Bye Bye Boris-Bus: TfL – When will they ever learn?

Mike Humble:

Well ok its not actually the case as the headline states but the new Mayor for our metropolis, Sadiq Khan, has formally announced that the new Routemaster is no longer to be purchased by TfL. This is isn’t the first time a bright idea for London has failed, nor is it the second…

london-bus
Initially launched in a blaze of glory, the Wrightbus NBfL buying policy for TfL has been scrapped by Mayor Sadiq Khan. Poor reliability, soaring rectification costs and a purchase price some £50,000 per unit more than an equivalent hybrid bus are the cited reasons.

I used to admire what was London Regional Transport (LRT) once upon a time. Moving millions of people everyday by bus or rail or tube is something that requires monumental planning and execution. Most of us don’t realise nay care how this is done – and why should we in all fairness – we pay our fare and travel our journey. Past glory brand names such as Metro Cammell or Routemaster are synonymous with London Transport, but after getting older, wiser and working in the PSV industry, I’m not that impressed anymore. As the title states, the all singing New Bus For London (NBFL) programme built by Wrightbus in Ballymena Northern Ireland has been cancelled by the new Mayor – and guess what? I applaud his decision.

To the less informed, London Transport conjures cosy memories of cheeky smiling clippies, rumbling Routemasters and that wonderful sound of two strokes on the bell. You cant help admire the strong brand image of red paint and the London Buses bull’s-eye logo on the side panel, but in reality its a very different scenario. This new Routemaster hybrid bus has proved to be problematic, expensive to run, expensive to crew, dismally unreliable and more environmentally damaging than many of the buses its meant to have replaced. It was Boris Johnsons stamp of identity for TfL when he took office from Ken Livingstone. The previous Labour Mayor had introduced the Bendy-bus into London and while they too may have been initially problematic, they proved to be a good workhorse just as they were phased out by the NBFL.

Hailed as the future of buses, the NBFL has subsequently proven to be problematic in service and alarmingly expensive to build – £350,000 per unit. The idea of the open rear platform was also cancelled following a customer falling from the bus. Not only that but conductors were made redundant after TfL realised each bus was costing over £60,000 per year in crewing wages. What became was nothing more than a quirky looking hybrid bus with no other advantage to a standard “off the peg” low emission bus. But it didn’t even have a low emission factor. Problems with the battery packs have meant the 4.5 litre engine that lives behind the rear staircase is running far more often when in service than planned. The knock on effect being a bus with higher emissions at the tailpipe than older hybrid vehicles its been meant to replace or work alongside.

Case Example 1 – The AEC Routemaster

rmc
The RM class or otherwise known as the AEC Routemaster. Designed for London in mind but offered on the national market. Only one other operator bought them besides London Transport and that was Northern General, and then only in penny numbers. It was a victim of its own modernity.

With a traditional hybrid bus from a.n other manufacturer coming in at a shade under £300K, I’ve never fully understood why the NBfL was ever created. For sure it looks striking out on the road but just like other London designs before it, its failed to capture the hearts and minds of other bus operators outside the capital. Apart from more traffic on the roads and notably more passengers, exactly what requires a unique design just for London? You only have to consider older London bus designs too see that this isn’t the first time political meddling with London’s buses nor the second. Most of us remember the dear old AEC Routemaster – a rather smart and clever piece of design even by todays standards. But again it was worryingly expensive to produce and had a specification at launch so futuristic it had fleet engineers around the country running for cover.

Case Example 2 – The Daimler Fleetline:

dms
The “DMS” class or Daimler Fleetline – Londons first off the peg bus. It failed only because of LTs refusal to adapt and change their own policies towards operation and maintenance. Other operators nationwide and abroad found the Fleetline to be a fine example of conventional design… so what does that tell you?

In fact one highly regarded chief engineer of a massive municipal bus fleet said of the Routemaster that it was; “a bus so technically advanced and brilliant that only one other UK operator bought them outside London“. Its independent front suspension, power steering and automatic gearbox was just too technical and futuristic in the open marketplace. There was also the Daimler Fleetline that was tweaked for London in 1971 – a bus that was intended to replace the whole of the Routemaster class. These vehicles were known as “The Londoner” or “DMS” and spectacularly failed in service. In fairness it wasn’t because of any real issue with the bus itself but more to do with London Transports rather unique and non flexible policy towards vehicle maintenance.

