diamond geezer

 Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Replacing the Routemaster

very nearly the last RoutemasterWho would have thought that London's Mayoral election might hinge around the humble Routemaster bus? This much-loved workhorse has come to symbolise the supposed chasm that exists between moderniser Ken and fresh-thinking Boris. Mayor Ken killed off the redoubtable Routemaster a few years ago, and now Boris wants to bring them back. Doesn't he? And all at the expense of the nasty evil fare-dodging cycle-crushing bendy bus. Who could have a good word to say about London's fleet of 337 bendy buses... except perhaps passengers with wheelchairs, or mums with prams, or travellers with suitcases, or freeloaders who fancy a trip across town for nothing. It'll be fab to rid of these articulated roadhogs. Won't it? Well, actually, maybe not.

Boris Johnson has managed to plant an incredibly alluring idea in the minds of London's electorate. "Vote for me and I'll scrap all the bendy buses and bring back Routemasters." As campaign ideas go, it's brilliant. Alas that's not what he's promised at all, it's just what people think is on offer. What Boris has actually pledged is the following...
"I will phase out bendy buses and run a new competition to find a 21st century Routemaster that has full disabled access, runs on clean fuel and has conductors."
So here's problem number 1. Boris can't bring back old Routemasters because accessibility legislation bans the use of non-inclusive 1950s technology. There aren't enough of the old vehicles left anyway, because most of those withdrawn from service a few years ago are now either in private hands or rusting. So all that Boris can promise is a competition to design a "new Routemaster". Something like this Johnson-approved blueprint here (although the design can't be anywhere near perfect otherwise he wouldn't be relying on a contest). Expect the timelag from competition launch to first on-road replacement to be several years. Long term good, but medium term nil.

Then there's problem number 2. The new design won't really be a Routemaster at all, just a rear-platform people-mover with an evocative name. Call it a Routemaster if you like, Boris, but it won't be the classic bumpy spluttering vehicle we know and love. It'll be some new shiny thing with intrusive on-board announcements and electronic destination panels. But before the election, of course, all that matters is a convincing sounding rebranding exercise.

Then there's problem number 3. However much Londoners might wish them gone, Boris can't wipe bendy buses from the streets of the capital on the morning after he's elected. Remove them and there'd be hundreds of thousands of passengers on twelve bendy bus routes stranded at their stops. So the unloved bendies stay, for several years, until somebody's invented and built their replacements. But will the electorate notice this subtle difference in time - it's replace and then scrap, not scrap and then replace.

Then there's problem number 4. Planning to replace only bendy buses won't reinstate Routemasters on their traditional routes. There are 12 bendy bus routes, but there were as many as 20 recent Routemaster routes, and the overlap is surprisingly small. In fact only four RM routes would be reinstated under Boris's plans, a mere 20% of the total. He'd rescue the iconic 12, 38 and 73, and restore part of the old 36. But he'd also upgrade eight routes that either haven't been RM since the 80s (18, 25, 29, 149, 207, 453) or have never been (507, 521). And he'd completely ignore 16 rightful Routemaster routes (6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 15, 19, 22, 23, 94, 98, 137, 159, 390). This isn't true replacement, not at all.

Then there's problem number 5. Scrapping bendy buses, designing a Routemaster-y alternative, kitting them out with 21st century facilities and hiring conductors doesn't come cheap. Certainly nowhere near as cheap as the £8m Boris initially claimed, more like more than ten times that amount. All of which has to be paid for somehow. But I'll leave others to argue that one.

a bendy 38 at Clapton Pond

So, in conclusion, Boris's idea is quite good, but it's nowhere near as good as most Londoners believe it to be. Basically, electorate, you've been had. Even if you vote in Boris now, you won't be seeing any "new Routemasters" (or fewer bendy buses) until around the time of the next Mayoral election in 2012. If you're lucky.

Which leaves Ken's transport plans - a rather uninspiring "more of the same". At least "more of the same" won't include more bendy buses - we had the last changeover in 2006 and Ken now promises he's not planning on introducing any more. But more of the same doesn't win votes, even when it's actually quite progressive. Oh London, I worry about you sometimes. And if you can't see through Boris's Routemaster ploy, then I fear you deserve everything you get.

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