Boris Johnson's new bus: only twelve days to go as another city dumps bendies

In the city of York, just as in London, the utter unsuitability of bendy buses became a political issue. At last year’s York elections, just as in London, the incumbent party was defeated by a rival which promised to scrap the “costly disaster” of the bendy bus. Ken Livingstone types slagging off the removal of their beloved junction-blockers as a Tory plot should know that York’s victorious anti- bendy party was… Labour.

In accordance with their election promise, York’s new Labour rulers have announced that the council-subsidised bendy bus service will end in April. The bendies will be replaced by double deckers. What a shame.

In accordance with his election promise, Boris’s new open-platform Routemaster hits the streets of Hackney on February 27 for its first day carrying fare-paying passengers (passengers more likely to be paying their fares than on the bendies, anyway.) Bus-spotters will need to set their alarm clocks: the maiden voyage, on route 38 to Victoria, leaves Hackney garage at 6.09am. (TfL’s timekeeping fairy has been in action again – the first day has just been put back from the 20th.)

There are only two of the buses to begin with, so for the moment most of the 38 will still be run by the old double-deckers. There will be no Borismaster service, for now, at the weekends or at all on the northernmost extremity of the route, between central Hackney and Clapton Pond (there are thought to be concerns about the social makeup of the Clapton neighbourhood, with an over-concentration of lower-echelon media figures.) But on Mondays to Fridays there will be buses in each direction throughout the day and evening from Day One.

The buses will leave Hackney Central at 0609, 0708, 0753, 0927, 1031, 1221, 1321, 1507, 1611, 1743, 1942, 2026, 2211 and 2253.

They will leave Victoria at 0657, 0812, 0904, 1044, 1148, 1338, 1438, 1619, 1725, 1857, 2055, 2136, 2317 and 2353.

I will be riding on the first day (if probably not at 6am) unless the Daily Telegraph sends me off on another foreign job, as it infallibly has at all previous milestones in this story. I will also be running a competition, with prizes, for the stupidest and most joyless piece of lefty sour-grapes about the new bus – get thinking now!

Bye bye bendies as Boris's new Routemaster makes first appearance

Not long after midnight tonight, London’s last bendy buses, from route 207, will crawl, unmourned, into a shed somewhere near Willesden, the historic end of an error. As Boris Johnson puts it, “We bid a final, but not fond, farewell to the bendy bus. These bulky and ungainly monstrosities were always more suitable for the wide open vistas of a Scandinavian airport than for London’s narrow streets and I am glad to see the back of them.

“While it is goodbye to the bendy, it is hello to the svelte and elegant new bus for London, which will grace the capital’s streets from early next year.”

In fact, I can reveal, you won’t have to wait that long: the first open-platform Borismaster will arrive at Trafalgar Square in exactly one week’s time, before beginning revenue service on route 38 in February.

There is to be a special, Dreyfus-style bendy repudiation ceremony at Willesden depot this afternoon, at which a bus will have its TfL markings and Oyster card readers ceremonially removed in front of media witnesses. I was looking forward to being present at the execution, but alas I have had to go to Brussels for the day job (the management of the Daily Telegraph for some reason seems to think that the fate of Europe is more important than the bendy bus).

The Ken Livingstone Left’s infallible homing instinct for the most unpopular causes in London (such as calling on people to “speak for” the rioters) has today once again been deployed in defence of the bendy bus. Val Shawcross, Ken’s running-mate, claims that the Borismasters will cost £1.6 million each, and will only operate on one route. The prototypes will indeed cost about £1.6 million – prototypes are always expensive – but hundreds of these buses will be brought into service, operating on far more than one route, and the average cost of each bus will be massively less.

Shawcross has form for this sort of nonsense – in 2008, she claimed that scrapping the bendies on just the first three routes would cost £12-13 million a year. In fact, according to TfL, the cost for all 12 routes will be £302,000 a year, a drop in real terms. (There is also a one-off cost of  £2.2 million this year only.)

Even the BBC has fallen for some of the lies, claiming that the bendies’ scrapping “could mean fewer seats.” This is also untrue. There has in every route converted been more seats, usually far more, and higher frequencies as well, often dramatically higher, hence the fractionally higher annual operating cost. Isn’t it bizarre that the likes of Shawcross are actually campaigning against better bus services?

What there will be less of in some cases is that weasel word, “capacity,” in other words standing space. But who wants to stand? On the new double-deckers, far fewer people have to. The predicted capacity problems have in every case failed to materialise, probably because the thousands of fare-dodgers who used the bendies have vanished with them. Of course, the vagaries of traffic and bus operations mean that some journeys, on any kind of bus, will always be overcrowded. But overall, just as on every other bendy-converted route, passengers on the 207 from tomorrow will notice that what was an 18-hour-a-day sardine-tin becomes a less crowded and more pleasant experience.


Boris Johnson: the bendy bus is now just days from death

Ken Livingstone's chariots of fire

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?

Scrapping bendies on just one route saves £5k a week in faredodging

Bendy buses are on the way out (Photo: Daniel Jones)
Bendy buses are on the way out (Photo: Daniel Jones)

Here’s a cut we can all approve of: Transport for London says that Boris Johnson’s scrapping of bendy buses has reduced fare-dodging by more than three-quarters.

TfL has monitored fare evasion on the 38, the only major trunk route to be converted so far. It says that in February 2009, when the 38 was still covered by a bendy, 6.4% of all passengers dodged paying their fares. By February 2010, the fare-dodging rate was down to 1.5%.

The 38 carries about 13 million passengers a year. So even allowing for the large numbers of people who legitimately travel free, the move from bendies to double-deckers on just this one route alone is on course to save at least an extra £260,000 of lost fares in its first twelve months – or £5,000 a week.

This doesn’t fully make up for the cost of the huge number of extra buses that were provided on the 38 when it was converted back to double-deck operation: but that was the result of a deliberate and massive over-provision that will hopefully be reduced over time, and will not be done on the same scale in future bendy conversions. All the “old” double-deck routes, before being converted to bendies, were cheaper, often much cheaper, than the bendies which replaced them.

The fascinating thing about the three bendy route conversions to date is how smoothly it has gone, and how completely all the shroud-wavers – with their predictions of chaos, stranded passengers and the rest – have fallen silent. Even in the extraordinary heritage replica that is Ken Livingstone’s campaign to return to office in 2012, bringing back the bendy is just about the only policy he hasn’t resurrected.

Roll on the final destruction of these loathsome vehicles  – the 18 and 149 by the end of the year, all the rest by the end of 2011. The fare-dodgers will hate it, but the rest of us will be millions of pounds in credit.