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Wednesday, 10 July 2013

A lesson from history

Photo: John Gascoigne
When the world sees the Routemaster bus they think London - iconic looks, great design and legendry reliability – “the like of which we will never see again.”

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 A further two years before it entered service and after three further years it was withdrawn.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
46 radiators

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!


  1. Leon, thank you for putting the birth pangs and adolescent traumas of the Routemaster into the context by which the vehicle is now, by many, fondly remembered. By comparison the advent of the new LT has been very short. I can't help worry that it has been a bit too short. One major difference between the two types is operational. The Routemaster family was following a defined method of passenger operation whereas the LT does not yet seem to give quite such a clear idea of where it is trying to go.

  2. I found that quite interesting to say the least. To think that many other transport organisations around the world wouldn't have even attempted such a leap into the unknown. I'm sure at some point in the development stages there had to be people actually questioning the development of the vehicle. Nevertheless we really wouldn't have such an iconic vehicle without all the somewhat excessive investment in the creation of potentially something that might never of happened.

  3. I can remember Alan Allmey telling us just what you have said here,about the amount of problems the routemasters had in the early years,he also said that because it was designed by LT and payed for by us,it had to work,at any cost.It couldnt just been thrown away.He was at the time compairing it with the DMS which wasnt designed by LT and was "Thrown away" and then became a good bus but with other companies

  4. Thank you Mr Daniels I just wish TFL would please explain to the ignorant few that the new LT will indeed be fantastic for London, I just hope they are sold around the world with profits going to TFL to show these foolish persons who are anti Boris they were wrong

  5. nsolo twozeroone - Not entirely sure who else in the world is ever going to want a completely non-standard bus with three doors/two doors and an open platform. After all, extremely few countries even operate double decker buses, yet alone ones with conductors.

    Sorry, the chances of substantial sales outside London are extremely low - this is ex - just as the original Routemaster barely sold outside London (and that was an era when buses everywhere had conductors!)

    There's a very good reason the "ignorant few" are extremely anti this project. It's because it makes no sense. I'd argue given the massive problems with air-cooling (which was, hysterically, also present in the prototypes!) has meant the "ignorant few" camp is rapidly getting bigger and bigger.

    These are buses that are extremely expensive to run, have LOWER passenger capacity than the buses they're replacing despite being longer, and which are already less environmentally friendly than cheaper models on the market.

    Indeed, I'd eat my hat if the next non-Tory Mayor of London doesn't cancel all further orders and (when the routes come up for re-tender) permanently lock the back doors to save costs - very pertinent given Transport for London are facing substantial budget cuts.

    Posted on behalf of the "ignorant few".

  6. Andrew, I fully respect your opinion and rightly so you should voice it, however the NB4L was long over due, they are not any more expensive in the long run, yes they needed the research, you cannot blame TFL for Budget cuts blame Ken Livingstone for taking away 2 tier fares giving all school kids free travel unemployed free travel bringing in bendy buses which was a free ride ... What you have to remember is this new bus will indeed attract the tourist who will want to ride the new routemaster the iconic bus which famous around the world, the NB4L would go down a treat here in Sydney Australia,I for one have not been brainwashed into thinking this is a political gimmick and indeed is a great bus gutted i am not at home in UK to ride one.

  7. Not more expensive? Of course they are. It has been widely reported that they are more expensive. A simple glance at the Guardian reveals that an off the peg double decker costs £305,000 whilst TfL's statement of the cost of a New Bus for London is £326,000 (the Guardian also quotes a higher figure as actual the cost, but lets go with TfL's lower figure shall we?)

    So that's £21,000 higher just to pay for the bus for starters. Then there's the running costs - paying for all those "conductors" costs about £62,000 a year per bus, or £37m for all the buses. The only way you can claim that these buses aren't more expensive is simply to ignore staffing costs.

    As for budget cuts, what has Ken Livingstone changing fares many many years ago, got to do with anything? Budget cuts are not being made due to overspend. They're being made right now due to the grant given to Transport for London by the Treasury - £225m cut - this year. What Ken Livingstone did years ago when funding was different is absolutely irrelevant. At the same time that the grant is being gut, £37m is being added on to TfL's bills in extra staffing costs. Ask most people whether they want a shiny expensive bus or their children to have free travel, I think you can guarantee the answer won't come out in favour of the bus.

    As for the bendy buses giving "a free ride" - the new bus has the same exact problem. Whilst the back has a platform guard telling people to touch in, and the front has the driver, the middle door has absolutely no one there. As such if you want to evade fares, that's the door to for. Boris's new bus has the exact same "issue" here. Besides which, most of the fare evasion was most likely overstated. If you have a paper season ticket or a season ticket on Oyster, you don't need to touch in or show your ticket to anyone - not on the old bendys and not on the New Bus for London.

    Remember, one day Boris won't be in power. This is his pet project. Transport for London would never have been allowed to play at being bus designers. A more rational Mayor is going to look at his/her budget and go "how the hell do I keep costs low?" The conductors on this bus will be one of the first thing to go; the platform doors sealed for the rest of their years. No new buses will be ordered and as they wear out they'll be mostly scrapped because no one else will want them. A few will survive in tourism use somewhere, or in museums. But that'll be it. Sorry, but that's the reality of the matter. Purchase and running costs will kill this bus.

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  9. Did you know that some people don't consider cyclists "ordinary traffic", well what on earth are they then? Extraordinary? - I would agree but you don't expect to see 10 extraordinary vehicles at every traffic light...

    Anyway, lets get back to focussing on real transport like buses rather than wasting our time with fantasy transport like unicorns, bicycles and Mary Poppins' Umbrella.

  10. Bus Looks Amazing and its Story are fabulous !
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