Route 15H: Trafalgar Square to Tower Hill London's 5th shortest bus route Length of journey: 2.36 miles (25 minutes)
Route 15 need not detain us here, being six miles long, but its heritage subset is considerably shorter. This was introduced in 2005 when Routemasters were phased out for accessibility reasons, mainly as a sop to ensure no politician could be accused of withdrawing them completely. Its fellow service on route 9H bit the dust in 2014 so the 15H soldiers on alone, now only every twenty minutes, on the tourist-friendly stretch from Trafalgar Square to the Tower. But a recent plan proposes cutting back the service to summer weekends and bank holidays only, which is basically nothing, after the new Ultra Low Emission Zone takes effect. Come ride soon, before it gets a lot lot harder.
'Heritage Routemasters operate additional journeys between 0941 and 1841', according to the timetable on the Strand, but wheelchairs cannot be carried. Other than this small red writing there are no clues that an icon of London is about to emerge round the corner from Northumberland Avenue and offer an anachronistic ride for a very reasonable fare. TfL's promotion of this very special service has always been poor. One family definitely know it's coming, and their son beams with delight as it pulls up and they grab the prized front seats. Other tourists suddenly notice, and wander over because the conductor knows to wait for a bit, and before long there are 15 of us on the top deck and a fair few more down below. Ding ding.
Some are here to remember. A retired man in a sensible jacket whips out his iPad for a photo before resting his arm lovingly on the moquette. Others are here because it's what you do in London. A Japanese girl in a bright red coat ensures the lens is trained on her, because it wouldn't be a photograph otherwise, and ends up taking a 90° selfie-panorama. Some are here because they would have caught the ordinary 15 but this turned up instead, and they'll be smiling for the next few stops. But most are here to travel religiously to the end of the route, because nowhere else would they ever get the opportunity. Another 15 passengers have boarded before we reach Aldwych, and numbers only ever rise.
The engine's definitely judderier than on a modern bus, and/or the suspension less effective, but that's part of the appeal. A family of five can't believe their luck when we pull up, the parents looking at each other as if to say shall we, and they do. We pass a row of protesters in tents outside the Royal Courts of Justice, and the net-curtained windows of the Art Deco Daily Express building, and the magnificent facade of Wren's cathedral. You get a much better view from a 1964 vehicle than the hermetically sealed red bubbles rushing the other way. Top deck seats generally fill up from the front backwards, and there are now very few of them left.
And still they come - two more on Ludgate Hill, seven at St Paul's and three on Cannon Street. Admittedly I made my journey at the weekend, but tourists come to London all year round, and I am very impressed by the loadings. I see the London Stone is back in place, and labelled. I see the House of Fraser facing London Bridge closed its doors for good on 29th December. I see security guards sitting alone in echoing receptions beneath shiny towers. And even at the penultimate stop a trio of French tourists board, their brief journey fortuitously extended by a traffic jam at Mincing Lane. On reaching the Tower they look somewhat bemused, there being no automated messages to explain what's going on, but a yell from the conductor confirms yes, this is where everyone has to get off.
By my calculations at least 60 passengers have boarded during our journey, the majority of whom stayed on to the bitter end. But, and here's the rub, AT NO POINT DID THE CONDUCTOR EVER COME UPSTAIRS AND COLLECT ANY FARES. I don't know what he did downstairs, but he never once attempted to climb the stairs and none of us paid a penny for our journeys. The 15H has longstanding issues in that no touchpads are fitted and staff have to use archaic card readers that can only cope with Oyster, not contactless. But by not even attempting to collect fares from those who could have paid, nor registering how many of us were on board, no wonder official figures show this is the 15th least-used bus route in London. Come ride before indifference turns to near-dismissal. It could be the best free ride in town.