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A London Classic Nears End of the Line

September 20, 2004|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Ding-ding! That old-fashioned red double-decker bus, the one that has graced scores of movies about London and become an international symbol of Britain, is tooling off into the Waterloo sunset.

Transport for London, the transit authority that is aiming for efficiency and modernity as it serves a growing commuter population, has its reasons for getting rid of the British-built Routemaster and substituting sterile models from Germany and Sweden.

Along with twice-a-day mail service, the red telephone box and (gads!) foxhunting, it is the latest symbol of old England to come under assault in the age of Cool Britannia.

The transport authority, which incidentally is led by an American expert in transit efficiency, says that sentiment aside, the Routemaster is costly because it requires both a conductor and a driver; passengers are forever injuring themselves when they alight from its open back platform while the bus is still moving; and its narrow aisles and steps are a nightmare for people with wheelchairs or baby strollers.

Logical reasons all, but there is no accounting for love.

A small army of Routemaster lovers has mounted a vigorous campaign to try to keep the buses going beyond their planned retirement next year. Their efforts look doomed to fail, although Transport for London has conceded that it will retain a few "heritage" routes in the middle of the city -- a sort of rolling museum to let the tourists know what a real London double-decker was like. (Modern, boxy double-deckers will remain, but they just aren't the same.)

"Disgusting," said Charlie Scott, general manager of the charter company Blue Triangle Buses and a former Routemaster driver. "They are a traditional London bus and always will be seen that way. In my view, they should continue to be used."

The phasing out of the Routemaster has unleashed a tidal wave of nostalgia, and Lisa Rooney, a spokeswoman for Transport for London, has had just about enough of it.

"It is important to look at the real reasons why it is going," she said, with a hint of exasperation. "It is time to look forward now and say, this is a modern city and we need modern transport. We want to be as efficient and modern as London needs to be, and the buses need to be that as well."

The RMs -- as aficionados know them -- have driven their way into the hearts of Londoners for many reasons. They have been a fixture on the streets since the 1950s; so most people have grown up with them. Their curvy, aerodynamic design is as comforting as an old Electrolux refrigerator, with rivets that recall World War II airplanes.

In another throwback, the buses have a uniformed conductor in the back who sells tickets, makes change, gives directions and inspects bus passes. He or she -- often an immigrant these days -- will also probably be able to say whether there are any vacant seats in the upper deck before the passenger makes the steep and narrow spiraling ascent.

The dimensions feel tighter than more modern buses. The RM was built tall and narrow to negotiate city streets, and the upper deck is so low-ceilinged that a 6-foot-tall commuter must stoop to stand in rush hour. But, compared with modern buses, there are a lot of seats, and they are padded. This is a bus that was built for sitting, not for standing.

Perhaps most important, the aspect that many riders like best: There is no door. Riders hop on and off the open gateway, and fresh air circulates whenever it is in motion.

The bus also has the advantage that the driver can concentrate on driving, and not on the customer struggling to find correct change or fumbling for a ticket. Stops are shorter and the bus rolls off as soon as everyone is aboard, shaving a precious few minutes off each trip for harried travelers.

The Routemaster was conceived in 1947 to succeed London's high-capacity trolleybuses. Its designers drew on wartime aircraft manufacturing techniques, creating an aluminum body that was light and flexible -- this in an era before aluminum was commonly used in vehicles. The aim was for high performance and low maintenance. It was also made to be cozy, its curved ceiling painted a comforting tan.

About 2,760 Routemasters were put into service between 1956 and 1968; up until the 1990s, 1,000 remained in use. But now they are down to just 230, and by the end of next year, none will be on London's streets other than the 20 or so "heritage" vehicles. The rest are to be sold off to private collectors and charter companies such as Blue Triangle.

For Routemaster lovers on three central London routes -- 73, 390 and 9 -- Sept. 3 was "Black Friday." More than 100 were retired and replaced the next day by a fleet of modern, articulated single-deck buses from Mercedes.

Andrew Gilligan, writing in the Evening Standard newspaper, was less than pleased with his new ride. "A cattle-car journey from Third World hell," he pronounced it.

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