The AEC Routemaster is a model of double-decker bus that was introduced by Associated Equipment Company (AEC) in 1954 and produced until 1968. Primarily front-engined, rear open platform buses, a small number of variants were produced with doors and/or front entrances. Introduced in 1956, the Routemaster saw continuous service in London until 2005, and currently remains on two heritage routes in central London.
Having been developed in partnership with London Transport, the customer of nearly all new Routemasters was to be that organisation, in both traditional red and green “country” colours, although small numbers were also delivered new to British European Airways and The Northern General Transport Company. In all, 2,876 Routemasters were built, with approximately 1,000 still in existence.
A pioneering design, the Routemaster outlasted several of its replacement types in London, survived the privatisation of the former London Transport bus operators, and saw proliferation to other operators around the UK. Latterly in modern UK public transport bus operation, the unique features of the standard Routemaster attracted both praise and criticism alike. Notably the open platform, while open to the elements, allowed boarding/alighting away from stops; and the presence of a conductor allowed minimal boarding time and security, although conductors perpetuated higher labour costs and increased the effect of labour shortages.
The image of the traditional red Routemaster has become one of the famous icons of London, with much tourist paraphernalia continuing to bear Routemaster imagery, and examples still in existence around the world. Despite its iconic status, the previous London bus classes the Routemaster replaced (the RT-type AEC Regent and Leyland Titan RTL and RTW counterparts) are often mistaken for Routemasters by the public and by the media.
The Routemaster bus was developed during the years of 1947–1956 by a team led by Douglas Scott, A. A. Durant and Colin Curtis, the brief being to replace London”s trolleybuses, which had themselves replaced trams, in London. The Routemaster was primarily intended for London use, being designed by London Transport and constructed at the AEC works in Southall, London with assembly at body builder Park Royal Vehicles, a subsidiary company of AEC.
It was a revolutionary design over previous buses, and used lightweight aluminium and techniques developed in aircraft production during World War II. As well as a novel weight-saving integral design, the Routemaster also introduced (for the first time on a bus) independent front suspension, power steering, a fully automatic gearbox and power-hydraulic braking. This surprised some early drivers who found the chassis unexpectedly light and nimble compared to older designs, especially as depicted on film on tests at the Chiswick Works “skid pan”.
The Routemaster design was a departure from the traditional chassis/body construction method. With London Transport being the primary customer, the option to use different bodybuilders was less important. The design was one of the first “integral” buses, with the bus being a combination of an “A” steel sub-frame (including engine, steering, front suspension), a rear “B” steel sub-frame (carrying rear axle and suspension), connected by the aluminium body.
London Transport received four prototype Routemasters; these were placed in service between 1956 and 1958. The first two were built at the London Transport works at Chiswick, the third at Addlestone by Weymann, and the fourth, an experimental Green Line coach, at Eastern Coach Works at Lowestoft. The third and fourth had Leyland engines. The Routemaster was first exhibited at the Commercial Motor Show at Earl”s Court in 1954.
In 1961 a small batch of longer RMLs were built as a test, before eventually being produced from 1965.
In 1962 the front entrance RMF concept was trailed, with a single bus RMF1254 produced based on the trial RMLs. This was exhibited and toured, leading to a small number of orders as the RMF and RMA class.
In 1964, just before mainstream production of the RML, the final front-engined Routemaster model, AEC started work on a front-entrance, rear-engined Routemaster, the FRM class. Completed in 1966, it was not produced beyond an initial prototype, FRM1. This saw regular London service, then on tour operations, before being withdrawn in 1983.
Production of mechanical components was undertaken chiefly at AEC’s Southall site throughout the life of the Routemaster, with body construction and final assembly at Park Royal. AEC itself was taken over by Leyland Motors in 1962, Routemaster production ceased in 1968.
The majority of production examples were 27 feet 6 inches (8.4 metres) long to meet the then maximum length regulations. This was later relaxed, and reflected in later 30 feet (9.1 metres) “long” types, although this was delayed with union resistance at the extra work for conductors.
Heyday of the Routemaster
The heyday of Routemaster operation was its first 25 years of operation, until 1981, when the type started to be withdrawn and transferred to training fleets.
The RM class was placed in service from 1959 to replace trolleybuses, completed in May 1962. Subsequent Routemasters, the last 500 of which were the RML types, began replacing the previous generation of buses, the RT-type AEC Regent and Leyland Titan RTL and RTW. RMLs also displaced RMs on central routes to cope with higher loadings. The last Routemaster, RML 2760, entered service in March 1968.
