Phil Tonks went in search of the New Bus for London, and offers a passengers’ perspective on the new vehicle in service.

It’s a sunny March morning as I loiter around Victoria bus station in central London. A bus station supervisor ticks off a young man for riding his bike on the pavement. Throngs of people negotiate the ongoing roadworks.

I stand and watch the impressive numbers of buses departing on route 38. My intention is to catch the NB4L/Borismaster/Son of Routemaster or whatever you’d like to call it. It’s been in regular everyday service for a couple of weeks now. I’ve let the furore of the launch die down and I want to see what its like in normal, everyday service.

But after a good half an hour she (it’s obviously female with such good looks) hasn’t shown.

I don’t really know route 38 that well, so I decide to catch a “normal” one and see if I can spy her coming in the opposite direction.

We’re almost in Islington as she sweeps around a bend, looking for all her beauty like a mechanical film star, but it’s too late to jump off and run across the road. “Lady Boris” certainly catches the eye of passengers on this bus. One passenger whips his phone out to capture his own image of the icon.

I decide to hop off at The Angel, head down the tube and get back to Victoria. I manage this with a few minutes to spare. The arrival of “Lady Boris” is heralded by the bus station supervisor booming “here’s Boris!” to a few smirks from Arriva colleagues. A handful of enthusiasts snap some photos as
I get up close and personal for the first time.

“Lovely, isn’t it?” remarks a man in Southern Rail uniform, who is waiting in the queue next to me. Undeniably, she turns heads in the city.

There’s a fair few intending passengers in the queue now. Whether they’re all enthusiasts or just interested Londoners I can’t decide. A few board the “normal” 38 bus in front, but most are holding back for Lady Boris to take to the stage.

I board at the front, whereas the more savvy enthusiasts pile on at the rear and make a bolt for the stairs. The driver smiles and shows a mum and toddler the cab. I bleep my Oyster card and make my way upstairs.

Immediately, you are struck by design. It may sound like a cliché, but the New Bus for London really is a thing of beauty. When people talk about “making buses sexy” (I’m one of these people!), this is what they/I mean! Everything looks like it’s been thought long and hard about. There are curves and swirls everywhere.

Upstairs I take my seat towards the middle of the bus. For someone who is 6’7”, the legroom isn’t bad. The seat – complete with moquette design that continues a fine London tradition – feels firm (some may even say hard). But the ride is superb. The bus glides seemingly effortlessly along London’s iconic streets, and plenty of heads are turning. At traffic lights, random photos are taken .

Two things do strike me though. There is a definite smell. I can’t decipher what it might be, but it’s definitely there. Secondly, none of the windows can be opened. Air conditioning is supposed to be the feature here, but it’s barely working. And the grills that provide the gentle cooling breeze are facing inwards. I’m sitting right next to the window, where, on a hot summer day, the “greenhouse effect” will be felt most. Yet, the air-con provides no benefit I can feel here. I move to the seat adjacent to the aisle, where immediately things feel better. Maybe on a higher setting the air-con will have more effect, but I fear there may be some sweating going on come the lazy, hazy days of a London summer.

There are automated announcements a la most other central London buses, plus a new addition, to “watch out for traffic when leaving the bus” – presumably for those leaving via the rear open doors.

The conductor is more of a customer assistant, hanging around the rear platform, advising and helping passengers. It adds a human touch to the otherwise anonymous London bus experience of Oyster bleep and no eye contact.

Then, something new happens.

“The destination of this bus has changed. Please listen for further announcements”

It now appears that we’re going to terminate in Essex Road/Balls Pond Road (wherever that is).

A fairly innocuous bus stand is where our journey ends. The conductor asks everyone to leave – even apologising – and everyone troops off, cameras clicking, front and rear. After one final pose, the new film star on rubber rolls away as another 38 picks up the stragglers behind some seconds later.

So what’s the verdict on the new Lady in Red?

She’s certainly eye-catching! Although I think bus design has come in leaps and bounds over recent years – think Enviro 400 and Wrights designs, complemented by a classic Stenning livery – the NB4L is like nothing else. If most people think that buses are boring, this piece of design classic is turning heads everywhere, just like the original Routemaster did all those years ago.

But riding it as a passenger is a good experience too – its not all about the good looks on the outside. This bus has been thought through, both aesthetically and in practical terms. The three doors and two staircases may be quirky, but for handling huge amounts of commuters, this is entirely practical. The much loved open rear end might have health and safety people sweating, but Londoners loved this feature of the old Routemasters, and I think they’ll appreciate it again.

The whole design also has a nod to the past. The retro feel, mixed with the cutting edge is what makes this bus a joy to experience. Even the destination blind is a throwback – white on black. And its a real blind – none of the LED lights that make up modern displays elsewhere.

There are legitimate questions to be asked about how much all of this costs, and the feeling by some that this is no more than a vanity project by the mayor. Indeed, I can’t see any other city buying any of these, so it will almost certainly remain – as its spiritual mother was – a London bus. But there seems genuine affection largely for Lady Boris, and its good to think that, actually, a humble bus is exciting the general public.

Practically, she’s an asset to bus users. To look at, and experience, she’s a triumph of cutting edge design and retro tribute.

We’ll have to wait and see whether politics, economics or other factors decide whether London’s new bus survives and prospers or becomes a quirky museum piece.

Just for comparison, I later went riding on heritage route 15 with real Routemasters.

I suppose it’s wrong to compare the NB4L with an original RM – should the contrast be with more contemporary bus designs?

Nevertheless, the Routemaster stands up to the test of time really well. For a design that is over 50 years old, it still handles London’s streets masterfully. Yes, it feels the bumps much more than the modern day version, but the ride is soft and feels natural. Practically, Routemasters are well-suited to their heritage role these days. They may not have room for wheelchairs, and capacity demands require larger vehicles for today’s bus operations in the city.

But it’s still lovely to see and use them in such a practical way on London’s streets.

Read Phil’s blog at philtonks2.blogspot.com

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