Confessions of a Political Animal

December 19, 2008

Bending the facts, not the buses

new-routemasterSo, the day we have all been holding our collective breaths for arrives – at last, and after so many delays, the Mayor has revealed unto us grateful Londoners the design of bus that will might could probably won’t be gracing our streets sometime around the middle of the next decade.

A quick flick through the entries submitted for the design competition here reveals firstly that – surprise, surprise – all the entries appear remarkably similar looking: could that have anything to do with it being made patently clear that what was wanted was a Routemaster pastiche rather than an innovative new design (despite the fact that the latter would be more in keeping with the Routemaster tradition than simply ripping off an existing model)? Apparently the ‘quality’ of entries was such that they couldn’t decide on a single winner, so the first prize was split between this stunningly ugly Aston Martin/Lord Foster design and this rather traditional design from Capoco.

Hang on a moment though – doesn’t the Capoco design look rather familiar? Could it have any links to the design floated by the self-same design company through Autocar magazine in December 2007 as part of the ‘Routemasters are great, bendy buses are evil’ disinformation campaign that emerged during the mayoral election campaign? Which raises two questions: given the Capoco design was used as pro-Boris ammunition during the election, what is the political probity of the firm winning £25,000 of public money in a competion organised by said Boris? Second, if this is the (joint) best that came out of the competition, what was the point of running the contest (at unstated cost to the public purse) at all, given the design had already been provided by Autocar, per gratis and for nothing, twelve months ago.

Sadly, a few of the entrants don’t seem to have quite realised the brave new world that we lived in and are lucky to have done as well as they have. Lotti Duke, for example, who has received a Merit award of £1,000 has designed a bus that looks a lot like a tram (and Boris doesn’t like trams) but worst of all, in her mock-up picture has included a passing bendy-bus. What was she thinking? Doesn’t she know that this Stalinist mode of transport is to be airbrushed from London’s streets and history? Then we have Matt Belcher, second prize winner in the over 18s ‘fun and imaginative’ category. Mr Belcher has had the temerity to include in his bus design the Livingstone-era, post 7/7 ‘We are Londoners’ advertising campaign, right down to the Mayor of London logo with a red ‘on’. Someone else in need of a little re-education, methinks. But for sheer brass-neck, first prize must surely go to Nicholas Cho, winner of the 16-18 section, who has submitted what appears to be a double-deck bendy bus. Good work, Mr Cho.

Of course, on this day of general jubilation and merriment, London’s resident scourge of the bendy bus, Mr Andrew Gilligan, has kindly provided us with his thoughtful and considered two-penny worth. As usual, it is refreshingly free of hyperbole, over-statement or, indeed, drivel. Over to you, Mr Gilligan.

London today takes another baby step back towards a civilised, democratic and distinctive public realm – with the rebirth of the Routemaster.

Ah yes, the wonderful world of Borisonian democracy. Where the type of bus providing a service will be determined not by what is necessary to carry the passengers, or indeed what the passengers themselves think, but through campaigns headed up by a car magazine and some of the capital’s more reactionary elements based on anecdotage and scare stories, rather than hard statistics.

The competition is the result of public revolt against “Transport for Livingstone’s” destruction of the much-loved, most efficient bus – a rare example of the people beating the bureaucrats.

Forgive me whilst I hold my sides – “Transport for Livingstone”, eh? Oh Oscar, wouldst thou were here. I’d be very interested to know on what terms Mr Gilligan judges the Routemaster to be the ‘most efficient’ bus. Most efficient in terms of capacity versus roadspace? Most efficient in terms of providing speedy loading and unloading at stops? Most efficient at providing a bus service accessible to those in wheelchairs, with pushchairs or with reduced mobility? Most efficient at transporting me and my five bags of shopping home from Islington Sainsburys in my north London days? That would be the…er…bendy bus. On the other hand, most efficient at getting on to postcards would be the Routemaster. You pays your money and you takes your choice, eh?

The two winning designs pay full tribute to the things which made the Routemaster so special, while updating the bus. A new minimal-emission hybrid drive will elevate it above the level of a mere vanity project, belatedly cleaning up London’s filthy, 99 per cent diesel bus fleet.

So pleased that a politician ordering their very own and unnecessary bus design isn’t a vanity project, Andrew.  Strange there is no mention of the fact that the cleaning-up process that could be achieved much faster and cheaper if you didn’t feel the need to design a bespoke bus around the engine and instead purchased a fleet of off-the shelf hybrid buses. But then the constant u-turns in the Boris camp on the hybrid issue are bound to make the camp followers a bit dizzy – after all, candidate Johnson spent the mayoral campaign saying he would spend the money that Livingstone had earmarked for hybrid buses on conductors for the neo-Routemaster.

There will be full access for the disabled.

Hold that front page. New bus to have feature already incorporated into every other bus (except heritage Routemasters) in the capital. Of course, ‘full’ is a questionable term here – after all, a double-decker can’t really claim to be fully accessible, what with the stairs and all. Perhaps a big, single-decker bus with an articulated section to help it round corners might be better able to claim that honour? Sorry, stupid idea.

But there will also be the conductor to provide help and security, and to make sure (a revolutionary departure, this) that people pay their fares.

And when fares increase exponentially to pay for that extra member of staff on every neo-Routemaster, you’re going to need someone to ensure people pay.

Prigs and killjoys hate the open platform. They mutter about its “dangers” (actually minimal).

Does that remind you of someone who has spent the last year or so muttering about the “dangers” (actually minimal) of the bendy bus to cyclists in order to justify a decision that flies in the face of evidence-based policy making? No? Me neither.

They will grumble about the cost, forgetting that TfL was going to be buying new buses anyway.

