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…
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
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:
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
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.
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?