Boris Johnson's new bus: first ride of many

From Monday, for the first time in years on a proper route, Londoners can hop on a bus again. I took a preview ride on the new Borismaster on Thursday – and it was great.

As regular readers may know, I have reservations about the design. Some of those reservations remain. But the more I see it, the more I like it. Nor am I the only one. As we drove through the streets of central London, along the first route (the 38) that it will serve, heads turned. Small crowds of people gathered wherever it stopped, snapping pictures on their phones and having to be gently dissuaded from climbing on to the open platform.

It is quiet. It arrived at the stop with an electric hum. The ride is smooth, and it has more headroom than I remembered from the mockup. A long stripe of glass snakes all the way down the back, lighting up the curly rear staircase. The old Routemaster’s half-cab is no more (boo!) But its slatted, wood-effect floors, its classic dark-red interior, its conductors – and, above all, its platform at the back – return. Once more, from Monday, you can hop off between stops if the traffic is slow. Once more, you can run after the bus and haul yourself aboard. The authorities are treating us like adults again.

Now those reservations. I predict (justified) complaints about the lower-deck seating: very little of it is step-free, and quite a few seats face backwards. Bumping your head might still be a problem when you get up from some of the seats.

Although the buses will have conductors for most of the day, the conductor’s role has deliberately been made close to pointless. He or she will not take your money or swipe your Oyster card – which you must still tap in, a la bendy bus, on a reader by the doors. This is likely to restore to the network bendy-bus levels of fare evasion, one of the very reasons for getting rid of the old junction-blockers. The conductors’ main duty will be to supervise passenger security – but they will not be on duty after about 7pm, when the need for security is greatest.

All this feels like TfL’s sneaky bureaucracy (which never really wanted this bus) in action. By giving the conductors no real work to do, TfL is setting them up to be axed at the earliest possible moment. The rear platform will then be almost permanently closed, and the bus operated nearly all the time as a conventional one-person double-decker. Boris should put a stop to this transparent ploy. The conductors should sell tickets, and swipe Oyster cards, at people’s seats. They would easily pay for themselves in extra fare revenue gained.

No doubt, too, there will be teething problems with the new bus – as there are with everything new. There is only one of them at the moment, so in the first weeks even a minor problem will bring the entire Borismaster service to a juddering halt. London traffic and London passenger loads are demanding, and the sole bus will be battling them for 18 hours a day. The Borismaster has a small but committed chorus of joyless haters who will inflate every flat tyre into a new humiliation for the mayor. (If Ken Livingstone had done this, they would of course love it. The new bus, however, is possibly the only thing on earth that Ken has promised not to spend money on.)

But you know what, I think most people will love this thing. It feels surprisingly modern: “sleek,” “forward-looking” and “classy” were the kinds of words that came from the passers-by I grabbed.

According to David Hampson-Ghani, TfL’s project manager for the new bus, there are “no firm plans” to order any more than the initial eight. But there is, he says, a “high possibility” that TfL will place an order for a further 30 to 50 – enough to convert a complete route – in July, and “the intention is to order hundreds.”

Most of all, this vehicle is a giant red smack in the face for the cheap, nasty and degraded new PFI hospitals, schools – and buses – with which this country has been splattered. Right down to its chunky bell-pushes, the Borismaster is thrillingly evocative of an age when form and function mattered in the public sector, when things were designed to please, to work, and to last. At £1 for each person in London, who can complain about that?

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