Ding! Hold tight! Routemaster era is ending after 50 years

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The Independent Online

You wait for one bus to come along ... and then more than 100 turn up all at once. Enthusiasts from all over the world are congregating in the capital this weekend at a jamboree to mark the 50th birthday of the Routemaster - a classic London icon as synonymous with the city as Buckingham Palace and Big Ben.

You wait for one bus to come along ... and then more than 100 turn up all at once. Enthusiasts from all over the world are congregating in the capital this weekend at a jamboree to mark the 50th birthday of the Routemaster - a classic London icon as synonymous with the city as Buckingham Palace and Big Ben.

But there is also sadness, and anger too. Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, has been gradually phasing out the elderly vehicles and replacing them with new single-decker Mercedes "bendy" buses - which many Londoners positively hate.

By the end of this year, only seven Routemaster-operated routes will remain, and they will be gone entirely before the end of 2005.

Transport for London claims the old buses, with their conductors and "hop-on, hop-off" platform at the back, simply aren't fit for the 21st century. New ticket machines next to stops now mean that 87 per cent of passengers have bought their ticket before they board - what need is there, claims TfL, for a conductor? Brussels's disability law decrees all buses must be wheelchair-accessible by 2013, thus hammering another nail in the coffin.

In the austerity of the post-war years, the Routemasters were just about the most revolutionary vehicles on the road, with Ferrari-style gearboxes and all-aluminium bodies long before Audi thought of the idea. They even had heaters at a time when many new cars didn't.

Colin Curtis, 78, one of the Routemaster's designers, says: "We knew what we wanted for London. It wasn't a case of going and buying what was being built for everyone else - like they do now. We designed our own.

"It also had to be a nice piece of street furniture. But she's got to go now. She's 50 years old."

TfL claims some Routemasters will be retained on an unspecified "heritage" route, but the bus's speedy demise has angered the many who idolise them. Andrew Morgan, the chairman of the Routemaster Association, said: "London is losing a classic icon forever and it's not being replaced. Everybody loves them, and everything that is replacing it hasn't got the same character. You only have to walk down Oxford Street to see the difference. It's a big loss for London."

The man charged with getting rid of the Routemaster admits that he is a fan. "They're fabulous old vehicles," said Peter Hendy, TfL's buses chief. "It's an iconic design - there is nothing else on the road now that was designed 50 years ago." However, Mr Hendy says, it's time for them to go. "Life moves on," he said. "It's fine to have nostalgia but you want something fit for the job. And the Routemasters just aren't."

More than 50 Routemasters were on display in Finsbury Park, north London, yesterday. There will be a parade of 112 buses in the park today. With plenty of redundant vehicles going spare, nostalgia buffs can pick up a decommissioned Routemaster for a mere £2,000. Finding somewhere to park it will be more of a problem, as the theatre impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh can testify. Andrew Lloyd Webber recently bought his friend an old Routemaster, but Sir Cameron is still searching for the ideal parking spot.

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