Classics: The Routemaster

After 50 years on London's streets, the Routemaster is finally retiring. Martin Gurdon celebrates the life of an enduring, brilliant design
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Many 50-year-olds are either considering retirement or wondering if they're likely to be displaced by youngsters. Such a conundrum faces the Routemaster bus, a British transport icon that finally looks set to be displaced from London's streets on the 50th anniversary of its design.

Many 50-year-olds are either considering retirement or wondering if they're likely to be displaced by youngsters. Such a conundrum faces the Routemaster bus, a British transport icon that finally looks set to be displaced from London's streets on the 50th anniversary of its design.

Predictably, there have been howls of anguish. Spokespeople at Transport for London (TfL), the body which has decided on the cull, have a slightly put-upon air when asked about the Routemaster: "We do understand that it's an icon," said one, but that hasn't stopped this icon vanishing from many of its surviving routes.

The approach is a complete U-turn. It had been planned to keep the 500 or so surviving Routemasters in paid employment until 2015, and in 2002 pensioned-off examples were brought back and extensively - and expensively - refurbished.

So why the change? It's reckoned that London mayor Ken Livingston has finally been persuaded that London can get along without its famous mechanical landmarks, although he's supported the idea of a new "heritage" route for a handful of Routemasters, but this will depend on one of the private operators who run London's buses deciding this would be commercially viable.

Nobody seems to know if it will happen. Many of the heavily used inner-London routes are getting bus stop-mounted ticket machines for passengers who don't have passes of one sort or another. Routemasters need conductors, but thanks to the latest ticketing devices, clippies are getting the chop too. Since passengers can't be left to their own devices on vehicles with open platforms this has helped seal the Routemaster's fate.

As it is, the Routemaster is at the centre of four times the number of passenger accidents than its doored counterparts. So, falling off them is a problem but, for some, so is getting on them. In the past, wheelchair users periodically chained themselves to Routemasters in places like Oxford Street to demonstrate that using them was almost impossible if you couldn't walk.

Similar complaints have been made by the elderly and parents with push-chairs. "We're for [the idea of] Routemasters going. They don't provide accessible transport," said London Transport Users' Committee spokeswoman Jo Debank, who added that she knew they were icons.

Their replacements - either "bendy buses" (which recently suffered from a spate of fires) or some quite avant garde-looking double deckers - have wide, low floors for ease of entry and exit, and can sink groundwards to assist entry and egress.

So is the Routemaster 50 and past it? Not so, according to Ben Brook, a university press officer and driving force behind a campaign called Save The Routemaster: "I'm a Londoner and I grew up with these buses. From a transport and design point of view they're very effective and very beautiful." He thinks there should be public consultation about the plans.

People have been trying to get rid of Routemasters for decades. They were designed to last 17 years, and it was intended that brutally square, conductor-less buses should have supplanted them by 1978, but these replacements broke down and fell to bits. Another generation of square buses arrived, broke down less, but failed to dislodge the Routemaster. They too have since largely been retired.

If the Routemaster really is getting the axe, what will be lost? Certainly, an enduring, brilliant piece of industrial design. Ideas for it were fermenting by the end of the Second World War. The body used aircraft construction ideas and there was no separate chassis.

One of the best accounts of the genesis of the Routemaster is contained in Ken Blecher's book Routemaster, the source of the illustrations on this page.

It used rot-proof, pre-drilled aluminium panels that were light (the Routemaster weighs eight tonnes, modern double deckers are about four tonnes heavier), and which could have led to the demise of red London buses. One Routemaster was tested in silver unpainted guise, like alloy-bodied tube trains.

"The windows are designed to be easily removed and fitted from the inside," said Colin Curtis, one of the London Transport engineers responsible for the bus, which was developed at its long-vanished design centre in Chiswick.

He arrived in 1947 and was in charge of mechanical and suspension development. The end product was a team effort, with works manager Eric Otterway and chief engineer Bill Durrant.

Both showed a creative flair more readily associated with people like Mini designer Alec Issigonis or Pierre Boulanger, creator of the Citroën DS.

Of the 13 principles laid down for the design, one was that it should be an attractive piece of street furniture. In a world where many saloon cars lacked heaters and had cart-spring suspensions, three-speed gearboxes, wobbly steering and feeble brakes, the Routemaster kept its occupants warm, and featured independent front suspension, automatic transmission, power steering and brakes. Every component was costed (it was calculated that it cost a farthing whenever the brakes were applied).

There will be birthday celebrations, with "Routemaster 50" at London's Finsbury Park on 24 July, but ranks of buffed old buses can never have quite the heroic appeal of the dwindling band of survivors still at work. Catch one while you can.

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