Five years of the New Routemaster. How has Boris Johnson’s hallmark policy fared?

by Dave Hill

Five years have passed since the New Routemaster, also known as the “Boris Bus”, went into full service on one of the capital’s 700 routes – the prestigious No 24, linking Hampstead and Pimlico, via Trafalgar Square. There has been no noticeable marking of this anniversary, which should not surprise us much: Johnson’s successor Sadiq Khan has ordered no more of the vehicles and those who dislike it have always made more noise those who do. It is, though, an opportunity to reflect on a signature policy of the former Mayor and what judgement London history might make of it.

In some ways, the New Routemaster has had a raw deal. The loudest complaint about the earliest models was that they became mobile saunas on hot days, hence the jibe “Roastmaster”. However, according to my modest investigation at the time, the main problem in most of the vehicles was not so much temperature as lack of ventilation. This was rectified in later batches of the bus by providing windows that open to let in a balmy breeze.

Later, the Guardian wrongly claimed that, far from being powered by the cleanest available hybrid technology, the buses were “running almost entirely on diesel”. That is an impossibility. The way the “serial hybrid” vehicle is put together means the bus is not directly propelled by diesel fuel at all, but by an electric motor powered by a battery. The battery is charged in transit by a small diesel engine. This switches on only when the battery needs topping up. What happened was that cells in some of batteries wore out faster than they should have, meaning those batteries needed charging more often and, therefore, the diesel engines in some cases being in use more than they should have been. The faulty battery cells were replaced under warranty and the extra fuel burned was minimal.

The strongest arguments against the “Boris Bus” are less sensational. Its cost has been contentious since the project was conceived, with Johnson struggling to put a price on it during the 2008 election campaign and later saying he expected the bus industry to pay for its development. In fact, Transport for London had already pledged £3m towards that and later also bought the buses, which is unusual – normally, the bus operating companies do that. And although the New Routemaster set new environmental standards at the time, these would soon be matched by off-the-peg buses available for less money.

Was the extra expenditure justified? That is partly a matter of taste. Johnson sold the new bus to the electorate with a seductive and very Conservative blend of visionary enterprise and cultural revivalism, the latter driven by a conviction that Tory voters in particular yearned for the return of signature features of London’s famous original Routemaster. Chief among these were an open rear platform to enable passengers to “hop on” or “hop off” at will between stops and a second crew member, or conductor. But these began to disappear soon after the bus went into regular service. The conductors were an expensive luxury and without these “customer assistants”, as they were officially called, the rear platform could not stay open after all. There were also hopes that other cities would want their versions of the bespoke new London bus and pay TfL for the rights to its Thomas Heatherwick design, but none have ever been forthcoming.

The New Routemaster was never a direct replacement for the two-part articulated vehicles Johnson’s predecessor Ken Livingstone had introduced and which Johnson phased out, but Johnson relished criticising the “bendy”, partly on the grounds that its having three doors encouraged fare evasion – to some, it was known as “the free bus”. However, that very same feature was ingeniously incorporated into the Wrightbus creation. This, along with two internal staircases, meant the New Routemaster could hope to replicate the bendy bus’s strength in facilitating swift passenger exit and embarkation. But has that, therefore, also meant a lot of fare-dodging on the “Boris Bus”?

According to two surveys TfL conducted in 2016, fare evasion overall was “approximately 1% higher than the network average, which is currently running at 1.3%”, and direct comparison of evasion rates on New Routemasters and on other types of buses running through “similar areas” were found to be “broadly similar”. This fairly reassuring picture was, however, somewhat at odds with what a member of one of TfL’s revenue protection teams told me when I bumped into it mustered at a bus stop in East London earlier this week.

Do you get more fare-dodging on the New Routemasters? I asked.

“Yes.”

A lot more?

“Yes.”

Certainly, as a frequent bus-user, I quite often notice fellow New Routemaster passengers “forgetting” to swipe in.

Two months before Johnson stepped down as Mayor, in February 2016, TfL ordered a further 195 New Routemasters from manufacturer Wrightbus, bringing the total purchased up to 1000. The price per bus was a little lower than for previous batches, but the election of Khan in May that year ensured that they would, nonetheless, be the last the city purchased. At the end of last year, route 267 became the most recent to convert to the New Routemaster and also the final one. We have, therefore, reached peak Boris Bus. Should we be happy or sad?

