Routemasters reach the end of the road

Michael Williams,Sian Davies
Saturday 04 September 2004 00:00

It was the final "ding, ding!" yesterday for the world's most venerable and distinctive transport icon as 100 Routemasters were retired from three of London's busiest bus routes.

It was the final "ding, ding!" yesterday for the world's most venerable and distinctive transport icon as 100 Routemasters were retired from three of London's busiest bus routes.

After a 50-year reign as king of the road, the famous rear entrance, conductor-operated bus, as symbolic in its own way as Buckingham Palace, pea-soupers, pearly queens and Tower Bridge, will no longer be an everyday sight in the capital.

After going back on a mayoral pledge to save one of the few things about public transport in Britain that passengers actually love, Ken Livingstone refused to heed campaigners' last-minute pleas to reprieve the No 9, from Aldwych to Hammersmith, the No 73, from Victoria to Tottenham, and the No 390, from Marble Arch to Archway. But there was worse for many regular passengers and Routemaster fans. After the last bus pulled into Tottenham Garage at around 1.30 this morning, after 42 years of continuous operation, staff were preparing the notorious "bendy buses" to take over on this, the capital's busiest route. The Mercedes-built, articulated "bendies" have failed to charm Londoners with their reduced seating, characterless European looks and a tendency to catch fire - an affliction which Transport for London says it has now cured.

A combination of sadness and a carnival atmosphere marked the last day of Routemaster operations, with special-liveried and vintage buses plying the three routes and enthusiasts out in force. It was all a bit like the end of the trams in 1952.

Passengers, both young and old, on the No 73 from Victoria yesterday were unhappy about the changes. A South African tourist, Loren Naidu, 30, said: "It's a tragedy. You see them on all the pamphlets about London. Retiring them will lose a lot of character and the quaint atmosphere of the city." Bus enthusiast Richard Campbell, 43, was equally upset, stating that the "bendy buses" were unable to cope with the loads, timings and narrow streets of London. "Routemaster is London. They have outlasted all the modern buses and they are still going strong. The Mayor is determined to break all his campaign promises."

Even the bus conductors, forbidden by Arriva to express their thoughts on the subject, found it difficult to contain themselves over what was obviously an emotional and hugely contentious issue. Mark Beckham, 29, a self-confessed preservationist and bus conductor of several years, thought it was "just crazy". "North London will grind to a halt," he said. "Conductors and drivers are suffering from a lack of choice and there is no replacement for the classic buses. The wheelchair facilities on the new ones are very badly designed and the old buses had an air of quality about them. A London transport era has gone."

But yesterday was not quite the end. The six final routes will limp on, probably until next spring, although tourists may now find it hard to spot them. From today there will no longer be any Routemasters to be seen at the Tower, St Paul's, Euston or Liverpool Street. TfL has set 2005 as the deadline to kill them off, citing the Disability Discrimination Act, which requires that buses must be wheelchair-accessible by 2013, and the fact that an average of two people a year fall off the open back platform. It has pledged that some Routemasters will remain on a "heritage" route, but has not yet given any details.

The buses, though, are by no means life-expired. The last few hundred survivors were recently re-engined to comply with European emission standards. And although the first models were produced when Winston Churchill was Prime Minister and Frank Sinatra was top of the charts with "Three Coins in the Fountain", their engineering was revolutionary, with a Ferrari-style gearbox and all-aluminium construction long before Audi thought of the idea for cars.

Some people, particularly mothers with young children, hate the Routemaster, because its understairs recess is too short for a buggy. And its passing is a mixed blessing for others. Enthusiasts are delighting in the glut of secondhand models on the market, which can be picked up for as little as £2,000 each. Toy companies, producing reproductions for as much as £99, have not had such a boom since the 1950s. But the end is inevitable. As Peter Hendy, the man in charge of London's buses, says: "The RM belongs to the Morris Minor era. And you don't see many of those around in central London any more."

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