Diary

Andrew Saint

It’s the noise I miss the most. The Kennington Road is a barren speedtrack. Buses can get up a good lick there, if passengers at request stops don’t flag them down. Even if your head was in the newspaper, you could tell a 159 was coming from the gurgling roar of the Routemaster’s engine, stick out a hand just in time and hear the machine change register, grind to a halt and turn over in moody reverberation, till the bell rang and it was time for the off.

On 9 December the 159, the last of London’s genuine Routemaster routes, was consigned like all the rest to OPOs, one-person-operated buses. Odd pockets of London mourned. Routemasters and conductors have been reinstated on the abbreviated ‘Heritage Routes’ 9 and 15, serving the City and West End. Nothing south of the river: nostalgia stops at the Thames.

The Routemaster’s has been a death by a thousand cuts. It had been in production just ten years when London Transport stopped making it in 1968 and promised it would be off the streets in a decade. So fragile did its off-the-peg replacements prove, however, that there was one grudging reprieve after another. But the economics of single operation were inexorable. One by one, Routemaster garages and routes got converted. Ken Livingstone, touting for the bus vote in 2000, pledged to bring back the conductor, but instead introduced ‘bendy buses’, peddled as friendly for the disabled and people with small children. In reality, he had few options. Over the years, chances to update the Routemaster had been squandered. Privatisation was one headache, the cost of crews another. But everything went back to the closure in 1990 of London Transport’s Chiswick works, where the Routemaster was planned and tested.

So much can be gleaned from The Bus We Loved: London’s Affair with the Routemaster, a pocket-sized production as sleek as the vehicle it elegises.[*] The name of its young author, Travis Elborough, pictured in 1970s spectacles and scarf on the back flap, trails hints of encryption: ‘Alight, O Bus Rover’ perhaps, or ‘Rival Hogs Route B’. To enthuse about buses is to run the gauntlet of nerdishness, to court it indeed.

Elborough is indulgent to bus-spotters and snappers-up of RMs, full-sized or Dinky-toy scale. He has caught every clip of a London double-decker in the backdrop of a film, every allusion in a lyric, but he is also in earnest. Though he gives a fair hearing to those who have fought to rid London of the Routemaster, like any fan of a defeated team he is sad and angry. ‘We loved it,’ Elborough sums up, ‘not because it was old and quirky, but because it was bloody good … it greeted us as an equal. It respected our custom. It was comfortable. Convenient. Efficient. We were free to get on and get off, within reason, when we wanted to.’

There are reams of esoteric publications about the Routemaster, but most of them crush the reader with their mania for collectable numbers: route numbers, timetables, fares on ticket machines, dimensions of engines and chassis. Elborough winnows all that away to get to the nub: why should a mundane red bus have captured citizens’ hearts?

The lazy response is to label the Routemaster an ‘icon’, a ‘classic’ that owes its chic to the styling of Douglas Scott, an industrial designer who also refashioned the Aga and the Rediffusion radio. That way, from a niche in the old-codgers’ corner of the heritage industry, the bus turns into an exhibit in the Design Museum. The truth is more edifying, if anyone out there in transport policy has the patience to heed it.

Standards of good design on London Transport’s network date back to Frank Pick, the second-in-command between the wars. Pick was a charmless puritan and autocrat who knew what was good for people. He also knew that the monopoly which London Transport acquired in 1933 had to be paid for with discipline, efficiency and attention to detail. After the Second World War, Pick was dead and the Underground too costly to expand. Buses, however, were profitable, with passenger numbers at their zenith. At its zenith too, in industry and architecture, was the ideal of cyclical development. Design, manufacture, test, assess in use, report, redesign: the wheel went round and round. But it relied on captive markets and integrated relations between designers, makers and operators.

London’s interwar buses were a mess. You could wave one down anywhere, they competed with trolleybuses and trams, and they were seldom red. The evolution of the double-decker began with the model known as the STL (Short Type Lengthened). On the eve of the war, the RT (Regent Type), the bus fan’s pet bus, was designed at Chiswick under the austerely Pickian parent of the Routemaster, Albert Durrant, London Transport’s chief bus engineer from 1933 to 1965. Production was postponed while the team switched to tanks. By the time the first postwar RTs rolled out, crimson and luxurious, their successor was edging onto the drawing-board. But it was seven years from prototype and 11 from production. ‘Sputnik took less time to get into space,’ Elborough remarks.

Scott gave the Routemaster leather-edged seats of dark-red moquette, window surrounds of Chinese green and ceilings of Sung yellow, but naked lightbulbs in the ceilings. Nobody imagined it perfect or final, certainly not Scott himself. The Routemaster was fiddled with, stretched, experimentally deprived of its red livery to lose weight, tentatively enclosed at the back. In a final throw before he retired, Durrant tried to turn the RM into a rear-engined, front-entry bus (in an evil hour it was nicknamed the Fruitmaster). But Leyland Buses had taken over the makers of the Routemaster and vetoed further special development in London.

