The 24 London bus serves a 7 mile route between Hampstead Heath and Pimlico (via Camden, Warren Street, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, Westminster and Victoria). The 24 is operated by Metroline a wholly-owned subsidiary of Singapore based ComfortDelGro, one of the largest passenger land transport companies in the world.
The 24 route dates back to 1910, when it ran between Hampstead Heath and Victoria. The route was extended to Pimlico in 1912. It has continued in that form until the present day, the oldest unchanged bus route in London. Buses on the 24 route are reported to carry 28,000 journeys each day.
The route was crew operated until 1986. It was the first route in London to use front-entrance double-decker buses. In 1988, it was the first central London route to be awarded to a private company under the tendering process. Continuing in these traditions, the 24 has just become the first in the Capital to operate entirely with New Bus for London (NBfL)vehicles. During peak hours, 27 of the new buses will be in passenger service.
The NBfL is a diesel-electric hybrid double decker bus. A prototype bus, had been in passenger service for eight months and driven more than 15,000 miles. It is reported that the new bus was found to emit a quarter of the NOx and PM of a fleet average hybrid bus and 20 per cent less carbon dioxide.
The NBfL was designed by Heatherwick Studio based at Kings Cross, London. Thomas Heatherwick is an English designer and the founder of the design practice. Since the late 1990s Heatherwick has emerged as one of Britain’s most gifted designers. Heatherwick has been associated with projects that are supposed to give a sense of national or local identity. These include B of the Bang sculpture unveiled outside the City of Manchester Stadium in 2005, the Rolling Bridge at Paddington Basin, East Beach Cafe at Littlehampton (RIBA National Award winner in 2008) and the London 2012 Olympic Cauldron. The Heatherwick Studio, founded in 1994, is home to 80 architects and designers.
In 2010 Boris Johnson announced that Heatherwick Studio would be designing the NBfL. It was the first time in more than 50 years that public authorities had commissioned and overseen the development of a bus built specifically for the capital. The main features of the bus are as follows:
- a long asymmetric front window providing the driver with clear kerbside views;
- a wrapped glazing panel which reflects passenger circulation – bringing more daylight into the bus and offering views out over London;
- an open platform at the rear, reinstating one of the much-loved features of the 1950s Routemaster with its a ‘hop-on hop-off’ service; and
- three doors and two staircases, designed to make it quicker and easier for passengers to board.
The buses are manufactured by Wrightbus in Northern Ireland. The BBC report that each vehicle costs about £354,500 and has an estimated lifespan of 14 years. Existing hybrid diesel-electric buses are reported to cost £305,000. TfL claims that the fixed price (per bus) for the entire order equates to £326,000 at today’s prices, once inflation and leasing costs are factored in. Conductors will cost about £62,000 for each bus. It is planned that 600 New Bus for London vehicles will be in service by 2016.
The NBfL has a comparable capacity to existing Hybrid models. The rear platform will only be open when a “conductor” is aboard in the daytime. However, the conductors will not take money or swipe Oyster cards. It seems that there is some risk of fare evasion which was a problem on the bendy-bus routes. The conductors’ main duty will be to supervise passenger security – but they will not be on duty after about 7pm, when perhaps the need for security is greatest.
According to critics, the NBfL is an expensive vanity project and likely to be abandoned by the next major. The design is also said to be unattractive for other international cities. The third entrance and second staircase may make it difficult to sell to customers outside London. Authorities in other parts of the UK may decide that the higher fares that stem from employing a bus conductor are unsustainable. London bus operators, who purchase new vehicles, usually aim to recoup some of the capital outlay when they renew their fleet and sell their old buses to provincial bus companies. If the operators anticipate difficulty in selling the NBfL on, they may not want to buy them. Commentators have also estimated that the “conductors” on each of the 600 new buses will cost around £37m extra a year.
A further difference from existing buses is that the NBfL has no opening windows. So it was interesting to read, in the Daily Mail (5 July 2013), that faulty air conditioning has caused on board temperatures to soar on summer days. TfL admitted that the NBfL had ‘teething problems’. London Buses, told the Evening Standard: “We are aware of some technical issues with the ventilation and air chill system on some of the New Bus for London vehicles on Route 24. Our suppliers are working to fix the issue as soon as possible.”
Having travelled on the 24 bus once or twice in the evening, it was not clear whether the air conditioning was functioning effectively. The transport community will certainly await further news of the technical and financial performance of the NBfL with considerable interest.