Ding ding, all aboard. The Routemaster returns to London

  • @SimonCalder

At 1.33pm today, the bright new hope of London’s transport network finally reached its terminus at Victoria station. The six-mile journey aboard the new Routemaster on route 38 from Hackney in east London had taken longer than a Eurostar train from the capital to Lille in northern France.

Even so, the 21st-century Routemaster won plenty of admirers along its short and winding road. Hundreds of bus enthusiasts – plus transport workers at bus garages and Tube stations along the way – turned out to see the latest addition to the streets of London. The new vehicle is the modern successor to the much-admired 1950s Routemaster, which was also designed specifically for London. It is built to cope with the demands of a working life spent entirely in stop-start traffic. An open rear platform at the back is intended to speed boarding and allow passengers to hop on and off while it is stopped at lights – accelerating journey times, at least in theory.

During the day, a conductor will be on board, though offering advice and ensuring safety, rather than selling tickets – a clippie without a cause. At other times, the rear platform doors will be closed between stops.

Aesthetically and environmentally, the bus impresses. The designers have retained the rounded corners and friendly fascia of its 1950s namesake, and added retro notes inspired by the streamlining of US streetcars. The lower saloon is agreeably accessible, while the upper deck provides elevated all-round vision that other cities’ buses cannot emulate. Even the décor – deep maroon – and the neat, spare finishing on the stairways acknowledges the inspired design of the Fifties’ bus.

TfL claims that the Routemaster’s fuel consumption is 11.6 miles per gallon, exactly twice the figure for ordinary diesel buses. It is a true hybrid, running for much of the time on its batteries, abetted only when necessary by a diesel engine. Much of the time it runs with only a gentle hum, in the manner of a trolleybus – improving life for passengers and those along the route. Stops are announced electronically, together with a new warning to “Watch out for traffic when leaving the bus”.

In the British tradition of inauspicious transportation launches, though, the maiden journey proved fraught.

By noon, when the bus was scheduled to pick up its first passengers at the start of the route in Hackney, 58 prospective passengers were waiting – almost all bus enthusiasts. But although the capacity of the new bus should have been ample, many people were disappointed.

Transport for London (TfL) officials decided to leave space for passengers joining at subsequent stops, so the 38 closed its doors with several dozen prospective passengers standing on the pavement. The only way to board the bus was to try to out-run it. I caught up with the Routemaster at the next stop, where my £1.35 fare was accepted.

Waiting just down the road was an old-style Routemaster bus, chartered and dressed up by the transport union TSSA to protest against the new vehicle. “Bus fares up 50 per cent – sack Boris,” demanded a poster.

Boris Johnson, mayor of London, was notable by his absence from the first public run of the bus.

The TSSA calls the project his “Vanity Bus”, and claims each costs £1.4m, around five times more than an ordinary bus. This figure is reached by dividing the £11.4m cost of development by eight, the number of prototypes – all of which are expected to be running by May, when the election for Mayor of London takes place.

By then, the teething problems should be ironed out. The first bus made good progress along the Balls Pond Road, but just short of Islington Green it stopped for 15 minutes outside the Thumbs Up newsagent. A “software problem” kept the rear doors closed between stops. All attempts to fix it failed.

Only one “real” passenger was on board – Camille, a tourist from Paris who boarded in Islington en route to Piccadilly. She seemed unconcerned about sharing a bus overwhelmingly populated by middle-aged men:

“We have much better underground trains, but you have better buses,” she conceded.

Enthusiasts keen to try subsequent vehicles face a long wait; there'll be another bus along in a fortnight.