Over the long history of London’s buses, there have been many with double decks, separate driver’s cabs, forward engines, rear entrances, open rear platforms, and red color schemes. But none have been as uniquely-designed, well-built, long-lived, well-loved and impeccably-preserved as the nigh-near immortal Routemaster, truly the ultimate London bus.
The Routemaster was designed by London Transport, then the local government body responsible for operating London’s bus and underground rail (the famous tube) network, and built by AEC, formerly known as the Associated Equipment Company, and later part of Leyland.
AEC had built the previous generation of the London bus, known as the RT. It was a regular production AEC Regent chassis equipped with a London Transport-specified body, built initially the Charles H Roe company of Leeds, in Yorkshire and later by various bodybuilders around the UK. The AEC Regent had a very conventional chassis and body construction, fitted with a 7.7 litre or 9.6 litre AEC diesel engine, a preselector epicyclic gearbox, and a body built to the operator’s specification or preference by one of several body builders around the UK.
Typically, it would seat 56 passengers and weigh around 8 tons unladen. The Regent 3, on which the RT was based, dated from the late 1930s and was manufactured into the mid 1950s. London Transport ultimately purchased over 4500 of them; operation of the RT finished in 1979. This was a very typical British double decker of the period, and the London versions were not unusual in any significant way.
Some RT series buses were built on the similarly conventional Leyland Titan chassis; hence advertisements like this. London Transport maintained all their own buses, with an extensive planned overhaul programme at the Aldenham works (now closed). It is worth following the link for an impression of the size and organisation this required. London’s buses were all designed with this type of maintenance in mind.
After WW2, London Transport identified a need for a new bus to eventually replace the RT fleet and London’s trolley bus fleet. The design priorities were increased full efficiency, passenger capacity and ease of maintenance. London Transport’s own engineering teams developed the concept of the new bus, what we now know as the Routemaster. London was unique in specifying the complete specification of its buses and then participating in the design and build. Other operators opted for either a chassis and body combination from standard options (a Leyland, AEC, Guy or Daimler chassis and a ECW, Park Royal, Weymann, Metro Cammell or Roe body–all names that have gone). London Transport’s bus works had spent the war building and repairing bombers, so a lot had been learnt about aluminium and how to use it.
The first prototype was complete in 1954 and, after doing show duty at the Commercial Vehicle Show and extensive testing, went into trial service in 1956. The initial prototypes had the radiator mounted under the bus, but this was moved to a conventional position for production, accounting for the change in the frontal appearance. The aluminium and integral nature of the construction resulted in a bus that carried 64 passengers against 56 for the RT within a reduction in unladen weight.
The Routemaster’s list of innovations was long–it had an all aluminium body, with a large element of integral construction with a front “A” steel sub-frame (including engine, steering and front suspension) and a rear “B” steel sub-frame (carrying rear axle and suspension). Independent front suspension, coil spring rear suspension, powered hydraulic brakes, fresh air heating, power steering and an automatic gearbox, complete with kick down, were all innovative features for a bus. Engines were AEC initially, though some later buses had Leyland engines. AEC was taken into Leyland in 1962, of course. The bodies were built by AEC’s body building division Park Royal Vehicles, who with AEC had been the main manufacturers of the AEC Regent bodies. So, the new bus for London was designed and built in London, but clearly was not typical of what had gone before.
The design of the Routemaster was fully and carefully thought through, from the cutaway under the stairs for the conductor to stand whilst the bus emptied and loaded, to the seat fabric that was carefully chosen to hide wear and dirt, to rear indicators (turn signals) that incorporated an arrow into the graphic, and of course the masterstroke of branding it so perfectly. This style is what it makes it so recognisable as “the London bus” and a British design icon, and also has undoubtedly helped the positive response to its longevity. Non bus fans (there are some, apparently) can recognise a Routemaster as something other than just an old bus.
The Routemaster, known in London Transport code as the RM, went into full production in 1958 and into service in 1959. It quickly became the Londoners’ preferred bus, given its greater comfort, as well as being a favourite with the drivers, who benefited from many of the more modern features, of course. It became, in effect, part of the narrative of the technical advance and strong industrial design and engineering achievements that defined post war Britain, from the Land Rover and Morris Minor to the de Havilland Comet, English Electric Lightning fighter jet and Deltic locomotive, to the Cooper and Lotus F1 cars to the Mini, Jaguar E-type and ultimately the Concorde, and perhaps the best architecture in living memory.
Routemasters were built in many variants, which can be summarised as varying in length or as a coach for longer distance work. The RML was 30” longer, with an insert in the centre of the bus giving 8 more seats. The vast majority of those produced were either the RM or RML versions. The coach version, still double deck, were used by London Transport’s suburban to semi-rural services, known as Greenline and painted in a distinctive green livery. Around 100 coach versions (RMC and the longer RCL) were built, along with a similar number of front entrance configuration buses, with a single front entrance with folding doors at the front of the lower and closed off rear platform. This one has been repainted in London Transport red.
The coach versions were produced for British European Airways (BEA), then the Britain’s nationally owned European regional airline, and now part of British Airways. The coaches were used to feed the passengers from a west London check in at West London Air terminal in Kensington to Heathrow, and the buses were equipped with baggage trailers and longer top gears for motorway work to the airport.
The Routemaster never achieved significant sales outside London; I suspect this was due to the cost compared with a regular Leyland, AEC or Daimler bus (all that bespoke design and lengthy development period had to be paid for), the lack of any maintenance facility equipped to handle it outside London and, of course, its dated configuration. By the early 1960s, the rear engined, front entrance double decker was available and being capable of one man operation, at least off-peak, soon became the preferred bus of most operators. One rear engined, front entrance Routemaster was built, allegedly sharing 60% commonality with a RM series.
The Routemaster was due to be phased out by the late 1970s but got a reprieve as the replacement (rear engined, front entrance buses) didn’t match the robust standards needed for central London. The Routemaster was kept running, especially in central areas, with many having extensive overhauls and replacement engine programmes. It finally retired from front line service in December 2005, a remarkable 50 years since its introduction.
Even after its withdrawal, finally prompted by compliance with (perfectly proper and decent) disability access regulations, the Routemaster was retained for two heritage routes; Route 9 from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park and then to the Royal Albert Hall and Kensington and Route 15, from Trafalgar Square to St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London. So, you can go from one London landmark to another as a passenger on a third.
The remaining Routemasters, reportedly 1200 out the original 2700, are now used for anything from tourist work often now with an open top deck, to wedding hire and even restaurants, throughout the world, as well as being a guaranteed hit at British bus show.
Over the years since the Routemaster was first conceived, the organisation of London Transport has changed considerably, although the law requires that the buses be predominantly red. It is now known as Transport for London (TfL) and bus services are provided by private companies under contract to TfL and the London Assembly and the, er distinctive and characterful Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Johnson has led the progress of defining and commissioning a new Routemaster, known officially as the NBfL (New Bus for London) and unofficially as the new Routemaster or even the Borismaster.
This is a 90- seater double decker, with 3 entrances including an open rear platform, and takes many traditional Routemaster styling cues, including thorough attention of interior design and a thoroughly modern mechanical configuration, featuring an electric motor powered by a battery pack, which is recharged by a diesel engine and regenerative braking. An initial batch of 600 are all due to be in service by 2016.
But will we recall it fondly in 60 years time?