London drivers just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) adapt to using a semi auto gearbox neither. The end result being ruined brake bands inside the gearbox causing failure – the RM class buses were fully automatic. The routemaster also featured an engine that could be swapped over in less than half a day. But with the Daimler and its enclosed rear mounted engine and gearbox, even at breakneck speed, LT fitters took two days to remove and replace the power units. Once gain though, not the fault of the bus itself but more to do with London Transport not realising this was the real world of bus operation – they really did operated in their own little metropolitan bubble. For many years, and to a point even today, London truly believed that their way was the only way.

Case Example 3 – The Leyland Titan

titan
The Leyland Titan – The right bus built in the wrong place at the wrong time. Once again it was an advanced design but other operators were keen. Production was biased towards London Transport and were hopelessly delayed owing to a union controlled factory. As a result big operators such as West Midlands and Merseyside cancelled their orders by the hundreds. By the time production was on an even keel rival makers such as Dennis and MCW had eroded away at Leyland’s once domineering market share.

By 1979 the dogged Daimler DMS class were being withdrawn from service and Leyland had been beavering away on a new design of high technology bus. Working under the codename “Project B15” this all new double deck design was a triumph of engineering and eventually became called the Leyland Titan. The Titan went on to become the epitome of all things wrong with London Transport and Leyland. Firstly… it had to pander to the idiosyncrasies that LT dictated such as hydraulic brakes and an independent front suspension. Secondly… LT forced Leyland’s hand into producing the bodywork at the Park Royal coachworks plant in North London – owned and operated by Leyland Vehicles. Chassis from Leyland being transported to London made for costly logistics and transportation to name just one of the problems.

Not only that but production was so slow that orders took not months but YEARS to complete and other national operators grew tired of waiting and cancelled their orders buy the hundreds. Park Royal was a union strangled factory and flagging backlogs only became under control when Leyland took the decision to close the plant down and offer bonus payments for productivity. Titan build eventually resumed in Leylands Workington plant in Cumbria after the companies two other body plants in Leeds (Roe) and Lowestoft (ECW) deemed the Titan to be difficult to produce without demanding higher wages. Once again, many other operators saw the Titan as too lavish for their needs but it wasn’t a bad bus. In fact the Titan was a very good bus but once again by pandering to needs and wants of London Transport, its success on the open market was severely hampered.

wrightbus-plant
Wrightbus in Ballymena – home of the NBfL. What does the TfL outcome spell for this company and just how much have they invested since getting involved with London in both money and manpower?

So coming back to the future… what makes London so special? Very little in fairness, and though its seen to be good for the chassis company portfolio to have TfL on its books, on a global scale it often proves to be a double edged sword. When the whole Boris Bus idea was first mooted the world market leaders, Volvo, declined to submit any kind of design idea to TfL. Its all been a horrible waste of tax payers money and probably will spell mass redundancies for Wright Bus in Northern Ireland – a place that already suffers from high unemployment. If the bus and coach industry is supposed to be a privatised affair then why do politicians mess, meddle and stick their noses in to the point where they are dictating to an industry they seemingly have learned nothing from?

3 comments

  1. A good friend of my mine rightly said this when the Muslim mayor of London Kahn was elected “London has fallen”….he was right then, he is right now

  2. The Borismaster – or New Routemaster (NRM) to give it its official title – will in my humble opinion go down in history as one of the biggest vanity white elephant projects ever concieved by a politician. Indeed as a colossal waste of money I can only think of the Edinburgh Tram project in terms of a transport project that has exceeded it. Although a recent project, it had its roots way back in the late sixties when the erstwhile London Transport was forced – indeed kicking and screaming might be a more accurate metaphor – into buying Daimler Fleetlines as Routemaster production came to an end. Although Park-Royal Vehicles and Metro-Cammell Weymann (MCW) came up with a very acceptable body design – called the ‘Londoner’ – and the Fleetline itself was a dependable and reliable chassis, once all the silly London foibles had been added these buses started breaking down. Now there was many reasons for this, part was parts shortage, part was all the London add-ons but the main reason was that London was not used to such a bus. It had grown up on RT’s and RM’s, buses which could be literally separated from the chassis. The Fleetline demanded a different engineering approach and LT simply struggled to adapt. It rallied against the Fleetline and formed an opinion that London’s arduous conditions demanded a bespoke bus.

