Page last updated at 04:28 GMT, Tuesday, 20 March 2007

London icon or 'bashed-up relic'?

By Trevor Timpson
BBC News

More than 50 years since they appeared on London's streets, the Routemasters are still running - but not everyone is delighted.

Routemaster at Charing Cross
Routemasters are still rolling on in the age of the Oystercard
The veteran vehicle with its curvy design and its open platform has been called "the last bus to be a proper bus".

Many Londoners remember fondly how they used to hop on and off them and pull the string to ring the bell.

But a Disability Rights Commission spokesman says it is "a bashed-up old relic from a bygone age" and the fact that it is still running on two central London heritage routes is "a disappointment".

A programme of repurchase and refurbishment - begun after the election of Mayor Ken Livingstone in 2000 - stopped in 2003-4, and the last full-scale route - the 159 - withdrew its Routemasters in December 2005.

What remained was the heritage routes - though only in the hours from 0930 to 1800 and only on the central part of two routes, the 9 (Albert Hall to Aldwych) and 15 (Tower of London to Trafalgar Square).

So if you want to get a bus along Piccadilly or Knightsbridge, what comes along may well be a Routemaster - painted in its original livery inside and out. Still rolling along in the age of the bendy-bus and the Oystercard.

Enthusiasts

Transport for London calls the 50-year-old model "a design icon synonymous with London" and invites passengers to "take a trip on a London landmark" by using the heritage routes.

Meanwhile, enthusiasts spend thousands of pounds to own one and drive them across Britain to attend rallies.

Although we're improving the bus network by introducing new, more accessible buses, Routemasters will not be disappearing completely
Transport for London

They hail them as the climax of a series of buses designed in London, for London. Supporters point to their lightness, their new environmentally-friendly engines and their fuel economy compared with later, heavier double-deckers.

But wheelchair users cannot get on them - and some people dislike them a lot.

Transport consultant Andrew Braddock says Routemasters are "quirky - as is almost anything built to a design effectively laid out in 1912 and around for nearly three times its expected life".

"We've stated to Transport for London that we're not happy about the heritage routes," says Disability Rights Commission spokesman Patrick Edwards.

He stresses that in 2017 it will be illegal to have public transport that is inaccessible and "TfL are opening themselves to legal action".

Routemaster platform and stairs
Routemaster platforms are fun for some, impossible for others

TfL points out that the heritage Route buses are in addition to the normal schedules on the 9 and 15, and disabled people can access low floor, wheelchair-accessible buses on both routes.

Mr Edwards is not impressed with the argument that many disabled, elderly and frail people may have preferred Routemasters because they had conductors.

That is suggesting that disabled people can only get around London "with the goodwill and behest of a helping hand", he believes.

Andrew Braddock, formerly head of access and mobility at Transport for London, accepts that "the total number of wheelchair users is inevitably small... but the number of trips being made by this previously ignored group is growing all the time".

Transport for London says it encourages disabled people to use public transport and its bus fleet is wheelchair accessible - if you don't count the 16 Routemasters on the heritage routes - but, says Mr Braddock, "disabled people need to gain confidence that all the links in the chain will work when they make any journey."

What of the future? Andrew Morgan, chairman of the Routemaster Association, regrets the abrupt way in which Routemaster services in London were terminated.

"The original idea in 2001 was absolutely right in my opinion," he said.

Mayor Ken Livingstone had promised to retain the Routemaster and increase the number of bus conductors.

Ultimate

"That would have given him breathing space to design a suitable replacement, not buy the next available thing out of the factory. Now we have things off the shelf and German bendy-buses, and the travel experience has not improved. It's gone backwards," says Mr Morgan.

He claims the Routemaster was "the ultimate design.. so well built, so well engineered that it kept going for more 50 years, and at the beginning of the 21st century it was re-engineered again up to modern standards."

THE LAST BUS? KEY FACTS
Routemaster
Routemasters first entered service in 1956
In total, 2,876 were built
Some 1,300 still exist
London Transport said they would be phased out by 1978
They were last used on a regular route in 2005
The bus in Summer Holiday was not a Routemaster
It was an RT - the previous model

A worthy successor would have the same merit of lightness, built in aluminium with no chassis, and would have a conductor - as well as having a low floor for accessibility.

Would it have an open platform for jumping on and off? "Where appropriate," says Andrew Morgan. Doors could be included and closed on some sections of the route, but left open elsewhere.

For the Routemasters, apart from rallies and private functions, only the heritage routes now remain.

TfL says it is pleased with the level of interest in the Heritage routes and no changes or extensions to them are being considered at present.

Andrew Morgan thinks they are "moderately successful". He believes disability campaigners' attitude to them may be "sour grapes, because they didn't quite win the battle".

Andrew Braddock feels the buses' limited role on the heritage routes makes sense, but adds: "Whether American and Japanese tourists really perceive a Routemaster to be something different from the other 6,000 or so red double-deckers I frankly doubt."


