diamond geezer

 Monday, June 23, 2014

Yesterday, to celebrate the Year of the Bus, TfL laid on a cavalcade of buses in Regent Street. I didn't set out with the intention of photographing them all, but when I got home I realised I almost had. I missed one, and a few buses only appear in the background of another shot, but I had the vast majority up front and obstruction-free. So here they are, in order from 1 to 48, plus a few extra pictures (taken on Saturday) of the Lego Bus Stop outside Hamleys. If you couldn't get along on the day, I hope these give a flavour of this unique event.

My Regent Street Bus Cavalcade gallery
There are 52 photos altogether [slideshow]

I imagine the conversation to set up the event went something like this...
The Crown Estate: We'd like to close Regent Street to traffic every Sunday in July.
TfL: Only if we can close it on a Sunday in June and fill it with buses.
The Crown Estate: Deal.

Certainly a phenomenal amount of organisation went into making the day a success. 48 vehicles were selected to cover the ongoing evolution of the London bus. Several of the older buses had to be borrowed from museums or private collections elsewhere, although some of the newer lot were merely whisked out of service and given a damned good clean. A lot of them were stored overnight at Stockwell Bus Garage, where some of us had clambered over them the day before when the queues weren't quite so long. And one alas didn't turn up, that's bus number 39, the Optare City Pacer, one of the tiny minibuses that used to shuttle round the lanes outside Orpington in the 1980s. But that left four dozen vehicles to be manoeuvred carefully into precisely the right place outside the shops, and then the public were invited in to gawp.

Some, I'd say most, had come deliberately to see the buses. The usual contingent of Men Who Like Buses were here, a few clutching notebooks and walking up the line to cross them off. Although many of the MWLB were older, one suspects single, gentlemen, all age ranges were represented including a couple of knots of very keen teenagers and some small children already on course to become the bus-chasers of tomorrow. What made this event different was the mix of enthusiasts, families and tourists who just happened to be shopping in Regent Street at the time. "Oh my god look at all the buses!" they exclaimed as they stumbled in, and for a while the delights of the cavalcade quite took their mind off buying some new clothes, toys, coffee capsules or whatever.

This vibrant mix of sightseers created a more extreme version than usual of the perennial MWLB problem. Men Who Like Buses like nothing better than a clear view of a bus to take a photograph. Unfortunately other members of the public don't always share the same priorities, and will insist on wandering into shot or pausing to check their phones in the most inappropriate place. In certain locations a phalanx of lenses were lined up on a particular bus awaiting that magic gap in the flow, and you could hear mutterings of abject frustration when a family dawdled into shot just as everything else cleared. Worse, several untrained visitors were interested only in taking selfies, or positioning their offspring or their other half immediately in front of the driver's cab. It may be the modern way, but much passive aggressive seething ensued.

The age range of the buses included in the cavalcade is interesting, as much for what wasn't there as for what was. Bus number 1, pulled by two rather splendid white horses, dated back to 1829, but then there was nothing for almost a century until the appearance of the first motorbus in 1908. The newly restored Battle Bus was the sole representative of the 1910s, and I think we deserve a list to show how the subsequent distribution by decade panned out.

Number of buses on show from each decade

The cavalcade's creators had managed to pull together about half a dozen buses per decade from the 1920s to the 1970s, with peak representation in the 1950s mainly because several types of Routemaster were chosen. But only two buses were plucked from the 1980s, and one of these you'll remember failed to turn up. And there was absolutely nothing in Regent Street from the 1990s or 2000s, this possibly because TfL weren't particularly proud of their bus stock, or maybe because they're not yet old enough to look appealingly vintage. No bendy bus was showcased, for example, but TfL were more than keen to show us all their latest cutting edge vehicles; electric hybrids, hydrogen powered single deckers, and of course the 'New Routemaster'.

Three New Routemasters were positioned at the Oxford Circus end of Regent Street. You might think that overkill, but in fact these had some of the longest queues to get aboard anywhere down the street. I put this down to the aesthetic allure of the vehicle, which is consistently admired, plus the fact they don't serve the suburbs which means that most Londoners have yet to see inside. One of the new vehicles was genuinely a bus of the future, scheduled to start next weekend on Route 8 from Bow, which provided me with a sneak preview of my new local bus service (odd smell inside, check; rather warm on the upper deck, check). I made sure to check out the metal plaque halfway up the stairs, which declares this a New Routemaster, whereas the plaque on the silver bus behind was screwed in with the original 2012 name, the New Bus For London. But the original New Routemaster could be found further back down the street, that's RM5 from 1959, proudly emblazoned with precisely this name on a panel above the rear numberplate, which must have TfL's modern branding gurus in a spin.

There was plenty more to see up and down the cavalcade, not just buses to admire. The TfL Choir popped out every hour and sang a selection of old songs, encouraging those watching to join in. Emma Hignett, the voice of modern iBus announcements, was on hand to record your choice of words into your mobile phone. The LT pop-up canteen was on hand to serve up fish burgers and raspberry doughnuts, and a rather sweaty-looking pigeon performed to keep the youngest visitors amused. Meanwhile outside Hamleys the temporary Lego Bus Stop was thronging with delighted folk, in complete contrast to Saturday when the ordinary travelling public had barely noticed it at all. Yes it really is all made of plastic blocks, even the timetable surround, and the mock Countdown display, and the seats. If you haven't seen it yet, you have four weeks.

Hidden inside the ordinariest-looking bus of all, a plain old number 12 from Dulwich, were some new bits of onboard technology which TfL boffins are testing. One set-up uses the on-board CCTV to count the precise number of empty seats on the upper deck and then displays their location on a panel downstairs to attract passengers up top. Stand up and the number rises, sit down and the number drops - it's very clever, and it almost works. Another innovation, again accompanied by its project manager, was a real-time map that shows the bus's progress towards the next three stops and estimated time of arrival. If this were funded and rolled out (and fully visible from more than just a small part of the lower deck) it might change your commute. Ian has the full details here, or just try to hunt down the prototype vehicle in south London.

It was a privilege yesterday to be able to wander forwards and backwards along the London bus timeline, and to experience how the capital's public transport workhorse has developed and evolved over the years. It was also a joy to share the enthusiasm of those involved in running the day, from the vehicles' owners and smiling stewards to the lowliest volunteers handing out leaflets and stickers. And best of all, on a personal note, was the opportunity to step inside a 1953 vintage Guy Special which was my favourite bus as a child. It inspired me to decide that the job I most wanted when I grew up was to drive one, and I wrote a particularly excruciating piece in an infant school exercise book that my family still like to rib me about. Finally, more than 40 years later, I slipped into the driving seat of my dream vehicle to discover that, oh, it was all a bit basic and uncomfortable really, and probably a lot more hard work than my romantic mind had imagined. I'm happy to have left the job of bus driver to the experts, and I'm pleased to thank all the experts who helped organise such a memorable one-off experience for us all yesterday.

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