Monday, 3 March 2008

Why bringing back the Routemaster isn't the answer for London

Boris Johnson launched his transport manifesto for London today, but his ideas struggle to sound coherent or even workable. The Conservative candidate for the job of Mayor claims Ken Livingstone has "run out of ideas", when the current incumbent of the job has demonstrated anything but. TfL is a remarkably different organisation from the old London Transport inherited some nine years ago. Bus use has risen dramatically - a reverse of the considerable decline outside the capital and there are signs of considerable investment in the Tube (even if the Metronet debacle has somewhat damaged public confidence in the funding structure). It's all down to a co-ordinated, well-funded and integrated transport policy and a Mayor with a genuine passion for the things which make a difference to Londoners.

Johnson's latest wheeze proposes bringing back the Routemaster, seemingly in an attempt to capitalise on public mistrust of their replacements, those nasty European bendy-buses which happily purr down continental boulevards but which have never really caught on in Britain.

The last Routemasters were retired from front-line service in December 2005, minus the ten or so which currently ply their trade on the 'heritage' routes. There was public outcry at the abolition of these venerable old beasts, as many a Time Out article and opinion piece pointed out. What the travelling public didn't quite realise is quite how time expired these vehicles were.
The Routemaster was developed as a replacement for London's trolleybus fleet, in a post-war Britain, catching up on the development of new vehicles had been stalled for at least six years during wartime. The concept of the vehicle was revolutionary for its time, but its basic look and feel was little different from the pre-war 'RT', itself a development of the 1910 'B' type. So, in 2005, a fleet of buses was operating on front line services in central London based on a design which originated before many passengers' grandparents were even born. Operators of the Routemaster struggled to find spare parts, their capacity restricted their usefulness somewhat, and they cost considerably more than one-person buses to operate because of the necessity of the conductor to collect fares and oversee passengers embarking and disembarking.

Boris has announced a competition to design a new Routemaster - a bus fit for the 21st century. But London Transport long ago stopped building its own vehicles, and in an age of standardisation and globalised transport manufacturers, a bus that's specially designed for London use only isn't going to find markets elsewhere. The black cab only survived because its basic design was so adaptable elsewhere.

To Boris and his campaign team, this dewy eyed notion of a cheery conductor returning to shout 'fares please' up the stairs might be a vote winner. But, as TfL have stated, returning the conductor to London's buses, not least developing the replacement vehicle, would cost something of the tune of £108m. Is that a price Johnson is prepared to pay? And if so, how would he fund it? It's a question I've already put to him - and it'll be interesting to see how nostalgia will survive in a mayoral election which is already more bitter than the previous two.

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