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The Routemaster Bus

The Future of the Routemaster

Despite the Routemaster’s popularity with drivers, passengers and tourists alike, they are gradually disappearing from London’s streets. After half a century of loyal service, 2005 has witnessed a gradual phasing out of the iconic double-deckers, with more reliable and economic designs replacing them.

 Hydrogen Bus - New Fuel Cell buses are on trial in London 2004
A hydrogen bus on trial in London, 2004
© TopFoto.co.uk/UPPA Ltd
The demise of the Routemaster hasn’t just come about in recent years. It was helped by Barbara Castle, as Transport Secretary, who in 1967 nationalised the buses, legalised one-man operations (with just a driver) and gave subsidies to companies buying standard rear-engined buses.

The last Routemaster was built in 1968 and its successors were taken off the roads only 10 years later. Even though several hundred Routemasters were refurbished in the 1990s, the bus was doomed.

Transport for London says the buses just don’t measure up to the needs of passengers any more – they are not wheelchair or pushchair friendly. Also, they cost more to run because a conductor has to be employed as well as the driver, and parts can be expensive and tricky to find.

On top of this, travelling on a Routemaster can be dangerous – three people a year, on average, die while getting on or off the open platform.

“Wheelchair-users and parents with buggies will be able to move around London much easier when the capital’s bus network becomes 100% accessible in 2006,” said the head of operations at Transport for London, Mike Weston, in a press statement.

Articulated buses, also known as “bendy buses” will replace the Routemaster on some routes. They are two joined single deckers, and can carry 140 passengers compared with the 77 people that a Routemaster could fit on board, but more passengers are expected to stand up as there are fewer seats.

Bendy buses have three open doors, allowing up to six passengers to board at a time. Even so, they have attracted criticism from motorists, cyclists and taxi drivers, who say they are difficult to pass and take up too much road space.

 Hydrogen Bus engine - New Fuel Cell buses are on trial in London 2004
A hydrogen bus engine
© TopFoto.co.uk/UPPA Ltd
There are some designers who are trying to take the Routemaster into the 21st century by designing a more modern version. Called the QRM, it has everything a passenger and an operator would want – comfort, accessibility, flat floors throughout, ease of maintenance, a strong lightweight body and low fuel consumption.

However there hasn’t been much interest in developing the model. One of the main problems is that motor companies don’t want to buy a bus tailored to London alone. They want designs that can be sold all over the world.

The Routemaster began to be withdrawn from service on August 29, 2003, with the conversion of 15 routes to “one-person operation” and continued with the loss of the number 11 (October 31, 2003), 23 (November 14, 2003), 94 (January 23, 2004), 6 and 98 (March 26, 2004), 8 (June 4, 2004), 7 (July 2, 2004) and 137 (July 9, 2004).

The journey with the most Routemasters, the 73, lost all 55 vehicles on September 3, 2004. The final Routemaster-operated routes were the number 13 (October 21, 2005), 38 (October 28, 2005) and 159 (December 9, 2005).

From November 2005, two Heritage Routes will be in place, linking London’s most famous landmarks. The Routemasters used date from 1959 to 1965, and because standard fares will apply, Londoners and tourists can continue using them.

Some comfort to Routemaster fans is that as the buses are retiring, they are becoming much more widely available to buy. This means anybody with a few grand to spare could find themselves doing a Cliff impression and taking their very own Routemaster on a summer holiday. Surprisingly, standard driving licence holders can drive one – as long they only carry eight passengers!

Someone who has taken advantage of Routemasters needing new homes is former All Saints singer Natalie Appleton. She bought one as a surprise birthday present for her husband Liam Howlett, frontman for the Prodigy. It cost about £2,000 from a second-hand bus dealership in Essex.

Andrew Lloyd-Webber also splashed out on a Routemaster for leading theatre producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who is a friend.

Some double-deckers have been converted into bars, homes, mobile discos and restaurants. However, possibly the strangest use has to be the Camden Bus Estate Agents (www.camdenbus.com) in north London. In 1986, Charles Webb parked the Routemaster predecessor on a small plot of land just off Parkway – then he built a wall, added a gate and opened for business!

He told ICONS, "How many london offices can boast being two storeys with a 360º aspect and all for a knock-down price of £5,000?  For a company whose trade is bricks and mortar, it's an unlikely choice of premises, but customers love the informality and warm to its familiarity. 

"They can't resist cracking a joke or ringing the bell when they come on board to buy a house.  The jokes haven't changed in 20 years and neither has the novelty for us, working on a double-decker bus."