Just three weeks to go now until the bendy buses block their last streets, cut up their last cyclists, and make their longed-for final exit from London. Their rather more popular predecessor, the Routemaster, lasted 51 years. The bendy has managed nine. There are now only three bendy routes left – get your fare-dodging in soon – and with poetic symmetry, I’m told that the final day, on route 207, is expected to be Friday 9 December, precisely six years since the last Routemaster left normal service.
Boris’s new RM will enter passenger service in February – on, I can reveal, the 38 route from Victoria to Clapton. Entirely by coincidence, I’m sure, this route terminates virtually on the doorstep of Ken’s most devoted media groupie and diehard bendy-bus fan, the Guardian’s Dave Hill – so he’ll have to pass this symbol of Boris’s London every time he leaves his house!
The demise of the bendies has meant more buses, vastly more seats and increased, often dramatically increased, frequencies for passengers. Understandably, therefore, despite the predictions (hopes?) of Dave and other axe-grinders, the change has worked well. Even in the heritage artefact that is Ken Livingstone’s 2012 election campaign, a pledge to reintroduce bendies has been conspicuously absent. The arrival of the bendy and the demise of the Routemaster was, in retrospect, the beginning of the end for Ken: an early sign that the great rebel had lost his old popular touch.
According to TfL, getting rid of the bendies – including the dramatic frequency increases – has cost, overall, an extra £302,000, an increase of less than 0.3% (there has also been a one-off cost of £2.2 million for the last two routes, the 29 and 207, to break the contracts early.) These extra costs are, says TfL, comfortably outweighed by what they expect to be an annual saving of £7.4 million from reduced fare-dodging.
At the Evening Standard party last week I teased Peter Hendy, the London transport commissioner who is the true father of the bendy bus, about this historic end of an error. Would there be a special ceremony on the 9th, I asked? A sinking, rather than a launch? Hendy thought there would – though he was, alas, not keen on a proposal by Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson to ceremonially blow a bendy up.
Some things about the day we can be fairly sure of. Mourning crowds will not gather for the historic event. Tickets for the last run will not change hands for large sums on eBay. A special bendy heritage service will not be operated for tourists. And given the buses’ history of spontaneous combustion, if Clarkson is willing to pay real money for one, what could be a more fitting end?