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Friday, 13 September, 2002, 14:13 GMT 15:13 UK
Routemaster: Transport of delight?
London's famous Routemaster bus

The obituary writers have been busy again, bemoaning the impending demise of London's famous Routemaster buses. But once more, according to London Transport, they may be premature.
You can't expect an appreciation from someone whose last London bus journey, 30 years ago, took him not to Regent Street, as he'd hoped, but round the corner to the local depot in Harlesden, NW10.

But it seems there's a legion of people who are transported into a world of daydreams and memories by the red double-decker known as the Routemaster.

Bus, taxi and Big Ben
One of London's famous icons
It was in 1956, the year of the Suez crisis and Elvis Presley's first UK hit, that the Routemaster, with its hop-on, hop-off platform and a conductor, began to replace the capital's electric trolleybuses.

It was considerably ahead of its time. Built by AEC in Southall and Park Royal, it was largely designed by a man with an intimate understanding of the job it had to do, the then LT vehicle engineering manager, Colin Curtis.

It had semi-automatic transmission, power steering, supple suspension and still carries more passengers than most modern buses, despite its lighter, aluminium construction. Crucially, perhaps, it was simple to maintain and cheap to run.

But in 1970, London Transport declared: "By the end of the decade, every London Transport bus will be operated by one man..."

Throughout the 70s, new double-decker models aimed at dispensing with conductors came into service.

Hundreds of Routemasters were sold to other operators around Britain and the world.

Bus in Amman, Jordan, being used in an anti-Iraq bombing campaign
As a campaign vehicle in Amman, Jordan
But when the new London buses were beset by severe mechanical problems and many had to be withdrawn, the city's remaining Routemasters were granted a stay of execution.

Reliable

In 1994, they survived privatisation and in the new Millennium, 600 of them, only a few dozen of them owned by London Transport, are still trundling through the streets of London.

The Routemaster Association, just one of a fleet of bus enthusiast groups spreading the word about designer classics and curiosities, would like to see the Routemaster go on for ever.

"There's never been anything to compare with them for reliability and longevity", says its chairman, Andrew Morgan. He has his own, a unique single-decker, and driving to rallies around the country, says it has never let him down.

But he adds: "Putting on my realistic hat, I realise they will have to go one day".

London's mayor, Ken Livingstone, perhaps feeling the pressure of a campaign waged by London's Evening Standard, climbed aboard the fight to keep the Routemaster during his election campaign in 2000. "They're obviously an icon in London", he said.

London bus conductor
People feel happier with a conductor
While Colin Curtis, in retirement, has been working on a "child of Routemaster", but struggling to find financial backing, Transport for London has been refurbishing the ageing fleet, making them more fuel efficient and environment-friendly.

Extra conductors have also been recruited; Livingstone says conductors are "extremely popular as they speed up journey times and make people feel safer".

Will become illegal

Safer, that is, if you don't fall while boarding or alighting. Opponents point out that the increase in the number of modern buses with hydraulically-controlled glass doors has dramatically reduced the number of injuries suffered by passengers.

And even supporters of the Routemaster acknowledge that the high platform effectively bars many disabled people from travelling on them.

While the Routemaster is now able to comply with European clean air regulations, in 2016 the Disability Discrimination Act will make the model illegal, along with any other bus that cannot be used by people in wheelchairs.

"I will weep if they finally go", says MP Stephen Pound, who waxes lyrical about his days as a conductor in the late 60s, when he would sew the creases in his trousers and assume that anyone going upstairs was "a smoker or a snogger".

he Routemaster's open platform
Its open platform is less safe and not disabled people-friendly
One of the final nails in the Routemaster's tyres could be the introduction of "bendy buses" - hinged single-deckers that can carry far more passengers, each of them buying tickets in advance from street machines.

London Transport is also working on the development of time-saving smart cards, allowing passengers to board and pay with the wave of an electronic pass.

Such has been the tone and increasing frequency of warnings by London Transport about the retirement of the Routemaster, that the latest word from a spokesman came as a major surprise.

Though the "bendy buses" now operate on two routes and will take over another two next year, "the Routemaster will be in service for many years to come", he said. "Londoners are attached to it and it still provides a good service".

So move along the car and hold very tight please! Ding-ding!

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