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Great British Icons: The Routemaster bus

Richard Jinman

Think of the UK and you think of red double-decker buses.

Great British Icons: The Routemaster bus
Red rocket ... the original Routemaster bus became a symbol of the UK

BACK in the day, a ride on a London bus was one of the great pleasures of a visit to the capital. You didn’t have to wait for the bus to stop to get aboard – you simply waited for it to slow down and jumped up onto the rear platform. A few minutes later, an inspector with an antiquated ticket machine slung around his or her neck would walk towards you shouting “tickets please!”. Ah, the memories.

There have been motorised double-decker buses in the UK since 1923 when a company called AEC introduced its NS Type model. But the classic double-decker – the bus you see in children’s books and on the lids of  biscuit tins, is the AEC Routemaster. It’s the classic red double-decker, synonymous with London and, by extension, the UK in general.

The Routemaster was first built in 1954 and put into service two years later. At the time, it was considered rather revolutionary. It had an alloy body shell and whizz-bang features such as an independent front suspension, power steering and an automatic gear-box. The Routemaster survived the privatization of the London Bus Service and kept ferrying passengers until 8 December, 2005.

The thing is, Londoners missed their iconic Routemaster buses. Which is why the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, commissioned a new version of the bus, the NB4L. The first bus – known by Londoners as The New Routemaster or The Boris Bus – went into service on 27 February this year. It retains the “hop-on-hop-off” platform of the old Routemaster but is wheelchair accessible and only needs one person to operate it. Its sleek chassis was designed by one of the UK’s leading designers Thomas Heatherwick. If you want to ride one you'll need to do some planning. They operate on Route 38 between Victoria and Leyton Green. Check out this rather cool video that includes a computer simulation of the NB4L. 

If you’d rather get a taste of the original Routemaster, there are plenty of options. You could fly to Hong Kong or Singapore – where the bus was imported in the days of the empire – or you could hire a Routemaster from one of the private companies that rent them out for weddings and parties. A much cheaper option is to ride a Routemaster on one of the two so-called Heritage routes in London. Introduced after the buses were withdrawn from service in 2005, the Heritage Routes are designated 9 and 15. The former runs between Trafalgar Square and Olympia-Warwick Gardens and the latter runs between Trafalgar Square and Tower Hill.

All aboard!

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