New Bus for London – some further observations

What’s going on with the New Bus for London?

One answer is that we are getting more of them. Another 200 initially but more are mooted so I suppose that will mean within a year or so they will represent over nine percent of the London bus fleet. I have read with great interest the formal submissions justifying doing this, but of course all the interesting stuff is regarded as ‘commercially sensitive’, by which I mean the financial justification, or business case, where the detail has not been disclosed.

This has all got quite interesting owing to ever-evolving emission targets — successively tighter targets have a successively higher ‘Euro’ number. When the original batch of NBfL vehicles were ordered they met so-called Euro V standards whilst most comparable ‘hybrid’ buses met only Euro IV standards. This, together with hoped-for improved fuel consumption and better build quality, helped justify the slightly more expensive cost (stated to be about ten per cent) compared with other relevant hybrids. Whether the fuel savings compared with ‘off the shelf’ hybrids over the projected 14-year life of the NBfL would wholly match the enhanced capital cost is a great imponderable relying on factors some of which are impossible to forecast, as is write down cost of alternatives, but on the face of it one could be persuaded the differences are marginal and if TfL wants a bus it has full control over then for a marginal price difference they should do it.


New Buses for London at South End Green, once the haunt of real electric buses

However London is now required to introduce only buses that meet Euro VI standards. The NBfLs introduced this year have had Cummins Euro VI engines installed, which are unfortunately heavier and no doubt to the regret of the politicos are built in China rather than Darlington. However the ‘market’ has meanwhile developed a range of Euro VI compliant hybrid buses (and parts to upgrade older vehicles) and the position now is that NBfL vehicles are only very narrowly ahead of the competition so the case for having more of them at higher initial cost is very much less clear-cut, as critics have rushed to point out. Even so, they are not a bad bus, appear durable and the public (so we are told) like them (although there is no enthusiasm for staffing the open platform on any further routes, denying the public the apparently popular hop-on-hop-off facility so much trumpeted when they were launched — whether this has been taken into account in measuring popularity I cannot say). Even so, ordering more NBfLs, even if the business case is thin, still appears to be a perfectly rational thing to do. Or, rather, it might be so on a level playing field.

The problem to any commentator is that we are not actually comparing like with like. On a normal contracted bus service the operator buys the buses at its own risk, makes its own decisions about expected life and what happens to them then, and the capital cost is rolled up into the overall tendered service charge to TfL. The NBfL vehicles are purchased directly by TfL and made available to the relevant operator on some commercial basis, ultimately reducing the service charge (thus enabling TfL, in effect, to recoup some or all of the capital costs, at least on paper). Without knowing all the details of this mechanism it is of course very difficult to know what the extra whole-life costs are for the NBfL and whilst some information is in the public realm the commercial details have been discussed behind closed doors, inevitably leading to some interesting speculation about how sensible these decisions are (or the extent to which this is mayoral vanity).

As an afterthought, it would surely seem a bit curious if ‘endgame’ is for TfL to end up owning a sizeable proportion of the bus fleet and allowing operators to own or lease the rest? Perhaps there cannot be an ‘endgame’ in bus service provision though. It would be even more fun to discover it really is cheaper on a whole-life basis to own ones own vehicles; my guess is that within the year we will be much closer to knowing the answer to that, but all will not be as it seems for some of the answer lies in how risk is costed.

If TfL as a bus-owner embarks on a course of action but events turn out differently it picks up the direct cost of having redundant or unsuitable or insufficient vehicles. A private operator has the same issue (with the added one of not knowing what future contracts it will have) and takes a view about the cash risk it carries, ‘monetizing’ that risk, and adding it to the tender price; that way TfL ultimately pays for it, whether the risk-event happens or not (and if it doesn’t happen it adds to operator profit). These factors are very subtle and in the case of owning one’s own fleet resistant to immediate discovery in the accounts as risk-events (mistakes or misfortunes) happen infrequently and over a long time and require specialist analysis: it is these factors lurking in the background that can be the game-changer, especially where the options are quite close. The model of owning all ones own vehicles perhaps differs only in scale from the London Overground rail concession where the operator must use the vehicles designed for and provided by TfL.

I think there’s enough information ‘out there’ to be able to make some estimates about relative vehicle purchase and operating costs, and when I have a moment to face producing what will be an interesting spreadsheet I might have ago at shedding light (unless anyone already knows the answer, that is).

