There’s only so much you can do with a bus, after all. On the outside, the NBfL (one mooted name, Olympian, is someone else’s trademark), has a close approximation of an asymmetric front body, with a bold black strip that skims like an eyepatch across the perhaps overly blinged-up headlights.
At the sides and around the rear are where the NBfL more closely resembles the Routemaster (which is a Transport for London trademark). The bold slashes of glass scribing up one side and down the tapering rump suggest the twin stairs and elegant rear of the Routemaster. To our eyes, from the rear three-quarter on the passenger side is where it shows its best – as well as its convenient three sets of doors.
Underneath its London Transport Red skin lie the innovative bones of a novel product. The NBfL has a Wrightbus steel backbone chassis, to which is attached an aluminium superstructure and body. At 11.2m, the NBfL is a long bus, and its length is augmented by a composite rear section incorporating the rear stairwell. This also covers the generator (the NBfL is a series hybrid, more on which later) and, crucially, acts like a stiffener for the whole shebang.
If a supercar is dominated – and judged – by its engine, and a sports car by its handling, then a bus is absolutely defined by its interior. And nowhere on NBfL is the introduction of surprise and delight, so often a feature in today’s cars but conspicuous by its absence in contemporary public transport, more prominent than inside.
We don’t think it’s particularly controversial to suggest that, in general, bus interiors are ugly. It is cheap to fit a squared-off, plain rooflining and strip lights. It maximises interior space, too, but it looks desperately uninviting. By comparison, the NBfL is a triumph of interior design flair. The upper deck’s ceiling has the gentle curve of a classic airliner’s cabin, while LED soft-light pods casts a warmer, cosier glow than fluorescent tubes could ever hope to illuminate (yet are placed at each row to provide sufficient reading light). The windows are shallower upstairs than is the current trend, too. Why? Aesthetics, mostly; the old Routemaster had shallow upper windows, too. They also reduce heat build-up in the upstairs cabin.
Some aspects are not only aesthetic, though. There is real purpose to NBfL’s two staircases – it allows quicker entry and egress – as do the three sets of doors, even if combined they serve to limit the NBfL’s total capacity. NBfL can take 87 passengers (40 seated downstairs, 22 upstairs and 25 standing downstairs). The capacity of double-deckers is usually around 90; London’s bendy buses could hold more than 150.
TfL thinks this is a compromise worth making on busy routes, where the NBfL will be able to make quicker progress by dint of less time being spent stationary at stops. On the busiest routes, some NBfLs will even get a conductor. With the rear deck manned and open, stopping times will be reduced yet further.
If you’ve ever seen an urbanite double-decker tottering along a motorway, you’ll know that ‘performance’ doesn’t mean the same thing to bus operators as it does to you and me.
We didn’t have time to strap our VBox timing gear to the NBfL during our test drive, but putting foot flat to floor at Nutts Corner circuit, near Wrightbus’s Ballymena factory, revealed that NBfL is capable of making only sedate, albeit sustained and linear, progress.
Step-off from rest is decent enough; the 4.5-litre Cummins turbodiesel generator provides power to an air compressor (for the brakes and steering), a 75kWh battery and the Siemens electric motor, which lies beneath a raised seating area at the rear, from where it drives the back axle. It makes, as electric motors do, peak torque (of 1844lb ft) from zero revs, so step-off is as brisk as NBfL gets.