    This of course was nonsense. London’s conditions were no worse or better than other cities but LT still thought it was unique and this thinking allowed it to – as it turned out – unwisely influence the development and specification of the Leyland Titan. The Titan was a superb bus – but it was a commercial flop. It was totally overspecified and the more simpler Olympian ended up upsurping it. However, LT would still maintain that it needed a bespoke bus – indeed it invested money into its own project called XRM which had eight (!) axles and very small wheels. Fortunately, all the major manufacturers with the capacity to build such a bus thought such a project was a total waste of time and said no thanks.

    Fast forward 25 years. LT has became Transport for London (TfL) and bus usage in London is growing as London grows. The current mayor, Ken Livingstone, keen to increase capacity on certain routes and to withdraw the remaining Routemasters and make the fleet more accessible allows routes to be run by bendy-buses. Cue outrage by certain commentators and when accidents take place involving the vehicles, that opinion becomes entrenched.

    Now we can debate the relative merits of such buses. My own opinion is that whilst such buses have never been common in the United Kingdom, on some routes they are very suitable. Indeed, it could be argued that on the Red Arrow routes – which fill in the gaps in the London Underground network – they were pretty much perfect. However, they were not suitable on every route it must be said.

    Then came the Mayoral elections and into the mix comes Boris Johnson. He played on people’s dislike on these buses – it has to be accepted that they were rife with fare evasion simply as you could leave and board by any door. When he became Mayor, in a scandalous and indeed borderline criminal waste of money, he forced these buses off the road. The bus companies quite rightly expected to be compensated for buses they had been initially told to buy by TfL who then changed their mind and told them to get rid of them.

    Boris then announced that he would introduce a bespoke bus designed for London’s arduous operating conditions – sound familiar? He invited tenders to design and build a bespoke bus for London. He harked back to the original Routemaster and wanted an accessible bus with a hop-on, hop-off platform. Now at this point most manufacturers should have said don’t be silly it’ll never sell outside London. But at the time, the London market was a strong market and as the overall market was weak, manufacturers could ill-afford to ignore it. So, they applied until in the end Wrightbus won, seeing off the UK’s biggest manufacturer Alexander Dennis, as well as Mercedes Benz.

    However, it would be a hollow victory. And at this point, if you think I’ve been unkind just wait. To share the risk, Wrightbus would retain the design rights unless TfL ordered at least 999 examples. At which point they would revert to TfL. So it committed to ordering at least a thousand. But the bus was horrendously expensive. A normal hybrid double decker with London foibles, such as an Enviro 400 or Volvo B5LH would cost between £250k-£275k. It did everything that the NRM did but didn’t have the open platform. The NRM came in at £350k. That’s before you factor in the additional staff member. That staff member wasn’t even employed to check fares. He/she just supervised the rear platform. Madness. This bus was costing a fortune. Also, as the bus companies realised that they couldn’t sell this bus outside London so TfL actually owns these buses and leases them to the companies.

    Wrightbus set up a factory to build the NRM. Alexander Dennis, excluded from the contract set off building exports overseas, very successfully it must be added. However the flaws in NRM were coming home to roost. No one outside London ordered it. That same factory was too reliant on the NRM and Wrightbus sensibly started to look at other products lines to fill it if the political winds changed. This bus was a political bus and political views changed. Therefore, it was hardly a surprise when the incoming new mayor thought the NRM was very last-mayor and cancelled it.

    This bus was a vanity project pure and simply. It was no better than the buses on the market and indeed it suffered from issues with the batteries and cooling problems. London could have saved a fortune and bought regular buses. The employees of Wrightbus are now facing an uncertain future unless the company can fill the gaps. It should never have seen the light of day. Only in subsidy-rich London could it happen.

    • Fully agree with everything mentioned in this blog and everything that is ‘wrong’ with New Bus For London (NB4L).

