City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Routemaster RIP

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My mother. There’s a person yet to appear on this blog. I usually shy away from discussing matters personal here – and don’t worry, I’m not about to break that ‘policy’. It’s just that she has a fabulous if confounding way of dropping amazing anecdotes into conversation – along the lines of "Oh there’s the steps outside the House of Commons that I had to scurry down to try in vain to retrieve some important parliamentary papers that I’d dropped into the Thames after one white wine too many in about 1963" (she worked as a PA to an MP at the HP in the early ’60s). I usually stand there amazed, as she casually creates these new layers of meaning upon the city I now live and work in, as if she’d of course told me a million times before.

Anyway, the latest snippet goes along the lines of, "Of course your step-grandfather’s brother died after an accident jumping off the back of a Routemaster." This in the week that that classic of transport design, the Routemaster bus, is 50 years old. It’s being gradually phased out, replaced by new single-decker Mercedes ‘bendy’ buses, which according to The Independent, "many Londoners positively hate." I actually like the new buses – they afford easy entry/exit at multiple points along the body of the bus, akin to the trams and trolleybuses in continental cities and modern British cities like Manchester and Sheffield.

Routemaster bus

The loss of the Routemaster is a real shame – their bulbous burly design was a staple feature of books for children, anthropomorphised into cheery, cockney denizens of the big smoke, and therefore painted into people’s imagined London for years to come. I’d always thought the  ‘hop on, hop off’ platform at the back of the bus was a fabulous thing, both enabling a significant degree of agency for the user in terms of entry/exit points to the web London Transport wove, and adding a frisson of excitement to traversing the city. I used to romanticise this latter aspect – intone dreadfully with Ackroydian relish: "the city is always about danger, excitement, innocent death and so on and so forth" – almost, but not quite, pooh-poohing the number of accidents that Routemasters were involved in as a result. However, this new fact about a member of my family, albeit a thoroughly distant one, actually dying as a result of the hop on, hop off platform has woken me up to my crass view there.

I wish someone had taken on the Routemaster as a design project, and attempted to capture the spirit of the old vehicle whilst updating its layers technological for a contemporary city – in the manner of the VW Beetle, Mini, Nissan Figaro (automobile simulacrum) or indeed the London Taxi. However, assuming that idea had been thoroughly tested, I tend to agree with Peter Hendy, ‘head of buses’ at Transport For London:

"They’re fabulous old vehicles. It’s an iconic design – there is nothing else on the road now that was designed 50 years ago … (However) life moves on. It’s fine to have nostalgia but you want something fit for the job. And the Routemasters just aren’t."

One of the Routemaster design team, Colin Curtis, 78, agrees:

"We knew what we wanted for London. It wasn’t a case of going and buying what was built for everyone else – like they do now. We designed our own. It also had to be a nice piece of street furniture. But she’s got to go now. She’s 50 years old."

This doesn’t feel like agism – many of these rattling hulks are clearly past their best, lacking the nimble acceleration of modern vehicles, issuing smoky fumes and no doubt guzzling diesel. I do like the appreciation Curtis has of design beyond the edges vehicle itself – the wider context of the bus also having a role in what he describes as ‘street furniture’. I guess we’d call that experience design these days.

Unrelated: Mum also recently revealed that my great-grandfather worked on the London Midlands Railway in the early part of the 20thC – apparently as well as hanging around Clerkenwell fixing watches. This tenuous connection between my family and one of the key jobs of the 20thC – working on the railway was one of the British trades of the age – added a further layer of meaning to yesterday’s visit to the old Midland Grand hotel at St Pancras station. It was the luxury hotel built by the railway (also home to offices etc.) but essentially derelict for years and years – some photos to follow, I hope (though they won’t be as good as Urban75’s). It’s free, and open to the public and well worth a visit.


9 responses to “Routemaster RIP”

  1. Frankie Roberto Avatar

    I once heard someone ask Ken Livingstone if the Routemasters would ever be replaced, during a radio phone-in. His answer:
    “Over my dead body…”


  2. Lon Barfield Avatar

    Best person to talk to about these buses is John Thackara, a writer and speaker on design who actually used to drive these things for a living.


  3. John Thackara Avatar

    I did indeed – on routes 73 and 134 out of Muswell Hill Garage. And very wonderful vehicles they were, too. They had a lot of power, brilliant visibility, and brakes strong enough to halt in a yard, even when full (with 78 people and their stuff). As a result we could drive them like a mini – helped by the fact that people would get out of your way: we were actually taught at (bus) driving school to “signal and then just pull out”. Driving later-generation buses was a rubbish experience by comparison – rather like steering Starship Enterprise down the Holloway Road.



    I was at Highgate watching the route 271
    was it a Route Master., Or was it a Route Master long (RML)





  6. Shelby Munro Avatar
    Shelby Munro

    I’ve always wanted to go to London to ride the Routemasters. And, what do you know? TFL and Ken Livingstone steals that Dream away from me! While I think that it’s wonderful that selected Routemasters are being kept on two Heritage Routes, I want to be able to see all of London, and I will not ride on any Bus, other than the Routemaster! The Routemaster IS London, to me. My hands will not rest, until the rest of the Routemasters are put back on their proper Routes!


  7. Richard Coombs Avatar
    Richard Coombs

    Yesterday of all places, living here in Japan i finally realized a childhood ambition, to sit in the driver’s cabin of a routemaster double decker bus, a fully working one, used for tours, but my biggest memory was as a child sitting on the first deck on a snowy London morning behind the driver’s cabin on the morning the British currency went from Shillings to pence and how excited i was waiting for the bus conductor to give us our first new coins.
    If the B747-400 is the queen of the skies then the routemaster was certainly the queen of the roads an unforgetable irreplacable slice of British culture.


  8. Jason Day Avatar
    Jason Day

    Well as much as i despise that devious taxing livingstone i have to thank him as I’m now the more than proud owner of RML 2477 BN. My bus was in storage for two years at Brixton tram shed, where it was removed of it’s dignity and many many parts, mainly the really expensive to replace parts! I bought the bus as a scrap vehicle!!
    I have gradually collected from fellow enthusiasts, from up n down the country, collecting parts I need and am making slow progress.
    But financing a bus resto, whilst struggling to find work is somewhat a labour of love, which is a pleasure to do service to the bus, unlike the thirstier, flammable bendy buses!!
    email me if you like and I would forward some pics of my slow
    JayDay. In need of a data cabling/service technician London or the South East.


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