|Photo: John Gascoigne|
Since then every subsequent bus design is compared – generally unfavourably – a box shape, no relieving aesthetic features, and a heavier, more fuel-hungry vehicle in constant need of engineering attention.
But the early days of the Routemaster were anything but happy ones. Conceived in 1947, seven years were to elapse before the first prototype even appeared on the streets. A further two years before it entered service and after three further years it was withdrawn. Two more (bus) prototypes later joined the fleet. RM2 managed to stay on the road for about two years, and RM3 about 20 months.
In addition three other vehicles – fitted with ‘lorry’ bodies – were used to follow regular buses in service and simulate service operations.
Despite all the trial running, the first major entry into service in 1959 was disastrous when nearly 80 Routemasters replaced trolleybuses at West Ham and Poplar. On the first day the garages received over 100 road calls from bus crews in trouble. Subsequently the situation remained dire, with design defects and poor manufacturing standards often to blame. Numerous campaigns of modifications were immediately put into place.
A major failure caused 22 of them to be removed from service when a complete steering column fractured and all the others were found to be at risk of the same thing.
In the first two years there were 55 campaigns for mechanical alterations, 24 campaigns for electrical issues and 38 for bodywork.
The District Engineer at the garages recorded that in the 15 months to August 1961 on 142 Routemasters he changed:
518 brake shoe liners
425 gearbox seals
416 front shock absorber rubbers
247 alternator belts
185 radiator fans
138 water pumps
126 rear shock absorbers
101 front shock absorbers
He records a similar list for electrical and body work issues.
The heating and ventilation system was found to be particularly poor and despite efforts over the years it remained a real weakness of the design.
During those awful times there were long gaps in service and frequent breakdowns. Passengers were frequently inconvenienced and the staff increasingly demoralised.
In 1963 – some nine years after the first prototype entered service and despite hundreds of thousands of miles of passenger operation – a major rework campaign started. All of the issues were addressed on over a thousand vehicles and slowly the fleet began to deliver a reasonable level of reliability.
I have not found any definitive record of the costs incurred – paid for by fares and taxes alike. The costs of prototype buses which only clocked up a couple of years’ service each; the cost of major rework campaigns; and the cost of major losses of service in terms of revenue. Over and above this, the countless London Transport engineers and research staff working full time to resolve the problems.
What is clear is that despite extensive prototype testing, and early experience in operation, a very large number of problems in design, manufacture and maintenance did not come to light till after entry into service.
An expensive and lengthy process in the end delivered to London a bus which became a design classic. It was reliable, cheap to run, loved by passengers, staff and engineers alike. Nearly 60 years later it is still in evidence in London.
That process was extraordinarily slow, and required a huge amount of effort. Imagine if in this modern demanding world, a bus had taken nine years from design to operational reliability!