Boris Johnson’s new son-of-Routemaster bus will be staffed by conductors, and its rear platform kept open, for at least twelve hours a day, London Buses’ operations director, Mike Weston, has said.
I couldn’t make the official launch of the mocked-up bus back in November, so Mr Weston and David Hampson-Ghani, the project manager for the new bus, kindly gave me a personal tour. I very much appreciated their giving up their time to do this.
“We will double-staff all the buses for the majority of the day, from the beginning of the morning rush hour to the end of the evening rush hour,” said Mr Weston. Between at least 7am and 7pm, you will be able to jump on and off to your heart’s content.
The danger, of course, is that the conductors will have too little to do and will not last very long. The plan at the moment, says Weston, is that they will help you board, but not collect fares; passengers will tap in, as on bendy buses. But it makes very little sense to have someone on board and not checking tickets; the arrangement should be that, as on the old RM, people get on without paying, sit down, and wait for the conductor to come to them (tap their Oyster card or even, you know what, collect their money.) This would speed up boarding and reduce fare evasion. We don’t want the new Routemaster to become known as the “free bus,” do we?
The all-day conductors are the first piece of good news. The second piece of good news about the bus is that it is aesthetically a very attractive vehicle, particularly inside. The horrible colours used inside modern buses and trains – typically a depressing grey and a cold blue that makes you feel like you’re sitting inside a fridge – have been binned. Instead there is a much warmer, more attractive colour palette close to the deep red used in the old Routemaster.
The seats are covered in a very good modern update of the London Transport red moquette and the rear platform has a wood-effect slatted floor, another pleasing colour and another Routemaster design cue. The saloon lights are much nicer than standard bus and train inside-of-the-fridge fluorescent strips.
The front is still fairly undistinguished, resembling nothing so much as a first-generation one-person double-decker; but the sides and the rear make very attractive use of glass. This is quite a heavy material, but the TfL pair assured me it could be used without affecting the bus’s fuel economy.
The new RM will use a hybrid drive and the target for fuel economy is 9.8 miles per gallon. If this can be achieved (current diesel double-deckers only do 5mpg) it will be a conclusive rebuttal of the charge that this is a vanity project. Can it be achieved? Well, TfL’s current hybrid deckers are only managing 6.1mpg, so we shall see.
Some changes appear to have been made from the initial images displayed to the press. There will be seats at the front of the top deck, a major concern of mine when I wrote about the bus last year.
So several of the concerns that I had have been allayed. My greatest worry, the lack of seats, still remains, however, and has if anything increased. The thing that most passengers want from their bus is a seat; that was where the bendy fell down so badly. Even though the new bus will be at least a foot longer than existing, already unwieldy, modern double-deckers, it will have between two and ten fewer seats (and ten fewer than in the most common version of the old Routemaster, the RML.)
The most serious design flaw of modern deckers, though hyped as step-free, low-floor and so on, is their lack of seats, particularly step-free ones. The new bus is even worse. There are only 22 seats downstairs, of which only ten have step-free access. The remaining seats on the lower deck have an often rather high step up to them. Ten is a hopelessly small number, fewer even than the worst existing double-deckers, which have 16 step-free seats.
A further problem is that ten of the 22 seats on the lower deck face backwards, something which most passengers dislike and which makes some people feel sick. This is again more than on existing deckers.
The floor in the lower saloon is not flat. Between the middle and rear doors, it slopes gently up then down again, presumably to accommodate the rear axle or something. This is bad news for mobility-impaired passengers, who also don’t have much in the way of rails to hang on to at this point. I can see people falling down here if the bus stops suddenly.
The seating problems occur because unlike any other double-decker I can think of, this one is somehow deemed to require two staircases, in the centre and at the rear; and three doors, at the front, centre and rear. I am wholly unconvinced by TfL’s explanation – that this is to improve passenger flow and reduce conflicting movements of upstairs and downstairs passengers.
Because on the new RM, again contrary to my previous understanding, you will always be able to enter or leave the bus by any door. You will not have to go in at the front. When the bus is in one-person mode, the rear door will still be opened, at stops, by the driver.
Scrapping the centre door and staircase would actually, therefore, result in less conflict than in the proposed design, since upstairs passengers would not need to pass through the lower saloon at any time. It would also create perhaps as many as eight extra seats, at least half of them low-floor.
I sat in every seat during my look at the bus and spotted a second design flaw: the presence of an air-cooling system, run above the seats, which leaves several, particularly the offside window seats in the lower saloon, with wholly insufficient headroom. A lot of people in these seats will bang their heads when they get up.
The answer here is simply to scrap the air-cooling system in favour of the simple, green and space-creating expedient of having windows that open. There isn’t a single opening window on the new RM.
Sealing the windows so that passengers bake, then installing elaborate, technocratic, power-consuming air-con to try to solve the problem you have created, is classic “crap bus designer mentality” in action – and a useful reminder that for all its good points, this project does come from the same people, the volume bus manufacturers, who have given us some of the most dismally ill-designed vehicles of any description on Britain’s roads today.
But overall, I am less hostile to the new Routemaster than I was. The lower deck seating still needs to be ironed out. But the aesthetic of the bus, and the promise to have conductors for most of the day, will make a real difference to passengers’ experience.