Seeing Red: The Routemaster Bus, a Transport Icon

Shall I share with you a most shocking admission? All right then.

I don’t like Routemasters.

There. I’ve said it.

Here’s why I don’t like Routemasters: because I used to travel on them.

Routemasters: design icons but bane of my commute. Photo by Salim Virji (Two double-decker Routemaster buses, London) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Routemasters: design icons but bane of my commute. Photo by Salim Virji (Two double-decker Routemaster buses, London) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve noticed that many people who like Routemasters, and who didn’t want them to be withdrawn from the streets of London in the early 2000s, didn’t actually use them on a daily basis. I did, commuting on the Route 36 between New Cross Gate, where I lived, and Vauxhall, where I worked. And they were bloody awful things.

They are, of course, a transport icon, one of those vehicles that has achieved recognition beyond public transport sector workers and enthusiasts, and one that has wormed its way into the popular consciousness.

Nevertheless, on a frosty winter’s morning in early 2001, you could join me to catch a Routemaster on its first turn of the day out of New Cross Garage. Because it didn’t have a back door and had been left outdoors all night, frost would have formed on the inside of the vehicle. As you piled onto the bus with your fellow passengers, it would warm up, the frost would melt, and then it would drip all over you and whatever book you were reading. That’s assuming you could read a book as you bumped up and down in sync with the Routemaster’s primitive suspension, on the tiny bench seats with vertebrae-cracking rails along the top. I used to wish for the days when some kind of vehicle shortage meant a modern low-floor double decker was substituted for my usual Routemaster. They were also extremely claustrophobic, with their seats rammed in and tiny aisles between; it was easily possible to get trapped in the passenger saloon on busy services and be unable to get to the back of bus in time to alight where you actually wanted to. Their ceilings were low, adding to the cramped experience, and the windows were so tiny that it was impossible to see where you were if you were (a) standing or (b) tall and either sitting or standing. Commuting to work on a Routemaster was enough to colour my perceptions of them forever.

A Routemaster on Route 36 - my one-time commuting roure - at Vauxhall in 2005. Photo by Mwharmby at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons
A Routemaster on Route 36 – my one-time commuting route – at Vauxhall in 2005. Photo by Mwharmby at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

And as soon as I mentioned to anyone I got a Routemaster to work every day, they’d say, “Oooh, that must be nice.”

I think the problem with Routemasters is that they were built too well. Introduced in 1959 they turned out to be near indestructible. That meant that a bus which was perfectly well designed for the era in which it first appeared lingered long after the expected lifespan of most buses.

During the depressing times of the 1970s and 80s when London’s transport network appeared to be in terminal decline, there was little financial incentive to replace the sturdy (and fully depreciated) Routemaster fleet, and neither was there a passenger volume incentive. But as London Transport turned itself around in the 1990s and 2000s, passenger volumes on the bus network shot up, and the shortcomings of the Routemaster were cruelly exposed. By this point, more modern low-floor buses were available that better met the actual travel needs of a more diverse range of people, and could do so in much greater comfort. 

The Routemasters, however, had lingered so long that they became a venerated icon that people liked mostly because the buses reminded them of a nearly forgotten world, just like the south of England slam door trains that were also hanging on well past their sell-by date into the early 2000s.

If I have to feature Routemasters I might as well get the glorious curves of Stockwell Bus Garage in as well. Photo by Matthew Black from London, UK (DSCF0041) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
If I have to feature Routemasters I might as well get the glorious curves of Stockwell Bus Garage in as well. Photo by Matthew Black from London, UK (DSCF0041) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The first Routemaster prototypes arrived in 1954, with production examples appearing from 1959. Their exterior styling was clearly an evolution of earlier London buses but considerably more streamlined around the top deck, though less so around the half-cab front (the prototypes sported a soon-abandoned streamlined radiator cover, as you can see here). That styling was the product of Douglas Scott, who was also famous for his work on the Hillman Minx car and, wonderfully, the AGA cooker (there was even a special edition London Transport AGA cooker in 2015, in recognition of this shared design heritage). The wide radiator grille and curved bodywork underneath it on the front end were especially distinctive.

Apart from small orders for Northern General and British European Airways, they were all built for London Transport, though they would later end up at operators around the country when displaced from London. Although the classic image of a Routemaster is a bus with an open rear platform (the RM and RML types), there were several other varieties. The RMCs and RCLs were built for Green Line coach services and had a rear platform with doors. The RMFs had entrances at the front, again protected by doors.