Why did the capital and its tourists so take to the Routemaster? Elborough invokes Swinging London. Cinematically, the ur-text is the saccharine Summer Holiday (1962), in which, as in successive bus-laden movies, Elborough reminds us, Cliff Richard and the young ones board ‘the wrong bus’, an RT then being easier to buy from London Transport than an RM. During Carnaby Street’s heyday, it appears, any red double-decker with an open platform to sing and caper on would have done the trick. Modernists have a weightier explanation. Form should follow function, they say. A design unremittingly refined to meet nothing but the needs of its driver, conductor, passengers and context is bound to be popular and beautiful – which is what Pick would have claimed. The truth lies somewhere in between. Pick started out as an advertising man: he knew plenty about branding.

The obsequies for the Routemaster had been rehearsed. Each time a route was withdrawn, privately owned and preserved RTs and RMs poured in, many manned by ex-busmen. All that last day, they ran alongside the official Routemasters, following timetables agreed with the authorities and available off the internet.

Elborough describes the demise of the 390, 9 and 73 in September 2004, the last gobbled up by the accursed bendies: fewer seats, less clean, less manoeuvrable, a terror for cyclists, a charter for fare-dodgers. The 19 converted last spring, the 38 went bendy in the autumn. Reserved for final dispatch in December was the 159, which once ran from West Hampstead to Croydon, but now only from Marble Arch to Streatham. Fearing mayhem, London Transport scheduled the parade of buses for the Thursday, with the final official service leaving Marble Arch at lunchtime on the Friday.

On the Wednesday I sampled Kennington’s buses. The 3, 59 and 133 are OPO double-deckers of the sharp-topped, bald-fronted style that now rules London’s streets. To compensate for the quietness of the rear engines, there are the ‘bus stopping’ announcements and the beeping of doors and the private cacophony of mobiles and iPods. The levels of double-deckers have always been at odds. The lower deck is for the old, the sedentary and the incurious; the top deck is for fighting, necking, sightseeing and making maddening calls. It used to be for smoking; on Routemasters it was for fare evasion, too. In their dying days conductors hardly bothered to go upstairs. Personal devices had put a distance between them and the passengers, one told Elborough. And they handled little money any more, mostly checking passes and cards.

Not the least drawback of the OPOs is their hideous interiors. The garish seats are separate now, not benched, for comfort. The lighting is in glaring strips, for visibility. The poles are awkwardly cranked and wrapped in attention-grabbing, safety-code yellow. The fundamental fault lies with the stairs. A double-decker’s staircase ought to be at the back but if you enter a crowded bus past the driver, that is impossible. So the big box has been put in the middle, where it hogs space and jams up the interior. There is no easy design answer. Here form fails to coalesce with function, unless you bring back the conductors.

Back on the 159, festooned with placards announcing the heritage routes, the conductors clove to their windwhipped platforms. What would they be doing next week? ‘Looking for a nice job … It’s slow this time of year.’ Though they could retrain as drivers, few were taking up the offer. The buses looked shabby, the ingenious window-winders had jammed. But the two prime positions, if you could get them, still gave the best views in town. Left-hand front top, cantilevered over the engine, for lofty survey; left-hand front bottom for street reportage plus a chance to spy on the driver.

The Thursday dawned cuttingly cold. Rush-hour OPOs barrelled along Kennington Road with steamed-up windows. I went south with the amateurs, shivering at the stop, downloaded timetable in hand. An old-style RM finally arrived, all its good seats bagged by bus fans. Boys in their sixties indulged by a smattering of wives, they chattered about wing mirrors and route changes. The subfusc decor and naked bulbs contributed to the mood of a damp cremation. A few photographers stood sentinel at junctions. Short of Brixton the mobility lobbyists had hung out a sign: ‘Routemaster Good Riddance: Transport for All’.

I got off for the return journey. Again an interminable wait. The digital display in the bus shelter told its usual porkies. Next to me, a woolly hat noted down bus numbers. Even heritage buses come in pairs. I chose an RT, whose driver made heavy weather of the gears. As the morning lengthened, spirits rose. On Westminster Bridge the cameras massed. The nerds kept up their patter: ‘Oh, there goes the EastEnders bus, no. 613.’ Crisper philosophy from an authentic passenger on the cross-seats: ‘I don’t want no bendy bus.’

Marble Arch on the Friday was an anti-climax. London’s final trams drew thousands, but only the obsessed, the angry and the mobility campaigners felt the call to be there on the last day of the Routemasters. A straggle of witnesses was penned in between the road and the lunchtime shoppers. In trademark scarf and spectacles, Travis Elborough waited patiently to speak to camera. Was this the final 159, or was there another one? No one knew. Eventually the last bus came, filled up randomly and moved off to muffled cheers. More spectacular was the open-topped media bus behind, the hacks canted out at all angles. Once again the reflection had trumped reality. As they vanished slowly in the direction of Oxford Circus, a freedom for Londoners vanished, too. No more hopping on at corners. No longer ‘that al dente moment’, as Elborough delightfully calls it, when your toes touch the platform or you drop off left foot first. Take no risks, enjoy no liberty. Time to get back on the bike.

[*] Granta, 204 pp., £12, September 2005, 1 86207 794 0.