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?


2 thoughts on “Bye Bye Boris-Bus: TfL – When will they ever learn?

  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.

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