A Green Line Routemaster. Photo by Andrew Skudder from UK (Bus) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
A Green Line Routemaster – the rear platform has doors rather than being fully open. Photo by Andrew Skudder from UK (Bus) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Routemasters are the quintessential London Red Bus, though I’ve slowly come to realise that Routemaster enthusiasts can be apt to overplay this fact. Many films and TV programmes featuring red buses as a London establishing shot didn’t use Routemasters at all (though the overturned double decker in 28 Days Later is a memorable example of an actual Routemaster being used), and were quite happy to feature more modern vehicles instead. That suggests it was the redness of the bus that was the crucial factor, rather than the Routemasterness.

Nevertheless, the Routemaster is still tied strongly to London’s identity, particularly when the city is pitching itself at tourists. So you’ll find Routemasters in or on mugs, stickers, fridge magnets, toy sets, t-shirts and the like (egg cups, anyone?). Many such products can be found in shops like this:

The Red Bus Shop in London, near Waterloo station. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
The Red Bus Shop in London, near Waterloo station, where a Routemaster graces the sign. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Routemasters can be found all over the place away from the roads of London. BBC Radio produced a four-part comedy series called The Routemasters, which featured a time-travelling Routemaster. On a more serious note, in 2014 BBC Television screened a documentary series about London’s roads and the work of Transport for London. It was, needless to say, titled The Route Masters, because ‘Routemaster’ has become linguistic shorthand for ‘London transport’. When Royal Mail produced a stamp set in 2001 celebrating 150 years of the double decker bus, a Routemaster was an inevitable part of the line up.

Routemasters were operated by two members of staff. The driver sat in a cab, isolated from having to deal with passengers (a modus operandi many London bus drivers still attempt to employ to this day). Ticket checking and fare collecting were handled by a conductor. The good ones were brilliant, and lent some magic to the operation, which the Routemaster enthusiasts I think assumed was universal. Unfortunately it wasn’t. While the pro-Routemaster brigade enthused over the passenger benefits of a dedicated customer-facing member of staff, the reality was that a lot of them were very grumpy (so would I be if my workplace was a Routemaster), and at night-time most of them didn’t dare to visit the top deck where, as a result, anything could and frequently did happen.

One of the quirks of the Routemaster was that conductors and drivers had a bell code to communicate operational information. Passengers themselves would press the bell button or pull the bell cord once to request the bus to stop. Two rings on the bell by the conductor told the driver that all passengers were aboard and the bus could depart. Three rings by the conductor told the driver the bus was full and not to stop at the next bus stop. Londoners cottoned on to this, visitors not so much. I remember a fearsome Northern lady berating a conductor once because the bus hadn’t stopped where she wanted to get off. “I rang the bell!” she yelled, “I rang it THREE TIMES!” The regulars smiled and looked away. Four bells, if I remember correctly, was emergency stop, triggered probably by some idiot trying and failing to jump on or off the bus while it was on the move.

With an open rear platform, passengers could get on and off Routemasters between stops, and they frequently did. It’s this aspect of their operation that most appeals to Routemaster enthusiasts, with echoes of the days before a perceived nanny state or health-and-safety-gone-mad regime. On the other hand, during his unsuccessful 2008 campaign for a third term as London mayor, Ken Livingstone noted that during the 1970s, some 20 passengers died each year as a result of rear platform accidents.

None of this, however, has dented a certain section of society’s love affair with the Routemasters. In the early 2000s, Livingstone had also fallen under their spell when he arranged for the repatriation of a number of Routemasters back to London to be re-engined and refurbished. It looked like they were set to be around for quite some time in front-line service, and Livingstone said that only a “ghastly dehumanised moron” would wish to get rid of them.

The cramped interior of a Routemaster's lower deck. Imagine trying to navigate it in a wheelchair. Photo by Linda Hartley from London, UK (Routemaster on the 101 route) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The cramped interior of a Routemaster’s lower deck. Imagine trying to navigate it in a wheelchair. Photo by Linda Hartley from London, UK (Routemaster on the 101 route) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Luckily for me (a fully signed up ghastly dehumanised moron and proud of it), this was just about the time when would-be transport users with disabilities were becoming increasingly militant in their campaign for public transport to be made more accessible. Whatever Routemasters might be (iconic, red, a riposte to Health and Safety zealots), they were thoroughly inaccessible, unlike the new easy access low floor buses which were coming into service at the same time. There was no way you were going to get a wheelchair onto and into a Routemaster, nor a pushchair, pram, nor walking frame. They were also expensive to operate, thanks to their two-person operation, and slow to load/unload passengers, with travellers fighting to get through the narrow aisles and staircases in the face of other travellers moving in the opposite direction.

