London’s Iconic Routemaster Bus Rolls Again, With a Modern Design

The famed red double-deckers make a celebrated, if controversial, return to London's streets.

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Sang Tan / AP

A new Routemaster double decker bus passes Piccadilly Circus in London on its first first day of service on February 27, 2012.

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?

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