The Routemaster Bus
Routemaster RML double decker London bus
The bright red double decker bus has been a symbol of London for half a century, and the Routemaster is the classic type, introduced in the early 1950s and finally phased out of normal use late in 2005. Its outstanding feature was the easy-access open platform at the back, ideally suited to London's clogged streets, allowing passengers to quickly get on or off at stops or even at traffic lights or slow speeds (as the picture shows).
Travellers also appreciated the presence of a bus conductor, who was able to collect fares after the bus got moving instead of the less efficient system on later front-entry buses of having to queue at the door to pay the driver on entry, before taking a seat and the bus finally moving off.
Earlier types of London bus such as the 1929 LT and the 1930s TD and RT had rear-access open platforms and a conductor as well as a driver, but were not unique to the capital – they were also in use other British towns and cities, and British-type double deckers were (and are still) popular in parts of the far east: India, Hong Kong, and Singapore – but the iconic bus is the London Routemaster, alongside the equally bright red British telephone box and postbox.
The development of the Routemaster
The Routemaster bus was unveiled in 1954 when a prototype was exhibited at the Commercial Motor Show at Earls Court. Designed and built by London Transport in close co-operation with AEC (Associated Equipment Company Ltd), it was first put into service in 1956 and went into full scale production in 1959.
It was an inherent fitness for purpose in the busy streets of the capital rather than outright design brilliance which assured the Routemaster its longevity within the London transport system. In fact many commentators thought it was obsolete even before it was launched. For a bus, its design was sophisticated, with an all-aluminium body that did not require a chassis and with independent front suspension, power steering, an automatic gearbox, and power-hydraulic braking. But the front engine and rear open platform was felt to be at odds with the trend towards the improved operating efficiency of the more modern 'Atlantean' design with a transverse rear engine, front doors, and single person operation.
The first Routemasters – the RM type – were 27 feet 6 inches long, had 64 seats, and a 9.6-litre engine. When the regulations governing the length of buses were relaxed, a lengthened version classified as the RML was introduced in 1961 with an additional 2 feet 6 inches bay in the centre of the bodywork, a longer driveshaft, and an 11.3-litre engine. Twenty four of the longer buses went into service that year but it was only in 1965 that the 72-seat thirty footer RMLs were introduced to the Country Area routes on the periphery of the London area and subsequently became the standard model. At 7.75 tons the RML was some 2 tons lighter than the modern double decker bus and only 2 cwt heavier than the shorter RM. The additional bay can be seen at the centre of the bus in the picture above.
Frequent modifications were made as time went by, partly as styling enhancements but also because the Routemaster suffered from reliability problems. The buses were prone to breakdowns and in a purely commercial environment the fleet would have been written off and replaced, but London Transport was a public service and was able to persevere and make its Routemasters work.
In a sense the Routemaster was a 'family' of bus designs. The 57-seat RMC (Routemaster Coach) was built from 1962 with fully enclosed rear platforms with electrically-operated doors, and with air suspension, fluorescent lighting, different interior trim, luggage racks, and twin headlamps. In 1964 the RMF was built for Northern General Transport of Gateshead in the North East, with a forward staircase and entrance. BEA (British European Airways) purchased 65 Routemasters in 1966/67, also with a forward staircase and entrance but to the shorter 27 feet 6 inches length and with a larger AEC engine so that luggage trailers could be towed.
For detailed information about London bus classes visit Ian's Bus Stop, an outsider's view of London Transport buses, mainly in the 1930-1980 era (includes Ian Smith's own drawings as well as photographs).
The turn of the tide: the switch to OPO
During the 1970s London Transport switched many routes to OPO (one person operation) buses in the push for economies, and began to dispose of its rear-entry buses to other regional companies or to the scrap yard. The Routemaster's decline was temporarily arrested in the 1980s in the interests of customer service. The OPO's increased boarding time, while passengers queued to pay the driver, was slowing down busy routes and causing bunching. Nowadays in central London the problem has been largely solved: bus tickets are bought from street machines before boarding, and the Oyster card has also made an impact.
500 Routemasters were refurbished in 1992/94 alongside assurances from the Mayor of London that the Routemaster would long remain part of the London street scene, but the combined forces of bus route privatisation and accessibility legislation have proved unstoppable. Market forces and political correctness have brought with them the end of a national institution. But like the steam train, the Routemaster bus enjoys a loyal and extensive band of followers and thousands are maintained in working order by individuals, societies, and small private companies, not only in the United Kingdom but throughout the world.
Routemaster bus update
Boris Johnson, now the Mayor of London, would like to see a 'green' version of the Routemaster bus return to the streets of the city. Read more on the BBC website. There seems to be some doubt, however, as to whether replacing the single-decker 'bendy bus' with a revamped Routemaster is economically realistic, even on a few selected routes. This is because Boris wants the buses to have conductors as well as drivers, with the traditional hop-on hop-off platform at the back.
[ First published January 15th, 2007 ]