What Would Ralph Bennett Do?

A Mancunian viewpoint on Transport for London’s Routemaster prototype

This morning, I saw on BBCi pictures of the new Routemaster prototype. On initial reaction, I thought it was a quirky little double decker filed under ‘lovely to look at, but will it work?’ I was in two minds as to whether it would be as successful as the first Routemaster built in Southall, or a 21st century equivalent of the Guy Wulfrunian.

The revived version of the Routemaster is a collision between nostalgia and political dogma. It is a bus with an identity crisis which doesn’t know whether it wants to be in London or Nottingham. The front window on the top deck reminds me of the Nottingham City Transport Leylands from the early 1970s, The low windscreen wouldn’t have been out of place on a modernised version of Edgley Cox’s Daimler Fleetlines (designed for Walsall Corporation). Even the dual staircase is a throwback from Midland Red’s D10 dual door double decker.

If anything it is a vanity project brought about by nostalgia and a hatred of bendibuses. I would like to see some bendibuses on the 409 route, but in deregulated and expensive Greater Manchester, my neighbourhood would die for any bus five years old or less (unless you live in Stagecoachland along the 216/219/330 routes). The innovative side of London’s new buses are the hybrid dual fuel technologies. This week, Stagecoach Manchester began operations with Enviro 400s offering these technologies – now, this very second – in deregulated Manchester – not 2012 – on the Wilmslow Road corridor.

I suppose you could say it is a worthwhile diversion from the cuts yet to come. The cost of the new buses (5 of them) is £7.5 million, but this is a bespoke option rather than an off-the-shelf selection. I’d have been happy with 20 – 30 hybrid Enviro 400s or Darwen Olympuses.

Instead of trying to revive past glories, I would have took a long term view of how London’s bus infrastructure would shape over the next 10 – 15 years, so that it would fully meet the requirements well in 2025, as much as in the present. My main priorities would be passenger comfort, fuel efficiency (including hybrid technologies), noise insulation and innovative design. Something that would be as daring as Ralph Bennett’s Mancunian style Leyland Atlanteans and Daimler Fleetlines for Manchester City Transport. The amazing thing is that Bennett’s buses look well 40 years on. I would consider the new Routemasters a pastiche.

Ralph Bennett would have baulked at the peaks and domes of the Borismaster. I doubt as if in future years whether the Borismasters would have the same resale value as Bennett’s Londoners (the ill-fated in London yet successful outside London Daimler Fleetlines classed as DMS by LT). Whereas Ralph’s Londoners had a lukewarm reception in the capital, they had a more successful second life outside London. Greater Manchester Transport bought a few for their Lancashire United Transport operations, replacing the LT indicator layout with the standard three piece GMT display – pioneered by Manchester Corporation.

National Bus Company bought some for Midland Red and lasted beyond the start of deregulation. Countless others exiled from London were purchased by independent operators. Grahams Bus Company bought a handful for works contracts (to Talbot’s Linwood plant). Mayne of Manchester were early purchasers with their Londoner fleet running till the late 1990s at both Clayton and Warrington depots.

I doubt as if the new Wright bodied Routemasters would have that much success in the aftermarket sector, unless in future years we see City Sightseeing purchasing them for a knockdown price at Carlton PSV. Everything rests on their initial success in 2012, and £7.5 million for 5 new buses is one hell of gamble.

The greatest strengths of the AEC Routemaster were its short boarding times and conductor operation. Wright and Transport for London’s post-modern take hopes to do the same. Much of the groundwork has been laid by boosting off-bus sales and simplifying fares (as advocated by Ralph Bennett with the Minimax system on Manchester City Transport). I await the first five vehicles with relish.

Ralph Bennett’s Mancunian and Londoner style double deckers would still look well on today’s streets. If we were to revive these models, it is not beyond the bus builder’s capabilities to do a 2010 style Mancunian. Low floor entry and buggy space could be added in a way which wouldn’t detract from the distinctive sharp lines and translucent upper deck roof.

I would sooner have a Greater Manchester Transport standard Leyland Atlantean or Daimler Fleetline, or one of Ralph’s Mancunian style versions before then. Now these were real buses!

Your shout:

What do you think of the new-look Routemaster for Transport for London bus routes? Feel free to comment or continue the discussion further here.

S.V., Thursday 16 September 2010.

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