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10 January 2020

Evening Call: How the “Boris bus” became a white elephant

This man is negotiating Brexit.

By Jonn Elledge

Some years ago, back when Boris Johnson was still London’s comedy mayor, rather than Britain’s tragedy prime minister, he came up with the spiffing new wheeze of bringing back the Routemaster.

This particular bus, familiar from the background of a hundred movies set in swinging London, differed from yer bog-standard double-decker in two important respects. Firstly, its corners were rounded, rather than square. Secondly, it had an open platform at the back, enabling passengers to jump on and off at will, and only occasionally injuring themselves in the process. And so Johnson instructed Transport for London to spend a ridiculous amount of money commissioning people to design and build a new version of the iconic old bus for the modern world.

The result was about as good as one might expect a bus commissioned by Boris Johnson and designed by Heatherwick Studios to be, which is to say not very good at all. It was, however, very expensive, compared to most buses: nearly twice the price.

And in operation, the buses swiftly ran into a number of practical problems. The greatest of these was that they needed a conductor, which most buses don’t, and so cost a lot more to run – right up until the point that somebody somewhere realised that you could get away without a conductor so long as you kept the rear doors closed, which pretty much undermined the entire point of the exercise.

And now Transport for London has announced that, from 25 January, passengers won’t be able to use the middle or rear doors to board at all, but will have to get on at the front like on most other buses. A pilot study has suggested this will reduce fare evasion, saving TfL £3.6m a year. (That’s almost twice as much as the £1.9m lost from bendy buses as of 2006 which, given that this was one of the big arguments for scrapping them and bringing the Routemasters back, is frankly hilarious.) But it does also mean that the new bus for London is effectively the exact same thing as the old bus for London – only it costs twice as much and is a lot less environmentally friendly.

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It is probably worth noting at this point that Boris Johnson, the mayor who gave us this £300m white elephant, is now heading a government that will soon be negotiating a new trade agreement with the European Union.

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More on the cursed history of the New Bus for London here, if you can bear it. At least it happened. As mayor, Johnson also managed to spend £53m on a bridge that will never be built at all.

Good day for…

Learning a terrifying new word. Climate change has introduced us to “pyrocumulonimbus”, writes Sanjana Varghese: “an airborne vortex that sucks up everything in its path and spits out embers kilometres away”. Wow. More here.

Bad day for…

The financial case for Brexit. Bloomberg Economics says the policy will cost the economy £200bn by the end of the year. Once again: wow.

Quote of the Day

“We won’t be fooled by these empty promises which have so far seen years of delays and massive overspend.”

Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the TSSA union, reacts to news that London’s Crossrail project now won’t open until the summer of 2021, three years behind schedule and nearly £2bn over budget. Transport for London is not having a good day, all told.

Everybody’s talking about…

Labour leadership candidate Clive Lewis’s suggestion that the party should promise a referendum on the future of monarchy and, specifically, on whether to scale it back.

This may seem like a silly idea now – polls have shown no appetite for republicanism, and oh god another referendum, really? – but it must at least be possible that this support turns out to be tied to the Queen herself rather than the institution she represents. Perhaps this is an idea whose time will come.

Everybody should be talking about…

Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protests are still continuing, even if they’re no longer dominating the headlines over here. Harry Eyres has written for us today about the silence of the British left on Hong Kong. Check it out here.


Questions? Comments? I’m over here.

Please do forgive today’s descent into transport nerdery, but in my defence it’s the first time I’ve done it and it is Friday.

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