Walking in Central London recently I saw, in the flesh, one of London Transport’s new Routemaster buses. There wasn’t time to get on board but the transport buff in me knew I had to come back in the near future and try one out.
Once at home, a little research showed that this “new” bus had just celebrated its first year in service on the streets of London. Why had it been avoiding me?? A little more research turned up some interesting facts, including the information that only eight have been put into service on a route serving North East London, the diametrically opposite corner to where I live. Other facts included that it is designed to carry 87 passengers on two decks, there are three entrances, two staircases and, in homage to the original Routemaster, an open platform at the back that can be boarded at any time, not just at official bus stops. And finally, for London, it was a bargain at just over £11m for the first eight buses – £1.4m per bus!! It definitely was time to go and try it out. It must be luxurious.
At the moment the bus is running on route No. 38 from Victoria Station to Clapton Pond in the London Borough of Hackney. So the plan was to get to Victoria and then do a round trip back to Victoria. However, to get into the spirit of things, my first destination was to be Hammersmith Bus Station where I could catch a No. 9 bus to Piccadilly near the start of the No. 38 route. The reason for doing this is that the No. 9 is one of only two services that still uses the original, or heritage as they are now called, Routemasters. So I would be able to contrast the new with the old. Time to get going.
Armed with my trusty Freedom Pass and Windows Phone app that gives me up to date information about all bus services in London, I set off on the 1/2 mile walk to the stop for the No. 33 bus which passes through Richmond on its way to Hammersmith. Just a few words about the app. It uses GPS on the phone to find where you are and displays a map complete with local bus stops. You then click on the stop you want and it displays what buses are due over the next half hour or so. And it is free. The app informed me that there would be No. 33 buses in 3, 8 and 12 minutes. I aimed for the middle one and caught it with a minute to spare. This bus route uses the ubiquitous London suburban single decker bus. These buses, of which there are many models, are entered at the front and exited in the middle. There is space for two or three buggies beside the centre door and a ramp that is operated remotely by the driver to give wheelchair access. The bus seats around 30 people and has room to squeeze in about 30 standing passengers.
At Hammersmith there was a bit of a disappointment. Plenty of No. 9 buses but no heritage versions only conventional double-deckers. As we bowled along through Hammersmith, passing Olympia and West Kensington, none of the No.9’s coming in the opposite direction were of the heritage variety. At one point the bus stopped to pick up a wheelchair user. The whole boarding process was very efficient and essentially automated. But this wasn’t what I had come to experience. Then, as we reached Kensington, my luck changed. It turns out that the heritage route is only between Kensington and Trafalgar’s Square. So it was time to hop off the conventional bus and wait for a heritage bus to come along.
The trusty app informed me that there were three No. 9’s due over the next 15 mins so I settled down to wait. Sod’s Law prevailed and the heritage bus (see the picture at the bottom of the link) was the last of the three. It gradually became apparent that I was not the only person waiting for a taste of the past. The two of us got on via the open platform for which the Routemaster is famous and the conductor called out “Hold tight gents” in traditional fashion. It was straight upstairs for me and into a seat near the middle. All felt very familiar although a bit more cramped than modern double-deckers. There were two concessions to modern Health & Safety requirements, namely security cameras and no smoking signs. The latter reminded me that in the old days upstairs was the smoking area on the buses. How times change.
As we travelled along the conductor announced every stop shouting up the stairs “Knightsbridge Tube Station and Harrods” for example. All very friendly unlike the current disembodied automated voices that we have had to get used to.
Round Hyde Park Corner and into Piccadilly signalled that it was time to change from the old to the new. I chickened out of jumping off between stops – age, balance, legs not quite what they used to be – and waited till the bus reached the stop outside Green Park Tube Station. The same stop is used by the No. 38 so that was very convenient. After about a dozen “conventional” No. 38’s had passed in both directions it seemed there was a dearth of new Routemasters and it was time to adopt a new strategy. So it was into the underground and one stop on the Victoria Line to Victoria Station, the terminus of the No. 38 route.
