There are few things more iconic about London than the classic double-decker Routemaster bus. Surely you’ve seen it in countless souvenir shops: it’s the curvy, bright red bus with the open staircase cut into the back left corner. But here’s a secret – those 1950s-style buses haven’t rolled through London’s streets since 2005. They were replaced with various breeds of double-deckers no longer specifically built for the British capital.
But Londoners should have a renewed sense of local pride: the Routemaster was introduced back into service Monday, with a remarkably 21st-century look. It’s a fully British-born product, assembled in the plains of Northern Ireland, and it has all the perks of a modern bus (a hybrid-diesel engine is among the most ecofriendly additions), plus one legacy feature that has been restored. The “hop-on, hop-off” function that made the Routemaster fly through London’s stop-and-go traffic will once again be in operation, thanks to the rear platform and staircase. Passengers can get on and off the bus whenever the bus is stopped at a red light, effectively decreasing stopping time. There is a hitch, though: the rear door requires a conductor to operate it, so it will only be functional during daytime hours.
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Or perhaps not even then. On the bus’s inaugural #38 route Monday from Victoria Station to Hackney in East London, a reported “software glitch” kept the rear doors locked shut. Riders on the first route also noted air-conditioning problems and a forced pull-over that saw the bus arriving at its destination 30 minutes late. But the issues were cast off as “teething problems,” and London’s mayor Boris Johnson touted the project as a “stunning piece of automotive architecture.”
After Johnson’s 2008 campaign promise to bring back the Routemaster, this launch comes with not a moment to spare. It’s two months before Johnson is up for reelection. And of course, it’s less than five months from London’s Olympics. It’s been such a pet project for the mayor that the new bus has been dubbed the “Boris bus.” And it’s caught a fair amount of flak after the £11.37 million ($18 million) project netted only eight buses on the streets. Labour party politician David Lammy slammed the cost, writing in an open letter to Johnson: “Riding this bus is surely the most expensive bus ticket in history. With 62 seats at a cost of £1.4m, the cost per seat is £22,580. At £22,695, you can buy a brand new 3 series BMW.” But can you really put a price on Londoners’ pride?