Mastering the (bus) route

When I was a boy in Brixton, South London, there was a craze for bus spotting. It was started by the dunce of the class! He only got 2 out of 100 for English (for writing his name, he said), but he certainly knew his stuff about buses, not just the general details, but the specification of the engines, bodywork etc. He ran a club and set you an exam to pass if you wanted to join. You only got one chance.................. Sorry to say, I failed!

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A Routemaster bus
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At weekends, with a Red bus Rover, I would travel to London Transport bus garages, recording the numbers of the buses I'd seen. When I got home I'd tick them in a special publication listing all the buses in service. It was fun trying to get into the garages to see the old buses or service vehicles not normally seen on the road. Usually we were turned away, but my friend, Paul, was more daring and got to record the rarer vehicles. He even got into Chiswick Research Centre where the skid patch was, quite a feat in those days!

When the new Routemaster (RM) replace the Regent Type (RT) on the number 37 route I travelled the route's length from Clapham to Hounslow, sitting at the front of the bus and recording all the RM numbers on the route. I didn't have a Rover ticket that time, but the conductor knew I was bus spotting and wouldn't take my fare for the return journey.

I even travelled to Park Royal where AEC make the Routemaster, and, peering, through the security fence, you could see two or three brand new vehicles. As a contrast, I remember a place near Collindale which was the old trolley bus graveyard! Trolley buses were replaced in the late 50s and 60s by Routemasters and after nearly 60 years the last trolley route closed down in May 1962.

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A Routemaster inParliament
Square, courtesy LTM site
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Along with black taxis, the cherished red double decker Routemaster is probably Britain's best known moveable landmark! It is a time honoured, classic design, in the mould of Gilbert-Scott's red "K2" telephone box. Douglas Scott, no relation, was the man responsible for fashioning the subtly curved Routemaster, inside and out, in 1954. His brief was to come up with a replacement for London's ageing bus fleet while maintaining a look consistent with the capital's existing buses. Initial reaction was hostile. The Routemaster drew criticism for looking ungainly. It was thought outdated, especially when, in 1961, legislation allowed buses up to 30 ft long. Like many design classics, people only took it to their bosoms when it started to be replaced by generic double-deckers that could be seen in many places around the country.

The RM made its mark world over from America to Sri Lanka. I even found two advertised for private hire on the Internet - in Hong Kong. In the 60s there were 2,760 RMs. on the road but today there are only 600 in service in London. This trend, however is being reversed. Recently 24 Routemasters, made between 1964 and 1968 rolled out of Hackney depot with new, more fuel-efficient engines, ready for further use. Both Ken Livingstone and Steve Norris earlier this year backed the campaign to save the city's ageing fleet of Routemasters (Labour and Conservative agreeing!), promising to keep them on the road for 15 more years if elected.

But even with the backing of London's new mayor, and the rejuvenated fleet, their future looks grim. In 2017 the Disability Discrimination Act will make the Routemaster illegal, along with any other bus that people in wheelchairs cannot use.

There are no end of enthusiasts dedicated to the preservation of all types of old public service vehicles. Many groups can be found on the Internet, along with pictures of their pride and joy displayed at rallies. On a Lodge outing to Chatham Docks last year, we saw a renovated Regal Four (RF) from Bromley.

The Internet is a mine of information. I found there was a prototype lone front-entrance, rear-engined Routemaster (FRM 1) in the London Transport Museum. I also found a photograph of the Silver Lady - a silver coloured Routemaster, as the name suggests. Be sure I'll be jumping on a Routemaster at the first opportunity.

Colin Worley

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