Livingstone, who to his enormous credit was able to change his mind when the facts changed, declared only a couple of years later that the Routemasters, even the recently refurbished ones, would have to go. He was of course lambasted in the press for this change of policy, especially by the right-wing media which hated him anyway. This piece from The Telegraph is typical of the sort. The last Routemaster in true London passenger service ran in 2005, early in Livingstone’s second term as mayor. They were retained on two central London ‘heritage’ routes, which seemed to me to be the perfect solution. If you really had to travel on a vintage Routemaster, jumping on and off at speed if you so desired, you could do so. The rest of us could get on with using a modern, accessible bus network.

The Routemasters’ not-quite-direct replacement – because there was a degree of route alteration and other vehicle changes – was the Citaro articulated bus (or bendy bus). It was the perfect London bus.

A London bendy bus in 2008. Photo by Darren Hall [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
A London bendy bus in 2008. Photo by Darren Hall [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Low floor and fully accessible, it had acres of space for passengers whatever their degree of mobility. With three doors along its length and no staircases to struggle up and down it could load and unload vast numbers of passengers as quick as a flash. It didn’t need conductors so the staffing costs were halved. It was however, very divisive. Some (by no means all, but enough of the ones with loud voices) cyclists didn’t like them because they regarded the long vehicles as a danger to cyclists. The lack of conductors offended those who felt that an extra staff presence on buses was reassuring to nervous passengers, enhanced personal security, and reduced fare evasion. There were a couple of fires on early models, and while buses do catch fire from time to time, these incidents were seized on with glee by anti-bendy bus media sources.

The cavernous interior of an ex-London articulated Citaro, now in Brighton. Photo by Les Chatfield from Brighton, England (The Bend of a Bendy bus) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The cavernous interior of an ex-London articulated Citaro, now in Brighton. Photo by Les Chatfield from Brighton, England (The Bend of a Bendy bus) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Citaros also lacked the exterior design presence of the Routemasters. They were manufactured by Mercedes Benz, not normally a company you think of as being short on style. Yet while the Citaros were neatly put together, they did tend towards the boxy and anonymous. Northern Ireland-based Wrightbus made a much more stylish articulated bus at the same time, and I half wonder if those had been chosen instead, whether the bendy bus might have stood a better chance of survival.

As explained in this article from The Guardian, however, the bendy buses were the perfect “wedge issue” for Conservative candidate Boris Johnson in the 2008 mayoral election. He stood on a platform (possibly an open rear platform) of getting rid of bendy buses and running a competition to design a new Routemaster.

Routemasters appealed to both Johnston’s buffoonish sense of fun (hanging off the rear platform, what a wheeze!) and what sounded at times very like casual xenophobia, with Johnston describing them darkly as “German-made” and accusing them of blocking the streets (see here). The bendy buses were often described by their detractors as more suitable for European cities than the historic streets of London, as though London somehow wasn’t in Europe.

Johnston won the 2008 election so, in the Routemaster’s most depressing legacy, it begat the New Bus for London, a.k.a. the New Routemaster. The whole exercise was a classic example of someone confusing a public transport network with a tourist attraction, and was not the only time Johnson was to make this mistake. He has of course since left London for even bigger and more catastrophic mistakes, also involving suspicion of Europe.

The two central London heritage routes operated by original Routemasters were reduced to single route in 2014, but the Routemasters live on through a panoply of other uses. I can’t even begin to count the number that are available for private hire events such as weddings. Many have been converted for uses as varied as bars, polo match viewing stands, holiday booking offices, and cafes:

Routemaster RM1621 converted to social enterprise cafe. Seen in Haslemere in September 2015. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page
Routemaster RM1621 converted to social enterprise cafe. Seen in Haslemere in September 2015. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

And for as long as tourists flock to London, there will be souvenirs featuring Routemasters to sell to them, I suspect. The bus and the city remain inseparable.

The bendy buses have all headed off for various pastures new too, including Brighton, where the historic city streets strangely pose no problem and cyclists seem to have learned to co-exist with them. London’s loss was Brighton’s gain, I reckon.

Further Reading and Bibliography

There’s so much stuff on Routemasters, books, articles and webpages, it’s impossible to know where to start. I suppose I should note Transport for London’s page on Routemasters old and new, as the transport authority which operates them, here.

Anything linked to in the text above will have been used as a source, too.

And finally…

There is nothing more likely to provoke an online transport flame war than saying you don’t like Routemasters, and you think articulated Citaros were the best London bus ever. So, the comment section is below. Off you go…

13 thoughts on “Seeing Red: The Routemaster Bus, a Transport Icon

  1. I’m with you. The Citaros were (in my mind at least) quite pretty in their basicness, but I wonder if there would have been more love if the Wright Streetcar which are, frankly, gorgeous) had been used there as well as in York.

