I had occasion to travel on the New Bus for London (LT2) on evening of 16 March and rather liked it. At night it was obviouly different to the other 38s in the continuous stream that characterizes this route by virtue of its brighter destination blind displays and (I think) brighter headlights. Seeing it bearing down on me was a temptation too far – I got on it.
On boarding at the front one was initially struck by the dark red colour scheme redolent of the old Routemasters, rather than the harsh primary colours favoured by some today. I chose a seat near the rear in order to observe the rear open platform. I don’t particularly care for the rear facing seats that comprise about half the downstairs number (the upstairs seats all face forwards) and it appears that at least some of these were required because of the equipment in the area of the rear wheels and guess this constrained the arrangements elsewhere. The seats were, however, reasonably comfortable compared with some of the hard and unforgiving seats found on some buses.
The interior fittings seemed solid, well made and well positioned. Particularly noticeable was the absence of clanking, rattling and general vibration found on many modern vehicles. The ‘conductor’ (who I suspect may well have been an Arriva manager) and I eventually engaged in conversation and he said a number of passengers remarked that the vehicle seemed ‘well made’. Indeed various people in the street engeged the conductor in brief conversation across the open rear platform and offered comments like ‘nice bus’ and ‘when are we going to get some more’ – not really the kind of unsolicited support one generally observes in London (well not about buses anyway).
In the London traffic the vehicle was positively nippy, more like a large, powerful car. After a few minutes it was slightly disconcerting to hear the engine cease operation at a set of lights. For virtually the whole of the rest of my 25-minute journey (about half of it) we proceeded in near total silence and just as nippily; it reminded me very much of travelling on a trolleybus (I can’t remember the London ones but was a frequent user in Bournemouth as a child). I asked the conductor about this and he explained that the engine is only used to charge the traction battery and it operates for about half the time, confirming what I had observed.
Like most modern buses the bulk of the capacity is upstairs (40 seats) compared with just 22 downstairs, and maybe 12 standing. For this reason it is in theory a good thing to have two staircases and entrances/exits. There is no attempt at a one-way flow though, so some of the benefit is lost. I was particularly struck by the strange behaviours I observed around the rear platform. After a while it became very clear that the Friday night crowd in the West End simply had no experience of dealing with an open rear platform and didn’t know what to do. I observed about 50 people use it (or try to) during my brief journey and saw none of the behaviours I associated with a skilled bus user getting on or off an old Routemaster. There was a lot of dithering and general uncertainty, and I saw virtually nobody check the inside lane for kamikazi cyclists, even when getting off with the bus away from the kerb. The conductor was as encouraging as feasible, but I fear if the platform is to stay then TfL is going to have a lot of passenger training to deal with. Passengers have come to expect doors and don’t expect a bus to move off with doors apparently open. It wasn’t obvious to me what the conductor was supposed to do if passengers boarded or alighted after the bell signal was given (I think I worked out the conductor was giving a starting bell).
It was a mild night but I detected no air conditioning. I was advised that it had not yet been commissioned but was expected shortly; the conductor actually said that the previous day it had been rather hot upstairs and was looking forward to it. I could not quite grasp how air conditioning could work efficiently with a large hole in the rear of the vehicle, and look forward to finding out.
I have no strong feelings about the overall design of the bus except that I really didn’t like the absence of a rear window on the upper deck. Indeed, were I to be picky, I’m not entirely sure that the rear end of the bus is not capable of some improvement. Bus rears are rarely a thing of beauty, but in this case I can’t help thinking that the design is not an entirely happy one. I’m no designer, but I have reason to think I am not alone in thinking something better might be sought on any production run. I did wonder if a version were planned, as an option, without a rear platform; surely we want to see a reasonably standard design built in large numbers, but I wouldn’t think a rear, staffed platform could be justified on more than the highest density services. Nor, incidentally, would the need for an open platform be quite so apparent if a number of exceedingly long gaps between official stops could be reduced.
I did notice that the conductor (now there was one) was expected to be some kind of mobile travel guide, a role for which it did not seem to me he was entirely equipped. A radio link to a source of travel information, or even a supply of bus maps, would have been really useful, if individual training is not to be given. Fortunately some of the passengers on the prototype seemed curiously knowledgible about local bus routes (I wonder why?) but TfL can hardly rely on this. If we are really to have to pay for conductors on buses it seems to me a great PR opportunity to get them to act as travel experts, the passengers will find it odd if they don’t seem to know what is going on (I think they will be viewed as TfL staff even if provided by contractors).
I am not going to enter into the debate (at least, not now) about the Mayor’s motives and the possible costs. Others can probably do that better than I can, and in any case we have to see the prototypes prove themselves before longer term decisions can be made. I would only say that there is quite a lot of mischievious or misconceived information about, so in seeking the facts then please bear that in mind.