Yep, replacing them with cheaper off-the-shelf, proven, sensible designs that work fine for every other city in the world. And they weren’t going to stick a conductor on each of them, or push the insurance bill through the roof by putting an open platform on them.

But prigs and killjoys no longer run London. You do – and the people are getting what they voted for.

I run London? Super. Thanks, Andy.

We will need to be vigilant. TfL is still run by the two people, after Ken himself, most responsible for the original Routemaster’s demise – Peter Hendy, the commissioner, and David Brown, the director of surface transport. The three-year prototyping and manufacturing process offers them ample scope to water it down.

Oh gawd, he’s at it again. There are any number of things that you might think a columnist would want to criticise Boris Johnson for on the basis of his first eight months in power. Employing a senior team consisting rather heavily of unsuitable individuals who have then had to resign; removing any ambition or vision from the capital’s transport programme and hiking up fares well above inflation; breaking his pledge to fully fund four rape crisis centres in London; pushing anti-redistributionist housing policies completely unsuited to the current economic climate. No, Boris’ key offence for Mr Gilligan is the heinous crime of leaving transport professionals in charge of running London’s transport system. Dastardly socialist individuals who understand things like capacity and coping with increased demand for bus journeys. Marxists, I tell you, bloody Trots.

This vehicle could be something genuinely important – not just a departure from the failures of current buses, but a restoration of the principle that public services should please the users, not the operators.

That’ll be the current buses that have failed through their ability to encourage and cope with unprecedented levels of increased bus use. And then Mr Gilligan’s final coup de grace. It’s the users that want the new Routemaster. Except there’s no evidence to back that up at all. London Travelwatch (which contrary to Gilligan’s increasingly paranoid rantings, is not a Trot front group) report no significant number of complaints from users about the bendys and no consultation has been carried out with users on their replacement. And I don’t forsee many bus users jumping with joy when the higher fares and longer waits to board a bus kick in alongside the neo-Routemaster, assuming it ever happens. And who says operators like bendy buses? After all, in many cases they had to build brand new depots and maintenance facilities to cope with them, alongside the cost of training drivers to operate them and paying the higher wage required for this more skilled work. I really don’t think operator convenience entered into it at all.

I don’t want to have to dislike Andrew Gilligan, honestly. I’d like to think he’s a harmless old nostalgist who tuts under his breath when his train from Greenwich is formed each morning by a dull Class 376 Electric Multiple Unit rather than a gleaming 4-6-2 Pacific class steam locomotive. They may have the capacity and the reliability, these new trains, but they just don’t look as nice. That’s what I want to think (although I’m pretty sure I’d be wrong to do so). And it’s what I’d like to think about Boris too. There’s nothing wrong with harmless old romantics – they just shouldn’t be running transport policy.


  1. […] Political Animal also hates the outcome, and dissects Andrew Gilligan’s take on it. Well worth a […]

    Pingback by Jon Worth » Boris bus bollocks — December 19, 2008 @ 5:10 pm | Reply

  2. It should also be pointed out (as I have tried to do in the ES comments) that David Brown joined TfL in 2006 AFTER the last Routemaster was taken out.

    Comment by Simon — December 19, 2008 @ 6:10 pm | Reply

  3. Indeed correct, Simon, but since when has accuracy or the truth interested Gilligan and ES?

    Comment by Steve23589 — December 20, 2008 @ 11:57 am | Reply

  4. […] A constellation of independent bloggers and website publishers – see here and here and here and here and here – have already made an impact, and the blogosphere has the potential to do much more. […]

    Pingback by Dave Hill: Boris Johnson’s personal style is an important political tool but he should be judged by the substance of his policies – Politics Unlimited | UK politics news — January 9, 2009 @ 7:11 pm | Reply

  5. Yeah, good piece. This bus has very substantially less capacity than the old vehicles, and if you took the same ‘hybrid’ technology and put into a conventional or bendy bus it would acheive more. I do not believe this to be a very innovative design, by the time it is commisioned there will be more appropriate designs. It is apparently compromised substantially by an idiotic design brief that was informed without any engineering knowledge, with the small exception of the light weight which apparently is informed by Ponsford who does know a lot about designing buses, but nevertheless is commonsense.

    Comment by Al — November 12, 2010 @ 10:43 pm | Reply

  6. The layout does not make a great deal of sense. As the extra conductor will add so much additional cost it is likely that they will only be part time, so this bus will operate conventionally with front boarding using the driver. For the busiest routes, which are between stations, the bendy bus would be a lot more efficient and overall, because of its much higher capacity, it is more efficient. This bus also looks far too large to easily get down the street, as you point out. Were they designing a bus, or a building? The design to me is rather unappealing as it appears to be afraid to be traditional, and afraid to be modern. It is confused between building design and bus design – not surprising considering the witless use of Heatherwick who is simply not qualified or otherwise a transport engineer, and whose talent is in building design. It is not surprising that another architect was involved in the winning team, which suggests that the people involved in judging this are not actually very clever or creative. The other design entrants were told to be traditional. In reality, they had little intention of paying any attention to them and what we have now is an uninspired bog standard hybrid with a somewhat strange configuration and a huge development cost. I do not want 8000 of these.

    Comment by Al — November 12, 2010 @ 10:55 pm | Reply

  7. It is important to note that Ponsfords earlier buses from the 1980’s are actually substantially lighter than this bus, and that if you put the same drivetrain in them, and curved the edges a bit, you would substantially exceed the efficiency, save a lot of money, and it would be able to carry more people or have a smaller footprint. And it would be cheaper to operate.

    Comment by Al — November 12, 2010 @ 10:59 pm | Reply

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