That will depend on how you view the New Routemaster balance sheet in general and, in many cases, how you feel about Boris Johnson. Although there are now cleaner buses around, the Boris Bus remains one of London’s cleanest. Some find the look of them too fussy and the seating cramped, but others enjoy what Johnson called their “sinuous curves”, their retro moquette and flooring and their moody internal lights. Whatever your opinion, it will be a long time before they start to disappear. The typical lifespan of a London bus is 14 years. With only five having elapsed since the New Routemaster rolled out on to route 24, this particular legacy of the Johnson mayoralty looks set to last until at least 2030.

5 Comments

  1. I am not a fan of the NB4L. They are excessively hot and smelly and make me ill – unlike any other bus. There are other factors which need to be considered in any analysis. Firstly they seem to be disproportionately unreliable – some routes never manage a full roll out of the vehicles. There are still electrical failures which immobilise the vehicles completely. There are excessive numbers of buses allocated to run certain routes – in excess of the typical 10-12% “spare” allowance to allow for scheduled maintenance / inspections or accident repairs. I have also heard informed comments that the buses are expensive to run. TfL had to pay operators £2m because fuel consumption was outside the specified performance parameters (reported in official TfL papers). An example where operational risk now sits with TfL and not the operator. Obviously other buses also break down but operators manage to cope with this within normal spare vehicle parameters.

    The seating layout is, to be frank, appalling especially downstairs. The random mix of seat direction and variable seat pitch and cushion depths / heights is dreadful. No other bus is as bad as this. I still struggle to see Heatherwick / Wrightbus created such a mess.

    The original TfL business case papers, released to the Assembly Budget Sub Committee, showed that TfL never planned to have more than 250 buses in service with customer assistants. Therefore the “bring back the old days” mantra from Mr Johnson was a deception at least and, in truth, a lie. Assuming he read TfL papers or was briefed on their contents then he knew this from day one.

    Finally I fear that there will be plenty more NB4L conversions as poor souls in the suburbs will have these monstrosities foisted on them as TfL cascade the buses off central London routes. Big cuts are due to several NB4L routes which will release significant numbers of the buses in the next 12-15 months. I suspect that if TfL had the money that the current Mayor would prefer to stand the vehicles down and replace them with electric or hydrogen buses but finances don’t allow for it. TfL also have a small issue of needing to rapidly upgrade 300+ euro5 NB4Ls to euro6 standard by April next year when the ULEZ starts. It is unclear how TfL will achieve this but an early cut back to a NB4L route (the 48?) to release a large float of buses could facilitate the conversion programme.

    I know you are trying to be as even handed as possible and I’m not really but I am far from sure that there is much of a positive story about the New Bus for London. It is far too reminiscent of past London Transport “adventures” into the use of innovative vehicle types, few of which ever concluded satisfactorily.

    • Thank you for your excellent comment. I too have problems with the downstairs seating, because travelling backwards tends to make me queasy (same happens in black cabs).

    • While there were plenty of electric single deckers there were no double ddeckers until very recently. Trials started in March 2016 and last month TfL announced that Alexander Dennis and Optare would be supplying 68 electric double deckers for route 43 and route 134 (both operated by Metroline).

  2. The Boris Bus was a failure from the moment the bus operating companies like Go Ahead and Stagecoach declined to buy them leaving TfL to step in.

  3. Bottom lines:
    1. if you want a proper bus, get engineers to do it: never a ‘designer’;
    2. if you want a transport system that works, don’t leave it to auto-turd-polishing politicians.

    The BoJo Boggler is a monster, a monument to egotism.

    It was sold to Londoners on false prospectus, a fantasy concocted by Policy Exchange, and by blatant lies — especially the fraudulent strikes against ‘Bendies’ (those discarded Mercedes Citaros still doing excellent service in provincial cities, with working air-conditioning).

    By the way, look at how service capacities and regularity had to be ‘trimmed’ to allow for the excess cost of those boon-doggles.

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