The new bus for London – the original Routemaster

London’s tram network was equally loved and hated by its users and those inconvenienced by it. On the one hand, it was a reliable method of getting about however tracks were expensive to lay and replace, would cause congestion on the roads as they were difficult to pass and the noise associated with badly maintained tracks was only acceptable to those hard of hearing. One advantage was that of pollution. Many trams were still pulled by horses and the gardens of London’s new suburbia were flourishing because of this but progress is a beast that is difficult to restrain so Trolleybuses were seen as the future of London’s transport ‘problem’ – yes, it’s not a modern story put about by ignorant, talentless, short-arse, foolish politicians that London has problems.

Trolleybuses were buses that ran on tyres without tracks and had electric motors to provide traction. These motors were powered from overhead cables requiring each trolleybus to have a number of pickups. This meant that the streets of London had a more flexible transport service with very little pollution on the streets (but of course, not where electricity is generated – given the modern day nonsense of electric cars being clean, nothing is really new is it?), had a more quiet transport system and would be faster in operation. Sillies did happen and were common where trolleybuses would steer away from the overhead cables for one reason or another, lose power and so cause traffic disruption until they were manhandled back to where power could be restored. Some trolleybuses were fitted with diesel engines which dealt with some of the drawbacks in later years.

Rattuscatchus, Going Postal
Trolleybus – courtesy Alan Farrow

Following the inconvenience of another world war, it was decided that a more modern approach was required for London’s transport system. It would need to be light for reasons of economy and noise, each bus be independently powered and that maintenance and servicing be simplified by standardisation across the fleet.

1947 saw authority for a new design given. Length had to be limited to less than 30 feet because of ‘regulations’ and being so close to wartime, materials were not in great supply. A design was readied and 4 prototypes were built. It looked similar to an earlier bus, the RT, but was different in may ways in both dimensions and under the skin. The new bus, named Routemaster had a body of aluminium which, following WWII, was not only more available but the skills required to work it had been well exercised.

Unlike the trolleybuses which followed design cues of their day with a single, heavy steel chassis, the Routemaster was more of a monocoque design with a front subframe for engine, suspension and steering and rear subframe for the rear axle and suspension and instead of 3 axles, the Routemaster only needed 2. The gearbox was mounted on the body with 2 drive shafts – 1 connecting the engine and the other linking the rear axle. As well as these new design features, the Routemaster also had fully hydraulic brakes and gearbox selection.

The front wheel placement on the Routemaster enabled it to swing in easily to bus stops, allow great precision on the crowded streets of London and helped provide a more comfortable ride for passengers – it really had been designed to operate in a tight and difficult environment. The open rear of the trolleybus had been retained to allow quick and easy entrance and egress for passengers which saved a lot of time at stops whilst allowing the passenger freedom. There were 64 seats which was only 6 short of the trolleybus so was comparable in almost every way.

Rattuscatchus, Going Postal
RT – courtesy Shrinkin’violet

Power for the first prototype was via the AEC A204 diesel engine. This was convenient as it was also fitted to the earlier RT bus however it required some modification as the new Routemaster had a fully automatic gearbox instead of the RT’s preselector system with third pedal. After proving itself during 1956, it returned for modifications where advantage was taken of the relaxing of bus length laws which meant the radiator could be moved from under the floor to its conventional position at the front. A newer AEC A600 engine was also fitted . The other 2 prototypes also underwent changes of engines whilst another was the test bed for the then Green Line routes and was used in service up to 1979. The prototypes were in operation for around 3 years which gave the design team a good run in to remove any bugs from the Routemaster prior to it entering service.

The standard 27.5 feet long Routemaster was known as the RM of which 2123 were delivered. A stretched version (RML) was 29.91 feet long and numbered 524 in units delivered. These were mainly used on rural routes as trade unions objected to their use in London as they were designed to be used without conductors.. nothing really changes does it?

Other models include the RMC which was a coach version, the RMF which was a front entrance version of the RML for the Northern General Transport Company and the RMA which was a front entrance version of the RM for BEA passenger transport.

As designed, the maintenance was very straightforward with each bus being completely overhauled every 5 years. The body would be completely stripped of all fittings, the sub-frames removed and completely rebuilt with new engines and axles, paint removed and then reapplied. The depth of servicing carried out meant that the buses leaving the depot at Aldenham were to all intents, brand new.

Rattuscatchus, Going Postal
Routemaster – courtesy Martin49

Service changes as well as One Man Operation (are you allowed to say OMO any more?) meant that Routemasters declined slowly during the 1980s. Whilst the benefits of the Routemaster were still clear – speed of operation, maneuverability, reliability and the iconic branding that is a red, London Routemaster, there were more modern buses available with lower floor boarding for the disabled.
The election of Livingstone as Mayor in 2000 saw him keep to his word and buy back 49 Routemasters to be integrated back in to the transport fleet. These were rebuilt using more modern engines and completely revamped and Uncle Ken remarked at the time: “only some sort of ghastly dehumanised moron would want to get rid of a Routemaster“.
Following re-election, Livingstone announced the end of the London Routemasters in 2004.

If, like me, you consider the Routemaster as a proper bus, then you can still catch one. The route is the number 15 and runs between Trafalgar Square and Tower Hill.

As a matter of interest, the RM had a weight of 7.35 long tons whereas the new Routemaster weighs 12.45 and the Enviro 400 with its electric/diesel hybrid drive system weighs17.7 long tons – or nearly 2 and a half Routemasters. That’s progress folks.

Rattuscatchus, Going Postal
Routemaster – courtesy Andrew Bone


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