Transport for London chooses a winner

By Doug Jack

Joint winners, Aston Martin and Fosters + Partners, offered this stylish design.

Transport for London controls the route network for our capital city. Seven years ago the agency determined high capacity articulated buses would best serve the busiest routes.

Maximizing their efficiency required passengers to have multi-journey passes, smart cards, or tickets that were pre-purchased from machines at each stop. Since 2002 Transport for London put nearly 450 articulated buses by Mercedes-Benz into service.

Although articulated buses operate smoothly in many European cities, complaints soon came in claiming they were contributing to traffic congestion, particularly in London, and blocking junctions when traffic lights changed.

London’s Evening Standard mounted a long and vitriolic campaign against them with some really twisted stories. The fact that three caught fire did not help the matter.

In May 2008 the conservative challenger in the mayoral election, Boris Johnson, said he would abolish the bendy buses, as Londoners call them, and replace them with a modern version of the traditional double deck Routemaster bus.

Both he and the newspaper ignored the fact that articulated buses could move large numbers of people, especially those arriving at main line rail stations and continuing their journeys into central London. With three large double-width doors, passengers can get on and off quickly and easily with minimal delay.

In the original Routemaster launched in 1954 the driver sat in his own cab alongside a front-mounted engine. Passengers could get on and off wherever they wanted through an open-rear platform. That was actually unsafe as people sometimes jumped off moving buses and ended up colliding with the vehicle following behind.

Nonetheless, Johnson won the election and launched a competition to design the New Bus for London. He not only asked for a new generation of Routemaster, but also for new designs of individual elements.

There were various categories, including age groups of 11 and under, 12 to 15, 16 to 18, and 18+. Senior Transport for London executives judged a large number of entries with assistance from David Quainton who had recently retired from Alexander Dennis. He was probably the only man on the judging panel with actual experience in building buses.

“The 700 entries we received from five different continents from professionals to people of all ages clearly shows how much this competition caught the imagination of Londoners and others worldwide,” says Peter Hendy, Transport Commissioner, Transport for London. “We now have a wealth of fantastic ideas to present to the bus manufacturers who will create the final design of the New Bus for London.”

The final product is due to hit the streets in 2011.

This competition actually puts the manufacturers on the spot. Over the last 10 years, OEMs have supplied several thousand low-floor double deck buses to London operators that feature an entrance ahead of the front axle opposite the driver and a center exit. The overall length of most is around 32 feet, which has proven highly maneuverable in London traffic.

Other fleets throughout the United Kingdom operate similarly, but longer vehicles have a single door at the front. Last year, Alexander Dennis, Scania and Volvo shared a British market of more than 1,300 new double deck bus registrations.

The judges awarded a joint first prize worth the equivalent of $35,000 each to Capoco Design Ltd and a joint entry from Aston Martin and Foster + Partners.

Alan Ponsford who heads Capoco Design has designed many buses and coaches in the UK and abroad. Here his approach combines the best of the traditional Routemaster with modern ideas that includes a front-mounted hybrid electric drive system.

The front axle is at the extreme front with an entrance door behind that leads to a flat floor with no steps. Foster + Partners also incorporated the traditional rear platform behind the rear axle.

The judges saw the many novel and innovative features of the Capoco submission as technically sound and capable of carrying through manufacturing. They found the lightweight structure, the hybrid propulsion and the drivetrain system particularly impressive.

The submission from Aston Martin and Foster + Partners came as a complete surprise. Aston Martin has a strong heritage in high quality luxury cars. Foster + Partners is a leading architectural firm based in London with offices worldwide.

Their joint entry also features an extreme front axle and a full low-floor layout. Working from the inside out to develop a vehicle that meets the needs of drivers, conductors and passengers, their concept offers warm lighting and wooden floors to foster a spirit of conviviality. They gave particular consideration to the selection of upholstery to create a living room feel. Safety features include closed-circuit television.

The judges noted the extent of background research and level of development in this entry, and commented on the overall concept and the meticulous, artistic presentation. They particularly liked the overall styling package, especially the rear end and heritage cues from the original Routemaster. Other innovations include a drive-by-wire system, solar panels built into the glass roof and LED-based moving advertising displays.

The long wheelbase of both winning designs suggests the new Routemaster concept is bound to be less maneuverable than current double deck vehicles used in London.

Alexander Dennis and Wrightbus are clearly the two front-runners among the manufacturers. Both have extensive experience in double deck aluminum structures, and it would be very surprising if any major international manufacturers took part.

The creation of a unique double deck design for London is bound to be expensive. It is not clear whether the new design will be used solely in the center of London, or throughout the entire Transport for London network over time.

The question of product liability is another concern, and one readers in North America will appreciate. The open rear platform is a safety hazard. Will Transport for London indemnify the manufacturers against any claim for loss of life or injury caused by the open rear platform? This is an issue which needs to be resolved before anyone spends a large amount of development money.

Perhaps the last word should go to the London Assembly Transport representative for the opposition labor party, Val Shawcross, who says Londoners will see this as little more than a vanity project.

“The design competition may have been fun and the winning designs are extremely impressive, but this is not a serious way to make policy and not a worthwhile use of public money,” he says. “I have yet to hear one convincing argument for why London needs a new double deck bus.”

“There is understandably a lot of nostalgia for the old Routemaster,” Shawcross says. “But nostalgia does not get people to work on time.”

Doug Jack is with Transport Resources in the United Kingdom.