It wasn’t until I shipped up in London 10 years later, that I found myself standing at the bus stop again. As a lowly junior news reporter, driving shiny new press cars was out of the question. So it was the No 137 Routemaster for me, the original Clapham omnibus. Queenstown Road Battersea to Sloane Square tube station in Chelsea.
By then, I also had six years studying product design under my belt, so was well placed to appreciate the superbly thought-out Routemaster design. It was designed specifically for use in London and took into account the unique nature of the capital’s roads.
It was light (based around an aluminium space frame), narrow, fuel efficient (more so than today’s buses), relatively agile and – most importantly – allowed passengers to jump on and off whenever it was at a standstill. And sometimes when it wasn’t…
This last feature wasn’t unique - Leyland buses of 1920s vintage had rear platforms – but it did mean that it was ideal for London travel, where quick changes between bus routes, tubes and even taxis, is often the norm.
Sure, the Routemaster was a bit cramped. Pushchairs needed to be folded and it was a no-go for wheelchairs, but it did serve 95 percent of the commuting public better than any bus ever seen in the capital.
The detailing was a delight. Not just the post-war aluminium aesthetic (it looked a little like it had been built using parts from a scrapped Lancaster bomber), but also the superb interior. The hardwood decked floors, beautiful wind-down windows activated by beautifully engineered handles.
Some versions had bare lightbulbs mounted above the windows. At night there was nothing to touch the subdued ambience of a Routemaster. (What a contrast to sitting in a brash modern bus under the harsh strip lights).
The Routemaster’s open back kept the interior cool in the summer and stopped it getting stuffy in the winter. And the conductor was an ever-reassuring presence.So what was not to like? Even Ken Livingstone, London’s first modern-era Mayor, said that ‘only a de-humanised moron would get rid of the Routemaster’. So guess who decided to dump the Routemaster just weeks after winning a second election in 2004 and without mentioning it in his manifesto?
The last Routemaster – a 159 - was consigned to history in December 2005, some 44 years after the first. Although today, two ‘heritage’ Routemaster buses still ply a short route in central London to please the tourists.
Livingstone claimed EU disabled access regulations demanded the cull. When that turned out to be a lie (the cut-off date is actually 2017) it was claimed that Transport for London - know as Transport for Lefties by weary London commuters - that Routemasters were just ‘too small’.
Replacement of the Routemaster with generic double deckers and the hated – by everyone from passengers to cyclists - Bendy Bus has made surface public transport even more depressingly uniform and Stalinist than it needs to be.
So what has this got to do with Autocar? Well, we all appreciate good product design. How could we not, in this job? Everyday we see the huge design and engineering effort that goes into building a modern motor.
We’re also not immune to public transport – especially based on the edge of the capital - but we’re also well aware that the standard of design could be much, much higher than it is.
So, during one late stint in the office editor-in-chief Cropley wondered out loud from the background chat ‘why not propose a design for a new Routemaster?’A ground-up re-think of the bus, which meets modern regulations, is whisperingly eco-friendly but also delivers old-world style and convenience. Call it corporate responsibility; call it Autocar’s positive contribution to improving public transport. But also call it huge fun to bring to life.
When new product proposals are called for, most heads turn my way. And by an extraordinary coincidence, I happened to have on my desk the card of a man I’d met a few years ago at the Royal College of Art graduation show. Alan Ponsford knew in an instant what needed to be done. And this is the result. The Routemaster Olympian.
Autocar's Routemaster RMXL in detail
Capoco’s Routemaster design, dubbed RMXL, is 9840mm long, that’s 800mm longer than the old model. The 6540mm wheelbase is just over 700mm longer and the width up 162mm to 2550mm. Although the new Routemaster’s roof is 275mm lower, the lost interior space is easily recovered because the floor is also much lower.RMXL will carry 48 people on the upper deck — eight more than the original — but will accommodate four fewer passengers downstairs because space has repurposed for wheelchairs and pushchairs.
At 8230kg, it will weigh around 400kg more than the old version — a tribute to the original aluminium spaceframe design.
