One of Boris's flagship policies is the production of a New Bus For London. At the moment however there's only one bus, and it doesn't work. It's a full-size prototype, designed to look red, curvy and futuristic, but also engineless so can't be driven anywhere. And it's currently on show at the London Transport Museum, where anyone can pay £13.50 to have a look at it. But last night (and again next Friday) the museum opened late with the express intention of allowing Londoners to take a look inside the New Bus for nothing. Bargain. Might have seen you there.
They've lined up the New Bus on the museum floor next to a 50 year-old Routemaster, where last night both were drawing admiring glances. This juxtaposition is particularly instructive because the New Bus is supposed to have been inspired by the Routemaster and yet the two look completely different. A huge glass windscreen, diagonal black stripes and watering-can headlamps - you won't find those on the old 1960s workhorse. The only real connection is the rear platform, and even that's not especially similar. The New Bus platform has a glass door which folds back out of the way when there's a conductor around, and its pole is recessed so you can't hang onto it and drag behind the bus. The rear door will only be sealed off when unattended, but we were reassured that the driver will still have full control and will open it automatically at bus stops. One door at the back, a second door in the middle and a third door at the front... the TfL guide was very proud to point out that the New Bus will be a three door bus. Each of the three doors also has its own Oyster reader, for speedy boarding, which looks like it'll make means fare dodging fairly simple. In this respect, and in being longer than every other double decker on the road, I'm afraid Boris's beloved New Bus bears more than a passing resemblance to a bendy.
There was a very slow queue waiting to take a look inside the New Bus last night. Still few enough that every single one of us would have been able to board the real thing and get a seat (seated 62, standing 25, wheelchair 1), had we been allowed. But this mock-up isn't the real thing, so staff were rightly paranoid that if too many visitors boarded simultaneously the fragile floor might collapse. So it was six visitors at a time, one tour on the lower deck and another on the upper, which took absolutely ages to clear. "I haven't waited this long for a bus since the 1950s," said the gentleman waiting patiently in front of me. Forty minutes, near enough, it was, before either of us finally got inside. At this rate (this week and next) I reckon that about 0.002% of the population of London will have passed through the New Bus. It's not really a consultation, this, merely a very small-scale showcase.
"Welcome to the New Bus", said our guide, as we plonked down on the somewhat scary moquette. "Please note that there are three doors" (we'd noticed) "and a lot of glass" (great for looking out) "and a platform at the rear" (which I couldn't see because the seatback went quite high). She reassured us that the seating will be arranged differently in the real bus, and that the wheelchair space will be bigger, and that the lighting will be less harsh throughout. Indeed she insisted on telling us that several improvements have been made to the design in the six months since this mock-up was built, so if we saw anything we didn't like we shouldn't worry because it had probably already been changed. It seemed somewhat perverse to have queued for so long to see an interior that's already deemed out-of-date, but we got the general idea.
There are two staircases, which is new for London, and which should improve passenger flow between the decks. So while the other tour party were descending at the rear we nipped up the nine steps behind the driver to see upstairs. Blimey the roof's low up here. I'm about five foot ten and my head was a couple of inches below the ceiling, so long as I stayed in the centre, but anyone who's six foot anything is going to have to permanently duck. One of the reasons for the low ceiling is the New Bus's air-cooled ventilation system. If you find buses sweaty in the summer and steamed-up and stuffy in the winter then you're going to love this pioneering climate control. Conversely if you're the more resilient type then you'll probably think it's a complete waste of money and that a few opening windows upstairs might have been a nicer idea.
There'll be a fully functioning New Bus prototype by November, and five actual genuine New Buses in passenger service sometime in early 2012. That's later than planned, but perfectly timed to appear on London's roads just in time for next year's Mayoral elections. You won't be using them regularly soon, not when they'll comprise less than 0.1% of the capital's bus fleet, and you probably won't be using them at all if Ken gets re-elected. But if Boris gets another term at TfL's helm, and recession-funding allows, expect to see this streamlined vanity project winning more than a few hearts as it swoops by.