The original London Transport concept for the Routemaster included the intentional routine overhaul and refurbishment of the Routemaster fleet at London Transport”s Aldenham Works, usually every 7 years. Here the buses were completely stripped down and rebuilt, leaving practically as new. As the number of Routemasters in London reduced, however, and newer bus designs were intended to have longer service lives, the overhaul routine was abandoned and Aldenham Works closed in the mid-1980s.
The “green Routemasters” originally worked for LT’s “country division”, which took coach type RMC and RCL buses, for Green Line services, and later standard bus RMLs. The RMC class were initially used on Green Line routes in outlying towns. Similarly, the RCL entered service in areas where the RMC was not introduced.
These vehicles passed to the nationalised National Bus Company”s subsidiary London Country Bus Services (known simply as London Country) in 1969, which took over outlying areas of LT bus operation resulting from the 1968 Transport Act. The transfer comprised 69 RMCs, 43 RCLs and 97 RMLs.
By the latter half of the 1970s, most of these vehicles were re-acquired by London Transport, as London Country modernised and standardised its fleet, and increased car usage and improved commuter railways reduced suburban bus demand. Most of the RMLs found use on red London bus routes, and the RMC and RCL class were cascaded into the training fleet. As the RCL class was relatively new (in Routemaster terms), and LT was suffering from lack of parts, between 1980 and 1984 several of the RCLs were converted to standard bus use.
Withdrawl from London
In his first election campaign to become Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone made a commitment that he would not be withdrawing the Routemaster from service, stating: “Only a de-humanised moron would get rid of the Routemaster”.
During the new millennium, debates surrounded the issue of whether to replace or retain the Routemaster in London service. Supporters citing its continued mechanical fitness, speed of boarding and tourist potential, while opponents pointed to the economics of running increasingly elderly buses when newer, larger and more modern designs were now on the market following a resurgence in the bus manufacturing industry after recession in the 1990s. Opponents also pointed specifically to the lack of accessibility of the Routemaster in light of impending relevant legislation, which meant all new buses now entering service in London were of a low-floor design. The emergence of off-bus ticketing technology also reduced the argument for better dwell times, whereby the Oyster card and off-bus ticket machines would reduce the time it took to board the bus.
In 2004, following his second election campaign, Livingstone announced the phasing out of the type in order to provide a bus service in the capital fully accessible to wheelchair users. Government legislation requires full accessibility by 2017 under the Disability Discrimination Act. As a consequence the Routemaster was officially withdrawn from general service on 9 December 2005, although it remains in regular service on two “heritage” routes.
The Routemaster was gradually phased out of service by the end of 2005. By December 2005 only one route was left, the 159 (Marble Arch — Streatham). Friday 9 December 2005 would be the last official running day. On Thursday 8th, 24 special buses, including preserved RMs and RMLs, plus a number of their predecessors from the “RT” bus family, made guest appearances on the 159 route.
On Friday, instead of doing a normal shift, with crews ending normally at around 11pm, on police advice, the day was split into two duty shifts, a Routemaster shift, and a VLA class shift (Volvo B7TL/Alexander ALX400), the replacement bus for route 159, with the Routemasters due to be replaced in the middle of the day.
Towards the last runs to the garage, crowds blocked the four-lane road, bringing all traffic to a standstill. RM2217 was set to be the last official running bus, as per the timetable. Heavily delayed, RM2217 even took 10 minutes to turn the final corner into Brixton Garage.
The bus left the public highway at 14:07, accompanied by duplicates provided by preserved buses RM5 and RM6. Due to the delays, it is possible that RM54 was actually the last in service, running into Streatham Station stand a few minutes later, before running dead to Norwood Garage.
Later, RM5 and RM6, followed by RM2217 were moved to the old LCC Tramways depot at Brixton for press photographs in the quieter surroundings of the old tramways depot, complete with still visible tramlines.
Routemaster in use today
Two heritage routes were immediately introduced in London, recognising the nostalgia for the type among ordinary Londoners, and their appeal to tourists. Although these buses are operated under contract to TfL, and accept standard Travelcards, Oystercards or cash fares, they are not considered part of the regular Tfl bus network, and only operate for a limited time during the day duplicating short sections of two regular London bus routes. The Heritage routes operate around 10 buses each, with 5 each in reserve.