The RMXL is also built around a massive spaceframe of aluminium extrusions. Normal buses are built around a welded steel frame, but this aluminium cage should be lighter and much stiffer.
The skin of the bus is made from rolled aluminium panels, and the floors are made from bonded honeycomb sandwich sheets, the same material used by modern passenger jets.
The frame and floors will be fixed together mechanically, but the windows will be bonded in place. The engine and air suspension are mounted on stainless steel subframes.
The key difference between this Routemaster and the old model lies in the transmission. The engine is still in the nose, but there’s no mechanical connection between the engine and the rear wheels. Instead the engine powers a generator that charges the batteries, which drive the electric motors on each rear wheel.The removal of the huge gearbox, propshaft and rear differential vastly increases the ground floor space. The RMXL’s floor is flat and sits below the centre line of the wheels.
This improves passenger access, for pedestrians and those with wheelchairs and buggies. The air suspension will also lower the bus so that the floor is level with the kerb.
Looked at objectively, one of the most environmentally-unfriendly ways of providing public transport has to be strapping a large diesel engine into a heavy vehicle and then stopping and starting it between five and seven times per mile. The result is that buses can be very ‘dirty’.
While CO2 has become synonymous with ‘pollution’, it‘s Nitrogen Oxides and particulates from inner-cirty diesels that affect human health. Although particulate traps can help, high exhaust temperatures are required to completely burn the soot away, something that can’t be achieved in stop-start traffic. Reducing NoX requires complex in-vehicle treatment, such as the systems used by Mercedes’ Bluetec diesel engines.
Many global cities (including Tokyo, Hong Kong and Delhi) have already addressed this problem by shifting to buses and taxis powered by clean-burning liquid petroleum gas, or compressed natural gas.
However, the next step is to use a hybrid transmission. The RMXL design uses a Ford 2.3-litre ‘hydrogenised’ petrol engine, developing 127bhp. (Boeing is using this engine in a pilotless drone aircraft). Hydrogen fuel is stored in an filament-wound tank, mounted under the staircase.
The engine is designed to run continuously at an optimum speed, driving a 97Kw generator. This charges the Lithium Ion batteries, which are mounted in front of the rear axle. The batteries drive the electric motors on the rear axle.
At a stroke, problems with pavement-side pollution are eliminated and the bus will run quietly – noise pollution is another major problem with heavy buses – and with zero local pollution. A fuel cell stack could be used in place of the engine, but would cost many hundreds of thousands extra.
A simpler, more near-term, solution would be to use a Californian-spec diesel engine running on second-generation bio-diesel. Large-scale storage hydrogen in city and town centre bus stations might not prove popular with local residents. Bio-diesel storage would prove less controversial.
Interestingly, Alan Ponsford points out that there will never be a large plug-in hybrid bus fleet. Typically a bus needs to be cleaned and re-fuelled in three minutes. Re-fuelling with liquid energy is very rapid and efficient. By contrast, if you had to re-charge London’s 8000-strong bus fleet overnight, it might require 20 medium-size power stations running for five hours, to manage it.
Ponsford reckons that the RMXL might be viable with a 500 per year production run over nine years. This design would also have very long service life – perhaps 20 years compared to a typical 10.
Export potential would be significant and it would also be possible to build a version with full or half-height rear doors for markets outside London.
With the government putting pressure on local authorities to use ‘demand management’ (road tolls) to encourage ‘behavioural change’ (force local drivers onto public transport), perhaps we should demand a vehicle that is as advanced, clean and functional as the cars they would like us to leave at home. Like the RMXL.
... and who's behind it?
Alan Ponsford founded Capoco Design in 1977 to specialise in bus and coach design, after working at Leyland Truck and Bus in Lancashire.
Capoco has designed some of the best-selling city buses in the UK, including the Dennis Dart and Trident, the Plaxton Pointer and the Optare Solo. It has also been involved in 20 different projects in North America, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, 17 countries in Africa and in South America.