  2. The Routemasters weren’t just built well, they were part of a system designed to keep buses running. Depots capable to stripping and rebuilding a bus every 2-3 years were part of the deal. There is film of entire bus bodies being shifted around on specialy designed gantry cranes. Mechanics also apprecieted a vehicle designed for simple repair, something modern buses aren’t.

    Of course, a system like this works well on a city-wide basis but split it up into lots of different garages and the ecnomies of scale stop working. This didn’t help the Routemasters.

    It’s not the only iconic but less than perfect transport solution London has either. The classic FX4 black cab isn’t nearly as good as a modern vehicle but they are what tourists want to ride.

    Old vehicles always attract a following that goes beyond their practical use. Is a classic car just and old car? For practical use, something modern will be easier look after (while it works), faster, more comfortable and probably more practical. Despite this, we have an affection for older vehicles that transends this. I think this is a good thing but can see the downside when public transport and tourist attractions get mixed up.

  3. The classic British double-deck bus layout has the advantage of a good ratio of seats on the lower deck. With contemporary vehicles the lower deck seating seems to have been fitted in as an afterthought. Plinthed seats are a hazard – I came off one last year on a curve and ended up on the floor on the other side of the vehicle, with a nasty bruise.

    Single-deck buses (and trams) take up too much length of road, which reduces capacity at stops. This is a major issue in Gothenburg which has a comprehensive tram network.

    There is much to be said for the front-engine/rear engine double-deck bus configuration.

  4. They were truly awful but my mum was a bus driver in the 90’s and liked how the conductor could deal with the passengers and she could focus on driving. Now she has the job of both. Thanks to TFL running things based on mileage and our fear of confrontation sadly payment seems optional on buses now with drivers reluctant to challenge those without tickets! I am 21 and have been driving myself for a year and at least the bendy losing revenue had the benefit of carrying more passengers unlike the NRM which loses revenue all for a bus that looks striking but is so useless!

  5. A millennial finds faults with a mid-century design? What surprise!

    Ever ride, regularly, an RT (est. late ’30s)?

    Such things are evolutionary. Sadly the NB4L was a retrogression to absurdity.

    Today, as regularly, I’ve ridden a First York Citaro O530G. You soppy southerners don’t know what you’ve chucked away.

  6. I liked the old routmaster just hope on ,like the nostalgic look and character it had , the sound of the engine.

  7. The RM’s good construction (mainly down to aluminium not rusting!) was only one reason for it’s long survival!

    Firstly, London’s initial problems at adopting one man (as it was known then, rather than the current one person!) operation, with complicated turnstiles and self service machines on the AEC Swift/Merlin standee single deckers that introduced the concept to Londoners-on Red Arrow as well as suburban networks inspired by the Bus Reshaping Plan, weren’t popular with the public, especially when it involved being cramped into a standee space. Then, when it was adapted on the double deck DMS class, about 2000 of these being built before LT decided it didn’t like them! The fault, of course, lay in LT’s overhaul system which was geared towards maintaining buses that LT had a hand in designing!

    Then there was the time OMO took on the streets of Central London, which encouraged LT to keep them, encouraged by Ken Livingstone when elected GLC leader in 1981. Of course, the policy to keep the RM’s was tied into a desire to preserve employment. This lasted until LT was taken away from the GLC, and the government run London Regional Transport took over, resuming the one manning programme until just a core network of crew routes ran across Central London.

    Then Ken came back, I believe his big mistake was still thinking in 1981 terms, keeping conductors to keep unemployment down but, of course, 21st Century London had a shortage of labour, which he came to realise shortly after!

    The disability accessibility meant that finally, modern buses could actually do something that the RM couldn’t but the final nail in the coffin was, in my opinion, Travelcard followed by Oyster, which saw the loading times of one person buses improve dramatically, this finally making the role of conductor redundant.

    I was there on the penultimate day, when all sorts of guest buses supplemented the RM’s on the 159. I think the day was particularly noticeable because the RM was the final front engine, conductor operated bus in service, meaning an era was definitely coming to an end! And because of the facts above, I think they finished at exactly the right time!

    I sympathise with the problems you faced on your commute but, at that time, very few modern buses were much better. Recent years, however, has seen bus design move on in leaps and bounds and the Borismaster, although conceived as a costly political bandwagon, has been a part of that! The Borismaster lead to Wright’s Gemini 3 bodywork and its competitor ADL introducing the Enviro 400 City. And of course, that’s exactly what the original Routemaster did back in the sixties. A lot of its features (power steering, semi automatic gearbox) were to become features of the new generation of rear engine buses.

    So I salute the Routemaster, last of a generation that gave much to the next!

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