapped you would be writing a fine critique about how the Mayor deceived the good people of London by failing to deliver his most memorable manifesto commitment. Damned if you do…

  4. Tom

    “Well done for managing to avoid the word iconic. I have developed a severe allergy to it.”

    Amen to that. This idea that if rich people tell us something’s iconic then it automatically is is frankly pissing me right off. Iconic status is earned, not awarded.

  5. Pingback: No-one seems to like the Routemaster. « More London
  6. Tom

    “The unveiling of a new piece of transport technology by a Conservative Mayor isn’t unusual at all”

    He unveiled a video, Charlie. Do keep up.

    The question remains though – if it’s OK to spend 30 years talking about the evils of the dead hand of the state why is it OK to suddenly assume overnight that the hand has woken up, Lazarus style? Moreover, if this thing is a success, then doesn’t that imply that the state *should* take an active role in shaping the free market, and what consequences does that have for Conservative economic orthodoxy?

    In particular, the bus market now has a monopoly supplier for these things, which has competition implications should TfL tender routes on the basis of BM introduction – I’m sure Alexander Dennis would be on the phone to m’learned friends about being effectively frozen out of the market unless they fund research on a rival BM from their own pockets – ‘illegal state aid’ I think they’d call it, and they’d have a point.

    The amusing thing for Boris is the more this thing looks like a disguised exercise in bus engineering research (and all they have to do, really, is lose the rear platform and tone the ‘futuristic’ bollocks down) the less people like it. They really believed he was going to bring back some bulbous caricature of a Routemaster.

    “wager pound to pennies that had the Routemaster project been scrapped you would be writing a fine critique about how the Mayor deceived the good people of London by failing to deliver his most memorable manifesto commitment.”

    No, I’d have applauded his common sense while wondering how he was maneouvered into promising the impossible. The backstory of how this happened is still the interesting part for me, since it sheds a lot of light on the character of the Mayor (viz. that he trusts his friends more than he should and doesn’t know anyone with any expertise in transport matters).

  7. David

    “it’s hard to see this suddenly appearing on the streets of Bexleyheath” LOL It’s true. That’d be a sight. Would be like something touched down from space.

    Check out this vid a mate showed me, a song called ‘Bring Back The Routemaster’

    And yeah how can they not have no window at the back?

  8. Richard

    I don’t like 4×4 cars because they take up too much space on the roads. For the same reason, I don’t like bendy buses either.

  9. Pingback: Dull London train journeys, number 1: Around the Overground « 853

Hello! If you've read the post, please join the discussion below...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s