Footnotes: on the demise of the Routemaster, 2006


Another post saved from Londonshelf, which has gone to the great bloghosting in the sky. This one’s on the decision to take the last of the old Routemaster buses out of service.

End of the line
Jonn Elledge argues that the demise of the Routemaster is no bad thing.

I have to confess something that, in London these days, seems to be roughly on a par with admitting to pig molestation: I don’t like Routemaster buses. They pollute; they’re uncomfortable; in winter they’re freezing cold by the open door, yet coma-inducingly hot on the top deck. Worst of all, the ceilings are so low that any passengers over six foot tall are in serious danger of ending up locked in a permanent Quasimodo pose.

My distaste is partly because of a lack of emotional attachment. I grew up in a zone 6 suburb served mainly by ugly modern double deckers that were not even guaranteed to be red, and which were timetabled so infrequently that you were generally grateful to have found a bus at all. Despite having moved into town in 2002 I have always lived in an RM-free zone. As a result, no matter how many times I read that the Routemaster is an icon, a key part of London’s heritage, I can’t muster any more than a shrug.

Yet everywhere the demise of the curvy red one seems to have been greeted by an outpouring of antigonean proportions. MPs are begging for a reprieve. BBC4 is broadcasting “Routemaster Night” on the 10th of December, while Last Stop!, a website documenting the buses’ last days put together by photographers Jet and Ralf Obergfell, has become a cult hit. Tributes have popped up in the Times, Telegraph and Observer, as well as newspapers as far afield as India and Pennsylvania. It’s like Princess Diana all over again: you half expect to see people weeping as they take the 159 for the last time, or hear of a candlelit vigil at Streatham bus garage.

The RMs do have their plus points, of course. There’s always a conductor on hand to help the older passengers onto the bus, and discourage younger ones from defacing each other. What’s more, the open deck meant that when stuck in traffic you could jump off and walk, rather than endure the frustrating experience of being within sight of your destination but in the hands of a driver who seemed mysteriously unwilling to let you go.

But nonetheless, Transport for London has argued that these qualities were outweighed by the buses’ very real problems. The presence of a conductor made them disproportionately expensive to run. The open deck is near inaccessible for the disabled, and there is a nasty tendency for people to injure themselves while attempting to board an accelerating bus. Getting up the narrow, twisting stairs to the top deck was little safer. Like that game with the twisted wire and the buzzer designed to test how steady your hands were, you were always aware that if you made one wrong move you were going straight back to the start. The thing was, here the result wasn’t an annoying noise but an unexpected trip to A&E: according to TfL, five times as many passengers are injured per Routemaster per year than on other types of bus.

A couple of years ago TfL ran an advertising campaign involving posters that cheerily proclaimed, “Buses are getting better!” The thing that makes this campaign stick out in the mind was that it is, as far as I can tell, true: there are more buses, the congestion charge and other measures have made them faster, and better information at bus stops has made you less likely to inadvertently find yourself in Dulwich. Buses really have got better – and the replacement of the Routemasters with newer, safer, more comfortable alternatives is a necessary part of that process.

Those who long for a ‘real’ London bus can still take a trip on one of the “Heritage routes” now running in central London. Personally, I’ll settle for a bendy bus and the ability to stand up straight.

The last Routemaster in regular service ran on route 159,leaving Marble Arch for Streatham at noon, on Friday December 9th 2006.

Eighteen months later, Boris Johnson was elected mayor under the impression that’d it’d be a pretty neat idea to blow £7.8 million failing to bring them back again. Can’t win them all, I suppose.


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