In The Quest for Rear-Entrance, Is The True Routemaster Legacy Being Lost?


Listen carefully. The sound you can hear is the Whiplash Lawyers Association rubbing their hands together as they drool over TfL keeping them in the manner to which they have become so accustomed.

In April 2010, Michael Cockerill, in his excellent programme for BBC on the Great Offices of State, found out that in the Treasury a repetition of mistakes in policy occurred with alarming regularity as soon as the last senior person in the department who had been scorched by the previous fiasco had retired. This is a process well known to management consultants who describe it as “Change the names – Erase the tapes”

Sadly it may be happening again in the world of transport. In the early 1970’s, after leaving university, this author worked, briefly, in a very junior capacity for one of the then newly formed Passenger Transport Executives. Trying to weld together twelve local authority and private operators into one coherent bus company was at the time truly “Alice in Wonderland” stuff. Labour relations lingered on with operating precedents established in the days of tramcars and trolleybuses. Arcane inter union conflicts between the Tongue and Grove (aka the Transport and General Workers) and NALGO (the National Association of Local Government Officers) were fought out for years over who did what and when. Razor sharp elbows flashed in the sunlight as the twelve general managers, twelve chief engineers, twelve commercial managers (and so on) fought to retain their prior autonomy and establish new territories in the new order. Mayhem, arguably, would be the term of choice to describe the times.

Amazingly, about the only thing that there seemed to be general agreement about amongst all parties was that rear entrance buses with open platforms had to go.

Firstly, they were expensive – as they required a conductor. This increased the quantum of management complexity in scheduling the workforce as well as costing a lot more than OMO (One Man Operation) – a cost that grew throughout the entire vehicle life cycle.

Secondly, the open platforms were dangerous. Passengers were always falling down the stairs – although not as often as the conductors (why? – because conductors would be going up and down stairs over forty hours a week whilst customers usually only went up and down twice a day).

Although strictly prohibited from doing so, passengers would also board and disembark at any point that suited them – often whilst the bus was moving.

Fortunately our legal department was small – most legal functions remaining vestigially under the control of the various Town Clerk’s departments who would send out standard letters with the basic message – “ if you disobey the clearly displayed terms and conditions of travel about getting on and off the bus (moving or not) don’t come crying to us”. Is it conceivable, however, in these days of day-time television adverts inciting people to sue others for compensation (of which of course you will get 100%) that TfL will be able to take such an old-fashioned response with its emphasis on individual responsibility and liability?

Similarly, is it conceivable – given today’s traffic conditions – that motorists will not find themselves having to break or swerve sharply to avoid giving ex-bus passengers involuntary lifts on the bonnets of their cars? Will truck drivers have to worry about the risk of latter day “leap for freedom” daredevils falling victim to their front tyres?

Finally, is it conceivable that – given the ageing population – a drastically reduced seating capacity downstairs is going to go down well with the elderly and infirm, armed as they all are with their Freedom or English National Concession bus passes? As for Mums with their Cairngorm-capable mountain bike tyred baby buggies – I regret dear reader; I must draw a veil to save your delicate sensibilities.

The new Routemaster was a dream of halcyon days that never really were. It was an overdose of that fantasy dust, “nostalgia”, snorted through an election manifesto. Once Boris Johnson had been voted in we were doomed to go through this fantasy quadrille.

An Opportunity Missed?

It is so sad – we could have had something that really was a new Routemaster.

The key feature of the old Routemaster was not; repeat not, the door at the back. It was the undoubted systems engineering strengths of the original design – modular parts and effective asset life cycle management leading to cost effective maintenance and robust operation. We could have been first in a world with the next generation of emission free electric buses. We could have had designs and patents capable of spreading the new Routemaster’s development overheads over global scale production runs, with per unit divisors in thousands not hundreds. We could have created a “here and now” demand for new technologies from the London Universities world-class research bases. We could have had long easy access public service vehicles on our street with known kinetic envelopes – like London’s rivals such as Paris, Zurich or Frankfurt. They were called IIRC trams.

(By the way, City Hall may care to ring up Imperial College and ask them to browse their archives for their studies on the dangers of rear entrance buses. They did work on this in those pre-internet days – so unfortunately we have no link. Professor Peter White at University of Westminster may also be worth contacting too for an expert view of the period. He arguably knows more about the bus grant scheme put together by the Government to get rid of rear entrance buses than anybody else in the capital).

Like Hans Christian Anderson’s little boy shocked by his King’s nudity, who will tell the Mayor that he is similarly exposed over his bus? In these straitened times, somebody really has to subject this programme to a comprehensive spending review.

If only there was an Assembly Committee prepared to ask tough if not downright pithy questions?

Written by Mwmbwls