It’s been a long and winding route for the New Bus for London project. I commissioned the first proposal in December 2007 and took the drawings to the then-Conservative candidate for London Mayor, Boris Johnson.
Johnson won in May 2008 and set the project in motion – in the face of significant opposition from people who called him mad and the bus a ‘vanity project’. Today, there are just three prototype versions of the finished object running in London at the moment.
Eight of the electrically-driven Wrightbus prototypes have been ordered, with the expectation that between 300 and 600 will arrive over the next four years. However, last Friday night the NB4L came perilously close to being hauled off to the scrap yard. Candidate Ken Livingstone – an avowed opponent of the bus – said if he became London mayor he’d scrap the project, even though Transport for London desperately wanted it, Northern Ireland needed the investment and the development costs of less than £12m had already been spent.
At the stroke of midnight, with over 2 million votes between Livingstone and Johnson, Boris scraped home with a 64,000 majority and the NB4L survived. The following day I was walking up Piccadilly in central London and saw one of the NB4Ls heading towards me. They’re rare enough for me to stop and take a snap, but as I did, the bus stopped right next to me. So I jumped onto the open platform, swiped my Oystercard and, four and half years after the idea of a range-extender, electric, Routemaster was first kicked around in the Autocar office, I was finally travelling on it.
I stayed onboard until the bus came to a halt at Victoria station and managed to have a chat with the driver. He was one a small hand-selected group chosen to drive the prototype.
"It’s fabulous to drive with the electric motors and 95 percent of people absolutely love it," he said. The driver also said he was a Livingstone supporter, so I asked him what he thought of the plan to scrap the bus. "There’d have been an uprising if he had."
I stayed on the bus and headed back into central London. The burgundy and gold interior with LED downlighting is radically different to the interiors of today’s buses, which are typically yellow and blue interiors with harsh fluorescent strip lighting. It gives out a similar ambience to the Rover 75 – a kind of modern Edwardianism.
It’s a much more civilised environment than bus users have had for a long time. But what was most striking was the enthusiasm of the passengers who got on the bus. A large proportion were taking pictures and videos. One young woman, who was standing at a bus stop, looked up and said "Oh! It’s the new bus, how exciting!" and jumped on.
When was the last time a bus was a matter for enthusiasm? By coincidence, I’ve just taken delivery of the Chevy Volt long-termer, so I actually spent the whole of last weekend either walking or travelling by range-extender. For city dwellers like me, it feels like the future.