New Buses For London seem a bit variable

I have used quite a lot of NBfLs this week varying from the older ones on Route 24 to the latest on Route 12. What’s going on? I may be imagining things but they do not all behave the same way.

When I sampled the prototypes my instant reaction was ‘this is a trolleybus’; a view furthered by a long run along the whole length of Shaftesbury Avenue with no engine running. It was indeed entirely silent because the air conditioning hadn’t been commissioned either (so the helpful man on the back told me when I enquired). Acceleration was prodigious and at one junction we were first away at the lights, having accelerated much more quickly than anything an inefficient noisy diesel unit could manage.

I had a similar moment’s rush of excitement on one of the latest (LT447) on Route 12 where the driver’s ‘positive’ driving style allowed me to enjoy some quite rapid bouts of acceleration in the Central London rush hour which made the vehicle feel positively nippy; it also allowed me to enjoy the reassurance of the equally positive and firm braking. A lengthy run on the 24 the previous week also produced a single instance where the driver was very keen to get somewhere and delighted me with a superb getaway at a set of lights. I suppose it means the performance can match the prototypes. But this is, I have been finding, unusual. On the whole the performance on by far the majority of routes is at best lack-lustre. If the buses haven’t been detuned then I wonder if the drivers have been told to take things easy? I can understand managers discouraging drivers from racing sports cars away at the traffic lights but it seems a pity to buy a racehorse and only allow it to canter occasionally (obviously this analogy isn’t suggesting anything inappropriate…).

On most of the NBfLs I travelled on it was clear that most of the time the engine operated at one of two speeds. The lower speed corresponded to idling (I’m afraid on one occasion with excessive vibration) whilst the higher speed, under load, I assume meant it was going through a battery charging cycle — the relative proportion of time in one mode or the other was probably 50:50 but it varied noticeably. Over about twenty journeys, on only two occasions did the engine cut out and I could savour the silence. The first occasion was between Bond Street and Bayswater Road on an empty 390 and the other was on a 9 between the Savoy and St James’s Palace, this latter was on LT70 and engine was still off when I alighted. This rarity of ‘idle-off’ operation isn’t what I came to expect from the prototypes and knowing the engine starter is a bit of equipment subject to heavy wear I wonder if the engine is now programmed to run continuously (presumably increasing fuel consumption). I’d be interested to know.

More peculiarly, and I have tried to determine it is not down to my imagination, I am sure that I have heard several NBfLs operate such that the engine accelerates with the bus. I don’t know how this would be possible as the engine is not mechanically connected with the wheels, but I suppose if the battery could not supply the whole of the required current then demand could be topped up directly from the engine? There are battery problems and I understand that many have had to be replaced under warranty, but whether that is the cause of my observation I don’t know. I noticed the phenomenon on more than one bus on the 148, but failed to take the number. I’d be interested if anyone else has noticed this or might have an explanation.

Poles Apart

Finally on this subject, in an earlier blog about NBfL on 1 August 2013 (doesn’t time fly) I commented on passenger reaction to the new buses and made one or two observations of my own about the prototypes. Having now used them frequently I do have one residual gripe that I find really annoying. This is the lack of a vertical grab pole at the top step of the stairways — something I am sure London Transport invariably insisted upon, and for a very good reason.

The ‘problem’, for which the pole is the answer, is going downstairs, an activity likely to be attempted while the bus is decelerating. The stairs both face rearwards which means that whilst the bus is slowing down descending passengers will feel a force apparently pulling them backwards (into the steps) and will need to hang onto something. If the driver stops braking (because of traffic), or if the bus stops abruptly, then the tendency will be to lurch forward, which could be very dangerous on a stairway if not firmly holding on. None of this is new, of course, and passengers know they should hold on to a handrail.

I have now had sufficient opportunity to watch how passengers cope with this and it is apparent that on a ‘standard’ bus there is always a vertical pole at the turn at the head of the stairs and that virtually all passengers use the pole and hold onto it high up, usually at least at shoulder height. They continue hanging onto the pole as they decend onto the straight portion of the stairs and only then transfer to the handrail (usually the rail on the right as they descend — but sometimes both rails if they are not carrying anything).