      This Boris Johnson vanity project is in my opinion the worst example of a whim making it into production.

      It’s Thomas Hetherwick design is also perhaps the worst example of someone with absolutely no experience in automotive design or knowing what the bus industry needs and requires resulting in NB4L being a totally flawed concept and extremely costly end product which again in my opinion is not fit for purpose, has many, many issues which wouldn’t have been there if London Buses contractors had have continued purchasing vehicles like Volvo’s B5LH, Alexander Dennis Enviro 400/400H which were available at the time, have been proven to be much more reliable and less costly in the terms of maintenance, cost an awful lot less for TfL to have in operation and again I feel are designed better and are much more user friendly for passengers – especially the elderly and disabled to use.

      You can go on about the many issues NB4L has had in service… many of which were simply dismissed or plain ignored by the TfL/Mayor of London spin machine. The fact is NB4L has in it’s 7-8 lifetime racked up many of these negatives which if it never existed time, energy and more importantly funding for many, many other public transport projects in London and Britain generally could have been moved forward much more than a extremely costly Boris Johnson vanity project… strange considering it was implemented throughout the period of austerity. For me these include:

      • Development and initial production costs which have saddled TfL with £bn debts – just think what that could’ve been spent on instead.
      • The debacle about NB4L’s interior heating/cooling system and no opening windows which led to NB4L’s operating for a few years dangerously hot in Summer and freezing in Winter. Only when public opinion became to much did TfL capitulate and fit small opening windows which for me is total contempt for what users (customers) are telling you and a failure for TfL to admit it is wrong and NB4L is a failure.
      • The rapid loss of the open platform idea/option which in modern traffic simply doesn’t work and has always been dangerous.
      • The cost of crewing NB4L which has been mentioned.
      • Like bendy buses the allowing of boarding through any door which leads to passengers simply not tapping in with Oyster/contactless… revenue drops and TfL makes losses. This was a argument to scrap the bendies yet is kept and increased on the NB4L as it spread more widely than bendies on London’s bus network. The revenue drop and sheer bloody mindedness took TfL approximately 7 years to respond and only allow boarding at the front door. In essence NB4L is no different than a off the peg Double Decker… albeit an extremely expensive bespoke built one.
      • The only reason bendy buses got scrapped was due to the lyrca-centric cycle brigade making a point and riding to close to them… with obvious results. Johnson placated them and the bicycle brigade at the expense of public transport users and pedestrians in London so much so it’s more dangerous and I feel you get more hassle from the cycle brigade in London than any other road users. Bendies weren’t suitable for every London route but were for some – like the 18, 25, 207 etc. and in that respect they were good crowd shifters and could do a much more efficient job than NB4L could ever hope to do and were withdrawn at a massive loss way too soon.
      • The wheelbase on NB4L is too long and has a poor turning circle compared to other buses – even bendies. Many times a NB4L gets stuck on the road where any other bus could simply get through no problem.
      • A dark, gloomy, poorly designed interior. I could go on but the main problems are badly designed/uncomfortable seats, bad (dark) lighting, poor layout, little provision for wheelchairs/buggies, lack of hand poles on staircases etc. which are simply not a problem on Wright’s Gemini and Alexander Dennis Enviro 400 double deckers… even the older designs. I feel even older double deckers like Alexander’s ALX 400, Plaxton President etc. and even maligned designs like Scania’s OmniCity, East Lancs designs etc. are a lot more user friendly (wheelchairs/buggies), better designed and are what passengers actually need and offer a more attractive travelling experience for users than NB4L could ever hope to achieve. Strange considering these products first appeared 15-20 years ago now!
      • The simply fact Alexander Dennis’s Enviro 400 City has repackaged a ‘New Routemaster’ so much better than NB4L in the terms of design and user friendliness in my opinion, with a lot more flexibility, at less cost and with more appeal to fleets outside of London too.
