At the end of this week, half the Routemaster bus services in London are being terminated. It's no use complaining. TfL ran a consultationsix months ago to explain their reasons and to ask people what they thought. The outcome was that 84% of respondents disagreed, but that didn't matter, so the scrapping takes place this Friday as planned. And it's no use saying "hang on, there are still Routemaster bus services in London?!?" because it's general ignorance of their existence that's contributed to their removal. [5 photos]
After Routemasters were removed from regular service in 2005, two heritage routes were devised to keep the old stalwarts on the road. One ran on part of route 15 between Trafalgar Square and the Tower, while the other ran on route 9 from Aldwych to the Royal Albert Hall. It's the latter which is being stopped this week, leaving the 15 to fly the flag alone for the much-loved 60-year-old bus.
Route 9H, as it's endearingly abbreviated, runs every 20 minutes between about half nine in the morning and seven at night. It runs alongside normal services on Route 9 but only along the central portion, enhancing frequency and offering an attractive means of transport for tourists. The route's endpoints have been tweaked since the early days, at the eastern end from Aldwych to Trafalgar Square, and at the western end as far as Kensington High Street. This extension was at the behest of the local council, who hoped that visitors would alight by the shops and spend some money, rather than getting off alongside the Albert Memorial and merely enjoying the park instead. And even the council's support hasn't been enough to retain the 9H service, so early on Friday evening it stops for good.
The rationale for the withdrawal is twofold - usage on the service is limited, and it's relatively expensive to operate. Why spend a million pounds a year on this, goes the argument, when this money could be better spent on [insert name of pet project here]. As for why few people use the 9H, there are many reasons. It mirrors the normal number 9 route but doesn't go as far, hence anyone wanting a more distant destination isn't going to board. The vehicles aren't wheelchair accessible, which was the main reason for Routemaster removal in the first place. And a lot of potential passengers won't even recognise these as real TfL buses, they look like private hire vehicles, so won't realise that they can hop on board for precisely the same Oyster fare as any other bus.
And then there's the old/new Routemaster issue, which head of TfL Surface Transport Leon Daniels was keen to point out when the latest consultation was announced. With 'New Routemasters' introduced on the remainder of route 9, apparently "nowadays those travelling for leisure purposes tend to choose the new buses." This may be because they like the sleek design of the new bus more than the old, or it may be because they run three times more frequently, it's hard to be sure. Also, according to Leon, withdrawal "eliminates the conflicting arrangement whereby the conductors on traditional Routemasters serve you at your seat and take cash, whereas the second crew member on the New Routemaster does neither." He wrote this in January when cash on buses was still an option, but what he really appears to be admitting is that conductors on proper Routemasters earn their keep, whereas passenger assistants on the New Routemaster are little more than health and safety window dressing.
They're still out there at the moment, the veteran 9Hs, plying their trade through the West End. They muster in Northumberland Avenue, at the same bus stand as the 15H, giving drivers on the two heritage services a chance to chat ("This your last day, then? They keeping you on?"). Number 9 Routemasters then roll round Trafalgar Square to the first stop in Cockspur Street. It's an exceptionally touristy spot, with umbrella-wielding guides leading crocodiles of visitors along the pavement and a bloke from The Big Bus Tour Company handing out leaflets to encourage folk onto the open top service. Rides on his bus cost ten times as much as the humble 9H, although for that you get a commentary, a complimentary River Bus ticket and a poncho for when it rains. I noticed with some disappointment that TfL have already put up the new number 9 timetable, which officially starts next Saturday, hence no evidence now exists at the stop that a special heritage service might come along instead.
The old buses are still looking good for their age, each well scrubbed and mostly ad-free inside. Mine had a musty smell on the top deck, although the New Routemasters aren't exactly known for their fine fragrance either, and at least on the 9H the top windows open. I had the misfortune of riding a New Routemaster home during peak heatwave on Friday, and I can confirm that the air cooling system fails utterly at high temperatures. The thermometer I took with me read six degrees higher on board than off, and alighting after an hour in the upstairs sauna came as blessed relief. Whereas the top deck of a proper Routemaster, with opening windows ensuring circulation, proved a perfectly acceptable proposition. TfL correctly claim that their new vehicle is indeed "one of the most technologically advanced buses in the world", but this week they're scrapping an expensive bus that works in hot weather in favour of an expensive bus that doesn't.
I enjoyed my last-weekend sightseeing ride along the 9H route. The route takes in Pall Mall and Piccadilly, plus a twirl round the memorials at Hyde Park Corner. Most tourists ignored our passing, but several others recognised an icon and paused to take a digital portrait. We sailed through Knightsbridge without many passengers seeking to board, because most folk round these parts aren't the sort to take the bus, then edged along the foot of Hyde Park more as a local service than a tourist draw. I wondered how far up Kensington High Street we'd go, the answer being right to the end past all the shops (and the flats now springing up to hide the Commonwealth Institute). The final stop was outside an Iranian supermarket with bowls of fruit laid out in front, the last place most visitors to London would need, but the ideal place to turn the buses around and park up.
Five days remain to ride the old Routemasters on route 9. The best of the vehicles will then be used to augment the fleet on route 15, ensuring that hard-to-come-by spare parts are available and the old girls soldier on. With continued support, and maintenance, and funding, the 15H Routemasters should then survive for a few more years into the future. They do actually shift useful numbers of tourists to the Tower and back, at least for some of the day, and TfL have no plans to overshadow them by introducing their more modern namesake on the same route. Indeed after Ken erased 99% of Routemasters from our city and with Boris now removing 50% of what's left, it'd be a brave politician who made the entire species extinct.
It'd be nice if TfL gave their one remaining heritage route some publicity. While their press office falls over itself to plug New Routemasters and their beloved cablecar at every available opportunity, these tourist-friendly trips aboard a vintage bus raise barely a tweet. So come on down and ride a proper route 9 Routemaster before the end of the week, and remember to come back again in the years to come to prevent route 15 fading out with a whimper in the same way.