A typical upper stairwell with vertical pole on standard bus

The NBfL buses do not have this pole. You can see from the image there is a horizontal rail that turns down into the stairwell. It may be winning design awards but it is a very unsatisfactory arrangement for people trying to use a moving bus. From observation, what most people do going downstairs is to hold onto the horizontal pole running along the stair-head and proceed downstairs shuffling their hands rearwards along the horizontal portion, until it becomes out of arms reach, and then transfer hand to the inclined stairwell handrail (leaving a much longer period of vulnerability to a bus lurch whilst they are not holding onto anything). Almost no-one attempts to hold onto the rail where it does the reverse turn at an angle, and it might as well not be there (actually I saw two people use the turned rail when the bus was stationary, but none while it was moving). Very few people used the far rail on the left (not visible here), at least at the top.


Top of front stairs on a NBfL

The reasons are, I suggest, fairly obvious. Where there is a pole it is possible to hold it high up above a person’s centre of gravity where it has maximum effect for a minimum force. In addition the wrist is vertical where it can exert maximum effort and do so comfortably. Where there is no pole then at the top landing one is expected to hold onto something below one’s centre of gravity (much less effective) and at an angle (not so comfortable and if done palm down quite unable to exert the same force and risking a sprain). Passengers therefore find the least worst option is to try and use the horizontal rail, even though it is clearly not intended to be used in this way. The problem is I think more acute at the rear staircase where the level section is very much shorter.

To omit the vertical pole seems a serious omission and would not I think had been designed that way by people who frequently use buses. Nor would the problem have been apparent in a studio, on a mock up or even on a real bus whilst stationary. It takes a seasoned traveller used to buses and their lurching about to point out and demand ‘the obvious’ — hence why London Transport used to, and apparently all other UK bus operators still do, have a pole. Perhaps it would matter less if we did not have an ageing population and a preponderance of seating upstairs where the hazards of a staircase on a moving vehicle have to be faced. Of course if carrying anything, as so many of us do, the task of holding on is more difficult and we need all the help we can get.

Don’t take my word for any of this, go and form a view yourself from the two seats behind the stairwell that could have been designed for the purpose of observing passengers’ stairway habits. There’s probably a whole university thesis to be had out of this.

Against the Rules?

Whilst discussing the NBfL, I notice that the current TfL conditions of travel state: “On our bus services, you must board or alight from the vehicle only at official bus stops except in places where we advertise the bus service as being operated as ‘hail and ride’ when the driver will stop where it is safe to do so.” It would appear that anyone boarding or alighting from a NBFL rear platform between stops is contravening the regulations. After three years of operation with open platforms, surely that can’t be right? And what about the heritage Routemasters on the 15 that have operated this way for many years?

All for now. I have a spreadsheet to work on.


About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is
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1 Response to New Bus for London – some further observations

  1. Graham Feakins says:

    Dear Mike,

    This is the first time that I have replied to your e-mailed articles but I assume that these comments won’t be published. On the other hand, please feel free to edit and relate my own recent experience on the No. 12 as told below.

    What you say is interesting. By coincidence, I related the following to ‘Pedantic of Purley’ of London Reconnections fame on 14th April:

    “I decided to try out the ‘new bus’ on the No. 12 to Camberwell Green. Never again!

    From the stop in Regent Street by Portland Place, it took 58 mins. to Camberwell – 20 mins. to north-west edge of Trafalgar Square – 20 mins. from there to Lambeth North – 10 mins. from there to E&C Northern Line – and 10 mins. to Camberwell. I boarded at 4.20 p.m.

    On top of that, I was on the upper deck at the front and simply could not tell whether the engine was running or not because of the dreadful racket and vibration caused by the air-con. Maximum speed was rarely above 10 mph. or so.

    It was also more difficult to descend from the top deck, forward stairs, because there’s no ‘right-handed’ grab rail extending to the ceiling, as to be found on other buses, but only a bannister rail for which one must reach down to hold, in order to gain any sort of support before starting to descend. Very difficult on a bus that is decelerating/accelerating/turning.

    I was moved by the experience alright but not in a way of my choosing.”

    Earlier, I had also considered the battery life and expense of replacing them in view of an excellent article by Ian Walmsley in a recent issue of Modern Railways and I must ask Ian how much he reckons the NBfL will cost TfL in replacement batteries over the life of the buses, assuming that they survive in service longer than the bendy-buses.

    Best wishes,

    Graham Feakins


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