      • The many, many breakdowns and issues with the hybrid technology which have been touched upon in this blog. A rumour is one London Buses contractor is only running them due to being handsomely subsidised by TfL and if they had a choice they’d operate their own types of bus on the NB4L contracts they have if that subsidy reduced or got removed. It’s debatable but some of the RTA’s involving NB4L – particularly when first in service, may have been due to issues with the vehicle and they frequently have breakdowns where other buses simply don’t. Then there’s the issues with the batteries and the engine as touched on in the blog which studies shown that NB4L was more polluting than a +10 year old Dennis Trident. Again TfL dismisses all criticism of NB4L and tries suggesting the study was flawed but it’s a well known secret they’re not as ‘green’ as they’re originally painted and mechanically don’t work as they should.
      • A harsh poor ride quality and jerkiness on the vehicles which in my opinion sometimes feels dangerous and could cause injuries.
      • By putting it’s eggs in one basket with NB4L Wrightbus has taken a dive too. It’s incorporated NB4L design principles into it’s new ‘Stealth’ range of products but for me the current Eclipse, Gemini and Streetdeck seem a backward step from the previous products Wrightbus had both in the terms of design and build quality which I feel doesn’t seem as good as it used to be – rushing orders in order to put NB4L at a priority. Add to this orders for these products have dropped off both in London and for provincial fleets Wrightbus have ended up in a situation with dwindling orders and rising costs so much so the Bamford family owners of JCB have had to bail Wrightbus out. I’m not saying this wouldn’t have happened without NB4L but it’s no coincidence a seemingly successful company nosedives whilst getting involved in this project.
      • TfL/EWrightbus simply didn’t generate enough interest from other companies and public transport bodies – both in the UK and internationally to purchase or purchase a variant of NB4L. Initial interest waned and it simply didn’t capture any outside interest.
      • Regardless of the negativity and flaws the sheer cost of putting NB4L on the road will see it remain in London until at least 2025-30. They have little or no scope for cascade or onward sale to provincial fleets/fleets owned by the contractors. TfL are not going to have another debacle where they early withdraw NB4L like they did the bendies. There’s simply no money to do that and they’re not going to let them rot on a airfield like they did the Mercedes-Benz Citaro’s.
      • NB4L has taken TfL’s eye of the ball on many other projects like Crossrail/Elizabeth Line which in 2020 is still not running, has no timetable to be completed gone grossly over budget and should have been the priority for TfL rather than a bus nobody wants or really needs. NB4L, Emirates Airline etc. etc. are all costly projects not needed and don’t add value to London’s transport network and infrastructure. Yet things like trams, bus priority, new bus and transport links, London Underground extensions and renewal etc. have all fallen by the wayside. The directors at TfL who have presided over this have mostly walked away with nice fat pay offs and golden handshakes and the end result is TfL is grossly in the red, losing revenue, losing funding, won’t put up fares (I appreciate it’s controversial) to make up shortfalls, laying off it’s workforce – some of which don’t deserve to be and public transport links are being cut. For example since 2017 numerous London bus services have been cut or reduced… it’s a coincidence the very expensive NB4L has been around while this happens. Personally I’d sooner see high frequency, 247 bus services in the capital regardless of the bus used than a ‘Routemaster’ for the sake of a ‘Routemaster’.
      • Again TfL needs to look at it’s priorities and management. Did anyone within London Buses or TfL generally question the need for NB4L? If so why were they ignored? If not what were the benefits of a project which has ballooned into an expensive white elephant with many costly issues needing to be put right.
      • As the blogger says TfL never learns from mistakes. DMS’s worked fine when sold to Ensign Bus and on to other bus fleets in the UK and internationally, Leyland Titan’s great second-hand workhorses for Merseybus/MTL, some of which spent more time in Liverpool than in London, expensive experiments with single deckers in the ‘90’s which were on the wrong routes but on the right routes would have worked as well as single deckers did in say Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, etc. but TfL never seems to learn instead keeps repeating the costly mistakes over again.

      Why on earth NB4L got such a positive spin within the TfL machine and Boris supporting media initially I’ll never know. Using some of these in service reinforces many of the negatives of this project and if a more conventional bus is running behind it I’d use that over NB4L any day. Perhaps the likes of Johnson, Hetherwick, Hendy and their media darlings don’t use NB4L beyond an odd ride for media purposes and if they did like many Londoners they’d see it was not what we wanted, not fit for purpose, has many of the flaws I’ve mentioned and is actually worse than the 5-10-15 year old buses it may have replaced!

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