Routemaster buses will soon be as rare as horses on the streets of London. From March, the last remaining passenger service, route 15, will be drastically reduced.
How are Routemaster services being cut?
The major change comes on 2 March 2019.
After that, you'll only be able to catch a route 15 heritage bus 'on bank holidays and weekends, between the last Saturday in March until the last weekend in September'. That's roughly 60 days of the year — less than a sixth of its current availability.
TfL has not yet issued a press release about the weekday disappearance of the icon, but has placed the information on its 'permanent bus changes' page. The curtailed service is one of many routes under the cosh.
Why is this a big deal?
People love these buses. With their distinctive curves and open rear platforms, they are unlike any other bus on the road. You can even find a character known as a 'conductor' onboard — a second member of staff (besides the driver) who checks everyone is safe and happy. We hate to use the cliche 'iconic', but if any vehicle owns this word, it is the Routemaster.
The buses have been part of London life since 1956, but their numbers were drastically scaled back in 2005. Route 15 is their last preserve.
Heritage Routemasters currently run daily from Tower Hill to Trafalgar Square. This is a shortened version of the regular route 15, designed for sightseers or anyone who wants to ride a distinctive old bus for the fun of it. The withdrawal will not affect many commuters, but it is a blow to the character of the city.
Why are Routemaster services being cut?
The reduction of service is no great surprise. TfL proposed changes in November 2018 and sought feedback from 'stakeholders' (but not the wider public). Whatever feedback was given, it was not enough to convince transport planners to retain the service.
TfL cites three main reasons for the cull. First, the buses are unsuitable for wheelchairs. Second, they don't meet modern emission standards (they have an exemption). And third, they're financially unsustainable: 'This service is currently subsidised by around £9.00 per customer. This is compared to 23p per customer across the rest of our bus network,' says TfL.
What's the reaction?
Andrew Morgan, Chairman of the Routemaster Association, think the economics could have been very different.
This operation has never been advertised or publicised and should have been a success story as a must for travellers along this corridor.
It is with great sadness that we see the final Routemaster operation over a bus route in London end in this way. With no fanfare or appropriate good bye to the last proper London bus, to the last open platform bus in regular service in the UK, to the last AEC [Associated Equipment Company] built bus in service in the UK, or to the bus conductor. The end of a much loved London icon; the end of an era.
TfL are keen to point out that it's not quite the end of an era, and that the buses will still run, if much less often.
While this is a less frequent service, heritage buses on route 15 will remain a visible icon on our roads when they are most used by customers. The heritage bus route will continue to run between Tower Gateway and Trafalgar Square.