- Heritage route 9: Royal Albert Hall — Hyde Park Corner — Piccadilly Circus — Trafalgar Square — Strand — Aldwych.
- Heritage route 15: Trafalgar Square — Strand — Aldwych — Fleet Street — Cannon Street — Monument — Tower Hill.
The buses used were specially restored from remaining examples for this service and have clean environmental engines and modern electrics and sealed windows.
Most of the post-privatisation use of Routemasters in UK public transport service has now ceased.
On 7 April 2008 Routemasters were also introduced on a regular bus route in Nottingham, England. The were operated by Bellamy”s Coaches Ltd with red Routemasters branded as the Nottingham & District Omnibus, on route 20 on a 20 minute frequency from 7am to 7pm, six days a week. Bellamy”s positioned the conductor and open platform features of the Routemaster as being able to compete with the incumbent operator”s Nottingham City Transport (NCT) services, on increased speed of travel through the city centre bus stops, and through hail and ride operation in the suburbs. The Routemasters were withdrawn on 28 June 2008 with the company citing low passenger demand, although to satisfy bus service registration requirements, the service continued using single-decker buses into August. The council, which has an 82% stake in NCT, was criticised for not doing enough to provide information about the service in public facilities, and for increasing the competition selectively on the Routemaster route.
The London and South East of England operator Metrobus has retained a green liveried Routemaster, RML 2317 (CUV 317C), obtained from sister company London General, which is sometimes used on regular routes as well as private and preservation appearances. Cavendish Motor Services operate RML 2324 in a light green and green livery, for special journeys as well as a relief bus for a number of their routes in the Eastbourne area.
Aside from the London heritage routes, the last major operator of Routemasters in service in the UK, is in Edinburgh, Scotland. Local operator Lothian Buses tour operation Mac Tours uses a variety of closed and open top Routemasters on regular tour bus duties.
Several operators in the UK maintain Routemasters for private hire usage, with the majority held by the successors to the former London Bus units, Ensignbus, London Bus Company Ltd (formerly Blue Triangle) and Timebus Travel.
Many cities around the world have a Routemaster, or an older RT variant somewhere, often privately owned and used for many different purposes (from Preservation to Hot Dog stands, tour bus to shop). Routemasters can be found far from home in places such as Sri Lanka, Australia, China, Southern California, Malaysia, even Fairbanks, Alaska.
A number of Stagecoach-owned Routemasters have been exported to Montreal in Canada, where Stagecoach now provide a tourist service around the city. This is a unique case of London Routemasters being operated on a daily service in a foreign country by a former London Routemaster operator.
The future of the Routemasters
Such is the popularity of the Routemaster that many calls continue to be made for a new version of the vehicle to be produced. Conservative Mayoral candidate for London, Boris Johnson, on 3 September 2007, announced that he was contemplating introducing a modern-day Routemaster bus (and scrapping bendy bus operation).
In December 2007 UK magazine Autocar commissioned leading bus designer Capoco, designer of the innovative Optare Solo, to come up with detailed proposals for a new-generation Routemaster. Their design, dubbed the RMXL, was a hybrid technology low-floor bus with a lightweight aluminium space frame, with 4 more seats and twice the standing capacity of the old Routemaster, and still crew operated with a driver and conductor. The design incorporates disabled access through a closing front door behind the front wheels, while retaining an open platform rear access, with the staircase still located at the rear. The hybrid drivetrain, with a front mounted continuous rev-ing hydrogenised petrol engine charges front mounted batteries, which power the rear wheels through rear mounted electric motors. This arrangement, through not requiring a mechanical transmission, allows for a low floor and a step free entrance into the lower deck from the rear platform. Hydrogen storage tanks would be located under the rear staircase. The design was covered by the national press but attracted criticism from London Mayor Ken Livingstone as being too costly to justify and still not safe, despite proposals to monitor the rear platform with cameras.
Mayoral candidate Boris Johnson backed the Capoco design in principle and suggested that he would hold a formal design competition to develop a new Routemaster if he became London mayor in 2008. After being successfully elected, on 4 July 2008 he duly announced the A New Bus for London Competition. The competition was open to anyone, to submit single ideas or detailed designs, with a 1st prize of £25,000, and many smaller awards for great ideas. The winning design is to be announced by late October or early November 2008. Following discussion with bus manufacturers, development of a design that could be put into production is hoped for completion by 2012 (the expected date of the next mayoral election).