The No. 38 is what is known in the parlance as a “high frequency” route, in other words, there’s a bus every few minutes. And indeed there were, but no sign of the mystery new Routemaster. There was an enquiry office but, naturally, that was closed for lunch. So it was time to settle down for another long wait. Then, miracle of miracles, one came into view and pulled into the bus bay. All the passengers on the bus got off then the doors were closed. Was the bus about to go out of service? After a tantalising half-hour – well maybe two minutes – the doors were opened again and the waiting passengers were invited to board.
With its three doors it was a case of eenie, meenie, miney, mo. In a haze of indecision I chose the middle one which turned out to be a good choice as the staircase to the upper deck was right in front of me. One of the top deck, front seats was vacant so that was for me. The front window provided an excellent panoramic view with little in the way of interruptions. The colour scheme was very plush with dark red, almost maroon, seats and panelling complemented by gold hand rails and grab handles. Very regal. As we moved away from the bus station, the silence of the electric motor, particularly when compared with the hearty diesel of the heritage bus, was a joy. The only noise came from the diesel engine that is used to charge the batteries. And, rather disturbingly, every so often, presumably when the batteries were fully charged, the diesel engine shuddered to a halt. I heard one passenger remark to their companion “has the bus stalled?” following one shuddering stop. I hope this is being fixed on later models.
Although the bus has both a driver and a conductor, all announcements are of the automated variety, a bit of a disapointment. So shortly after leaving the bus station the disembodied voice announced the next stop “Grosvenor Gardens” followed by a new to me announcement “Watch out for traffic when leaving the bus!!”. Presumably this was a warning to passengers who might take advantage of the rear platform and jump off the bus before it came to a halt at the stop. It doesn’t quite have the same ring as “Mind the Gap” on the underground.
The near silent operation was excellent but it started to snow and the driver turned on the windscreen wipers. Every swish came over loud and clear, there was no other noise to drown them. You can’t call it a fault rather an unexpected consequence of a massive improvement in the quietness of motor power.
The route took us up to Hyde Park Corner, along Piccadilly and round Piccadilly Circus then up Shaftsbury Avenue and through the heart of theatre land to Cambridge Circus. Then it was up Charing Cross Road and along New Oxford Street to Holborn passing close to the British Museum. The next landmark was Sadlers Wells Theatre followed by The Angel Islington. From there to the terminus was through the unfamiliar territory of Islington and Hackney.
Every so often we would pass a new Routemaster going in the opposite direction but they seem to be in a ratio of no more than one in ten. For the journey back from Hackney Central, I waited for a new bus but after about 20 minutes gave in and boarded an older bus heading for Victoria. As the journey progressed back down towards The Angel there was a nagging feeling that I was missing out on the “new” experience. At Sadlers Wells the naggingwon and I got off to wait for the next “new” bus. Three buses later along it came.
This time I travelled on the lower deck – just for the hell of it. The experience, of course, is quite different. For a start you are much closer to your fellow travellers. Also, no two pairs of seats are the same. Some face forwards and some backwards, some are raised over wheel arches and others have doors or buggy spaces beside them. I sat next to the middle door.
As we travelled down Shaftsbury Avenue it seemed an appropriate place to try out the rear platform. The conductor, not a very slim man, took up a lot of the space so as a passenger you were forced close to the edge and the moving road. It being around 5pm there were lots of traffic jams so I was able to get off between stops without casting myself to the fate of the rolling road. Honour satisfied. It was time for a refreshing pint of Guinness in Waxy O’Connors Bar in Rupert Street and time to reflect on the new Routemaster experience.
I wonder if Boris has bitten off more than he can chew. The cost of each bus is enormous and it’s not exactly clear what value it adds other than the links with the past – a bit tenuous – and a little more seating capacity. The conductor seems to provide no added value to the passengers other than, perhaps, being there to scrape you off the road if you jump from the rear platform a little carelessly.
Would I recommend taking a trip on this new bus. The answer has to be yes but only if you see one going in your direction. Otherwise you can wait a long time for one to come along. You might get very bored and finish up wondering why you waited. Of course, you will be able to say “I’ve been on one of the new Routemasters” and know that few, if any, of your friends have had the same experience.
[This blog originally had a working title of “Happy Birthday Routemaster” but for reasons that will now be clear that had to be changed.]