diamond geezer

 Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, TfL converted route 24 to full service by the New Bus For London. Flagship project, much fanfare, loud hurrahs. That first weekend, the temperature in London was only eighteen degrees. It's been rather warmer since, which has shown up an unfortunate fault in the new bus's design. The aircon doesn't work properly, and the windows don't open, leading to sauna-like conditions within. Less Routemaster, more Roastmaster, as some have dubbed it. When even the Evening Standard is splashing news of the fiasco across its front page under a 'Meltdown' headline, you know there's a problem.

London's bloggers have been out in force to ride the New Bus with thermometers in hand, some before the Standard, others after. I thought I'd better join them... a bit late, but my previous attempt last week had been thwarted when a New Bus sped past my bus stop to beat the traffic lights, followed by a 15 minute gap. Better luck this time. A 24 turned up almost immediately, and I took my seat on the upper deck. A bit hot? Fraid so.

Immediately in front of me were a family of tourists, that's Mum, Dad and their small baby. The baby was perched in one of those rucksack-type things on Dad's back, and Mum was fanning them both. She stopped every so often, paused briefly and then started again, because it was that hot on the upper deck. I noticed she was using postcards to do the fanning, proper stamped postcards with scribbled messages on the back. Only later, as she stood to get off, did I notice that her postcards had photos of the New Bus For London on the front. I SWEAR I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. Tourists on the New Bus For London were so hot that they were using postcards of the New Bus For London to cool themselves down. Riders love how it looks, but not how it feels.

I checked my thermometer. It had read 26°C in the office, and 26°C in the street, and now it read 31°C. You might expect the temperature aboard a bus to be a bit warmer than its surroundings, except this is a bus with air conditioning, and if that aircon doesn't keep the temperature down then it's worthless. As for the lack of opening windows, well that's no surprise. Air conditioned systems aren't supposed to have opening windows, they're only efficient when self-contained. In which case, one could ask, how could the New Bus's design ever be efficient when there's a big open hole in the back where people step on and off? That's probably not the underlying problem, but one suspects it can't be helping.

And then the temperature reached 33°C. That's quite hot, even a bit stifling - unusual conditions for a modern London bus. But I was coping OK, even if those around me looked uncomfortable. I'm the tolerant sort, the type of bloke who can put up with all sorts of conditions that others more usually complain about. I can withstand a light chill without buckling, and if it's a bit hot in the office, I'm the last to notice. Indeed I'm probably the wrong person to send on a New Bus thermometer safari, because even if it's sultry and torrid on board I'd not crumble. But I was definitely sweating more than normal, and conditions didn't feel at all comfortable. Thankfully we were stuck in traffic by this point, so it was a joy to be able to step off the rear platform and escape onto the cooler pavement.

To continue my experiment, I crossed the road and caught an 11. That's the next route lined up for conversion to the New Bus, but until September it's an ordinary double decker. Again I sat up top, and the difference was immediately clear. No aircon, but the windows were open and a breeze was flowing, so conditions weren't intolerable at all. Given the choice between a New Bus and this Old Bus in high summer, you'd pick old every time. Except my thermometer still said 32°C. It didn't feel like 32°C, it felt rather cooler than before, but my thermometer was insistent. It even said 32°C when I got off and stood on the pavement for a while, and the temperature definitely wasn't that. I started to doubt my non-digital thermometer at this point, considering its data to be somewhat inaccurate. I can say that the New Bus felt a lot warmer and a lot stickier than the old, but I can't quantify that.

Next I went for a journey on the Underground. I took the District line, which isn't usually the worst for heat because trains run in broader tunnels relatively near the surface. But it was bad yesterday. Hundreds of people crammed into a subterranean metal tube on a hot day is a recipe for malaise, and you could see the sweat and displeasure on people's faces. I checked my thermometer again, surreptitiously this time because we were rammed in now, and I didn't want to look like a nutter. Still 32°C. I lost confidence in my thermometer entirely at this point... or maybe the point is that discomfort isn't entirely related to temperature. A breeze makes all the difference, and there's none of that underground, and there's none of that on the sealed deck of a New Bus either.

To round off my experiment I rode the Hammersmith & City line a few stops home. These new trains are the first aircon-fitted stock on the Underground, and in this case I pleased to say it works. The difference between this New Train and the previous Old Train was very noticeable, and very welcome. Not all multi-million pound vehicle upgrades miss their ambience target.

So here's my subjective league table for London Transport Comfortableness In Times Of Hot Weather
    1) New Train (S Stock, introduced 2010)
    2) Old Bus (various, pre-2012)
    3) New Bus (NB4L, introduced 2012)
    4) Old Train (D Stock, introduced 1980)

It's no design triumph in the heat, the New Bus For London, not unless TfL engineers can finally fix these 'teething problems'. But equally, to put this in perspective, London's not a hot city most of the time. There have only been about 70 days in the last four years when the temperature in London has topped 25°C - that's less than 5% of the time. Aircon's little more than a headline luxury, really nice to have when the heat is on, but much less of an issue for the great majority of the year. The New Bus may be a gimmick vehicle with several defects, optimised for how it looks over how it performs. But rest assured that this warm spell will pass, and try to show a little more resilience until the Roastmaster can be fixed.

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