Five years ago, in the 2007 Christmas issue, Autocar commissioned an engineering proposal for a new-generation Routemaster bus. We thought it was time that old-fashioned buses, using commercial vehicle technology, were brought up to date. They needed to be slicker, more appealing and far less polluting.
Boris Johnson liked the idea. When he became mayor, he commissioned a design competition for a new bus. The result was an electrically driven, range-extender hybrid double-decker with three doors and two staircases. Last year we drove the final production version of the New Bus for London (NB4L), designed and manufactured by Wrightbus.
With 600 of the new buses recently ordered, we thought we might build on that success by suggesting the next step in the updating of the UK’s miserable inner-city public transport network. It’s time to bring back the electrically driven trolley bus.
Although hybrid buses are much better in terms of air pollution (the NB4L’s engine/generator is nearly half the size of a typical bus engine), high bus density and busy, narrow streets concentrate the problem. Oxford Street is an extreme example. It has an estimated 200 million visitors per year, who have to fight with 300 buses per hour.
The biggest problem for Edinburgh – and any other city that wants a tram network – is the massive cost of digging down into the road and moving all the underground services. It is estimated at £80m per mile just to lay the track. The cost for doing the same on 1.5 miles of Oxford Street can only be imagined.
This is where the trolley bus comes in. Although it takes power from overhead cables, it is otherwise a normal bus, running on the existing road surface. And because the NB4L is a series hybrid (it has an engine/generator that is not connected to the wheels), it could be converted remarkably easily to become a trolley bus.