THE NEW BUS TO BOW
Route 8: Tottenham Court Road - Bow Church Length of journey: 7½ miles, 65 minutes
Ten years ago I rode the last, the very last, Routemaster on route 8 to Bow. Since then the route's been run by boxy Tridents, the workhorse of the London fleet, shuttling back and forth between the West End and the East End in an entirely undramatic manner. And today the number 8 converts back to the so called New Routemaster, the shiny curvaceous vehicle that's turning heads on the streets of Bow. Most local residents don't follow the media like you or I, so the alien appearance of the New Bus for London is cause to stand and stare. Its been a gradual rollout, not an overnight replacement, so I managed to ride the newborn 8 home last night during Friday evening's rush hour.
In 2004 the number 8 ran from Victoria, but no longer, this as part of TfL's plans to reduce the number of buses clogging Oxford Street. It no longer runs from Oxford Circus either, this time thanks to Crossrail buggering up local sidestreets, but begins instead from a short-term long-term terminus on Tottenham Court Road. The bus stand is opposite where Time Out's HQ used to be, beside a row of former hi-fi shops being ripped apart for a new development. It's here that I wait patiently for a couple of decade-old vehicles to depart before it's the next New Routemaster's turn. I give the black-wrap Adidas sponsored marketing-bus a miss too, and plump instead for the ordinary red version. The driver munches a chocolate digestive while his official rest break ticks over, and chats with another driver who's getting a lift back to the garage. Eventually three doors open, the Oyster readers power up, and we're off.
I'm doing something I don't normally do on a blogged bus ride, I'm sitting downstairs. I'm not here for the view, I'm here to watch how the bus functions, so the ideal seat is the raised foursome above the rear set of wheels. The New Routemaster has 22 seats downstairs, twelve facing forwards and ten facing back. Our spare driver takes the opportunity of a nigh-empty bus to nip round and try out the seating for himself... and is not impressed. "The passenger seats are so uncomfortable," he says. "There's no legroom, and every time I sit down I bash my knees." We detour slowly through Bloomsbury, past end-of-the week drinkers overspilling on to the pavement outside happy hour bars, before finally orientating east. It's going to be a long ride home.
Given the time of day I'm expecting a rush, but a rush never comes. Instead commuters file in a few at a time as we pass through the West End, at which point it becomes increasingly fascinating to watch where everyone sits. There are six passengers and six forward-facing double seats, and so far we've instinctively occupied one each. So where will the next go? One slips into a backwards seat overlooking the rear platform, but the next few entrants scan the scene and head straight up the stairs. The rear-facer near the driver is next to be half-filled, and only eventually does a bloke with a Selfridges bag deign to join me, staggered, in my booth of four. For all the new bus's increased cross-sectional area, passengers don't seem keen to use its downstairs efficiently.
Alas on route 8 the New Routemaster is in austerity mode. There's no money for a conductor, or a passenger service agent as the lingo has it, so every bus runs with driver only and the rear door closed. I dunno, you build a bus especially to permit open platform freedom, and then you sign a long-term contract for one-person operation. The rear door therefore only opens when the other two do, and on this bus it appears to close quicker too, as if the driver has a special button. One lady slow to descend the back stairs finds the rear door closed prematurely and has to ding to get it reopened. At another stop a young couple make a dash for the bus only to find the rear door closing on them, so are forced to dash further to board in the middle and at the front. Most Londoners may think the open platform is the best thing about the New Routemaster, but on route 8 that reality is non-existent.
At St Paul's an old couple are crossing the road in front of us against the lights. Our driver attempts to honk them but accidentally presses the windscreen wipers instead, which flap embarrassingly to and fro before he finds the horn. It's a rookie mistake, and all the more obvious given that the evening's threatened downpours have failed to materialise. As we pass through the City it's financial hometime, with hundreds of suits heading to the tube with gymbag in hand or stopping off at the nearest bar for a drink. Few of these moneyed folk stoop to boarding the bus to the East End, so the downstairs of our vehicle is still relatively empty. Indeed a number of passengers have draped bags across the seat next to them, partly because they can, and partly because there's not much space to squeeze them in on the floor.
The bus stop outside Liverpool Street station is closed, but we still pause alongside because of the traffic lights. This is precisely the sort of situation where the open platform ought to be a winner, except of course it's closed, so passengers have to stay on to the next stop just like this was a normal bus. Along Norton Folgate we pass TfL's special silver Routemaster, which appears to be in general service on Route 8, running in the opposite direction. And then it's Shoreditch, where I'm joined in the rear foursome by an archetypal hipster. Gelled-back hair with shaved sides ✓ Oakley sunglasses ✓ Inch-long straggly beard ✓ Wine-red trousers ✓ Trendy rucksack ✓ New Balance trainers ✓ E-book ✓. It's the first sign that the on-board clientèle is changing, from office and tourist types to 'ordinary' residents of East London.
Here they come, on Bethnal Green Road, the families and the estate dwellers. We get our first pushchair, which prompts the driver to play a message I've not heard before - "For your Childs safety please remain with your buggy". Perhaps the two grammatical errors in the third word annoy only me, but seriously, who programs this stuff? We pause while a washing machine is pushed ahead of us across the street, and finally the downstairs of the bus is becoming busy. I count 24 of us, plus the baby, which is more than the number of lower deck seats and yet several remain stubbornly empty. In particular it seems nobody wants to sit touching shoes and kneecaps with me and the hipster, nor to squeeze into the foursome on the other side, because the New Routemaster's rear-facing double seats are poison.
The hipster slips off on Roman Road, pressing the bell with a satisfyingly retro ding. On-board aural stimulation then declines somewhat as we're forced to listen in on one woman's very loud Estuary English phone conversation. "I'm on a number 8 Pauh," she says, and then asks Paul to buy her a saveloy and chips before she gets home. The takeaway theme continues as the adjacent girl on the pink iPhone rings up for a vegetarian samosa with Bombay potatoes, then uses a 25% off voucher to top up her Rogan Josh. It's as if nobody on the estates of Bow has a kitchen, or maybe this is just a Friday night state of mind. Whatever, the contrast between these streets and the heart of the City is profound.
Our vehicle is now emptying fast, and by Parnell Road very few of us remain for the long final hop. I take the opportunity to nip upstairs, partly for the view across the concrete works into the Olympic Park, and partly to see what the temperature's like. I'm pleased to report that the aircon on this new vehicle is humming away and working well, with a light chill that's a little more pleasurable than being downstairs, and not the roasting sauna some might have predicted. But top or bottom the smell of the interior isn't great - it never is aboard a New Routemaster - and always reminds me of the whiff of incontinence from an old people's home I used to visit.
Three police officers are standing on patrol as we circle the Bow Roundabout - one almost waves - and then we're on the homeward straight. I'm staying on past Bow Church to the stop before the garage, the same as I did on that final Routemaster journey ten years ago. This time there's no BBC film crew on board, no Union Jack draped across the radiator, no gaggle of Men Who Bus bemoaning the passing of an era. Instead the New Routemaster is the new status quo, taking over the whole of my local bus route as of the early hours of this morning. We'll get used to its idiosyncrasies, and live with its imperfections, and even stop staring as its unfamiliar form rumbles past. But however attractive it looks from the street, inside it's still a conductor-enabled conductor-free vehicle, its potential on route 8 unfulfilled for several years to come.