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Friday, 19 March, 1999, 11:04 GMT
Ding, ding - last stop for a classic
Classic stuff: The Routemaster
By BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy

It's as much a part of Britain as red pillar boxes, Beefeaters and Big Ben - and many people want it to stay that way.

Unhappily for them, however, the famed Routemaster bus is living on borrowed time.

Along with black taxis, the cherished classic red double decker Routemaster bus, or RM as it is known in the trade, is probably Britain's best known moveable landmark (if there can be such a thing).

Ken Livingstone, the former leader of the Greater London Council who is hoping to be London's first directly-elected mayor, said the Routemaster was a "symbol of London recognised the world over". Which helps explain why he has proposed saving the chugging 14ft-high beasts from the scrap yard.

The Routemaster's stylish grille design (courtesy Andrew Morgan)
The passing of the Routemaster is nothing new - its obituary has been written many times since phasing out began. Only a relative handful - 500 - are still operational.

Enthusiasts, of which there is no shortage, view it as the pinnacle in public transport design; a triumph of pragmatic engineering that meant it was simple to maintain, cheap to run, robust and enduring.

The open back gives passengers the freedom to hop on or off whenever they want, in the thick of a London snarl up or at a red light.

In theory, a two-person crew means they can pick up and set down passengers more swiftly than the driver-only models that now dominate. London Transport, which senses excessive sentimentality, pours scorn on this. The capital's clogged-up streets mean all buses travel at roughly the same speed, it says.

And then there is the design - perhaps the Routemaster's most over-looked asset.

As the last line of buses to be custom-built for the capital, it was conceived to complement and enhance the look of London's streets.

"As with all London buses up to and including the RM, they were designed for London and were always distinctive and had their own unique character," says Phil Willson, of the Routemaster Operators and Owners Association.

"This is something that does not exist with modern vehicles which tend to be just square boxes closely based on the very desirable shape of a brick."

Design cachet

The Routemaster is a time-honoured design classic in the mould of Giles Gilbert-Scott's red "K2" telephone box.

"The very desirable shape of a brick" says Phil Willson sarcastically
Douglas Scott, no relation, was the man responsible for fashioning the subtly curved Routemaster, inside and out, in 1954.

Initial reaction was hostile. The Routemaster drew criticism as it entered regular service in the late 1950s. It was thought outdated, especially when new legislation allowed buses of up to 30ft in length.

In fact, like many design classics, it was only taken to the bosom of the establishment when it started to be replaced by a stream of generic double-deckers that could be seen in dozens of other places around the country.

The RM8 - the first production Routemaster (courtesy Phil Willson)
Journalist Jonathan Glancey, writing in The Independent, summed up the transition as a "decline. . . from work of kinetic civic art to parts-bin cattle truck".

Indeed former Design Museum curator Catherine McDermott saw fit to include the Routemaster as a classic in her book 20th Century Design (Carlton Books).

"The Routemaster's basic design proved to be endlessly adaptable and extremely popular with Londoners," she said.

Inside are a number of treasured features such as the "lovers' seat" at the back of the top deck, wind-down windows and subtle lighting instead of the harsh fluorescent glare found on modern-day models.

The end is nigh

Nevertheless, London Transport remains defiant that the Routemaster is approaching the end of the line.

The capital's private bus operators have a programme of progressive retirement for the RM, many of which are cannibalised from several different models. The last will disappear in 2005, "if they last that long," says a spokesman.

They are involved in four times as many accidents as driver-only operated buses and the open-platform design would not pass muster with safety legislators in Europe, he says.

For wheelchair users, the elderly and mothers with baby buggies they also cannot compete with the modern low-platform models, although the RM's fans will point out that having a conductor on board can help these people.

And for those who claim the RM bus gets people on and off quicker, London Transport says the advent of smartcard bus passes in 2002 will speed things up.

The long goodbye

So it seems inevitable that, unless Mr Livingstone has his way, the only way aficionados of this design classic will get to see it will be by getting on a bus to the London Transport Museum.

See also:

02 Feb 99 | Politics
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