Your memories of travelling on a Routemaster:

Have no idea what a 'bendy-bus'looks like as I have been in the USA for over 30 years, but I have wonderful memories of travelling on the old double-deckers to school and to my Auntie's house and all over London. Have a memory of being rather drunk coming home from a party and the conductor laying me out on the long seats so I could have a rest! My Uncle George was a conductor some 50 years ago. We delighted in seeing him as the bus came closer..he used the old tickets which he punched. My sister and I used to jump from bus to bus in the West End on the way to work each day - quicker than being trampled on the tube! The sight of St. Paul's always made me shudder in the early morning sunlight from the upper deck.
Carole Ricker, Bluffton, USA

The routemasters were great, I use to catch the 137 from Oxford St to Clapham Common. I always liked the wheel arch bench seats next to the platform, sometimes you would get a character conductor to keep you amused on your journey or if he didn't object you could stand on the platform and watch the London Streets pass by. Hopping off before your stop to beat the traffic always made you smile. The new bendy buses are so soulless, usually stuck in traffic just yards from a stop but with no escape possible. Travelling in London now is so boring and slower to boot!
Tarquin Cole, London, UK

There are few things that so clearly symbolize London in the second half of the 1900s as the Routemaster, and I fully support their being kept on the heritage routes for many years to come. And if there is a legal issue with regard to wheelchair access, then simply take them off-route and make them a straight tourist attraction. But do please keep them on the road - they have been a part of the making of London!
Bruce, Geneva, Switzerland

What a load of nonsense! The very fact that the heritage buses are additional buses on routes already catered for by accessible buses should kill the issue. I suppose we should also close the whispering gallery in St. Paul's to all visitors over accessibility. After all, that would be 'fair'. As for it becoming illegal, what a joke. London has new, accessible buses coming out of its ears! What's wrong with just a handful of the old ones. In any case, I don't think I'd bother to use the heritage routes specially, but I like to see the buses around, and if there's no one on them that simply won't happen. The majority of people like them. Is this a democracy?
Jonathan H, Kiev, Ukraine

I think the new buses across London are a disgrace. If you sit downstairs near the back, it is so cramped. the windows barley let in hardly any air and during the summer months its so hot and stuffy. many people who cannot find a seat downstairs often stand as the number of seats are limited compared to the route masters. I'm really dissapointed with Ken for allowing the replacement of the route master to take its place.
Fatima,

The length of bendy buses make them a major hazard to anyone riding a bike or trying to cross the road. What's more, TfL seem to be finding that people simply don't bother paying to ride these buses. Clearly, no more of these buses should be ordered.
Will, London

The non-disabled have rights too. Modern buses are a nightmare for the able-bodied, and particularly the elderly or temporarily infirm. The lower decks of double deckers have virtually no seats, and no room to "move down the bus", and getting to and from the upper deck is a white knuckle ride of jerking about and swaying (OK, some of that is bad driving). Bendy buses are not much better, some of the seats are almost inaccessible to anybody who isn't 100% fit. I'm not saying the Routemaster was perfect, but it was a damned sight better than any of the replacements - long may they continue to grace our str! eets!
Paul, London

I hope that the TfL continues to run these old buses on the special routes they should offer regular modern buses as well but the tourist love this kind of thing. I know we do and enjoy riding on steam trains on our visits to the UK>
barebear2@bellsouth.net, Winter Springs, Florida USA

It is right that these busses should remain on the heritage routes. LRT should be allowed to dictate the design of a worthy successor that is suitable for London, not the boring, impractical, heavy and fuel-hungry and time-wasting current models. We should be allowed to hop on and off where appropriate!
Tom Hopes, London, England

Its a few buses mostly operating as a novelty tourist attraction. 99.9% of London buses are wheelchair accessible. Why spoil the fun for a few tourists?
David S, London

I doubt if Patrick Edwards of the Disability Right Commission uses buses very often. I do and I've never seen a wheelchair user on the new buses in Central London. What I have seen is people frustrated at having to wait until the bus inches towards a bus stop before they can alight, instead of being able to get off in heavy traffic or at trafic lights. How many people have had the doors closed in their faces and then watched as the bus only moves a few feet before waiting in a queue of traffic and not been able to jump on.
Mike, London

I love the routemasters! Not only are they a classic design but they are perfect in London because if the bus gets stuck in traffic, you can get off and walk rather than wait til the next stop. Having to wait til the next stop in traffic made me 20 minutes late this morning as the driver refused to open the doors - and I wanted to get off at the next stop which was about 100m down the road!
Allie Keith, United Kingdom

I lived in London in the bad old days of the Routemaster, and loved them. It was great to be able to run after them and hop on the back rather than having to wait for them to stop at a bus stop, and hop off again when close to your destination. Conductors served far more of a function than simply collecting tickets ¿ they helped people on and off, they acted as tourist information, and when I talk to people who have traveled to London on holiday some of their fondest memories are of the buses and how helpful the conductors were. However, I would fully agree that they are unsuitable for the 21st century in terms of disabled access. I used to work for an independent living scheme, being the ¿arms and legs¿ for a gentleman in a wheelchair, and got an idea of just how poorly served the wheelchair user is in London.
Tony James, New York, NY, USA



SEE ALSO
Routemaster makes final journey
09 Dec 05 |  London

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