03 June, 2011


BoJo and the Bendies

No, not a rare gay porn "arthouse movie", nor a deservedly obscure Indie band, but Boris Johnson's manifesto pledge to phase out articulated, or "bendy", buses in London. When bendy buses were introduced to London starting in 2002, there was the usual neophobic grumbling, but nothing too substantial until the months before the 2008 mayoral and GLA elections, when the Een Stannat launched an intensive campaign to (a) get rid of the bendies and (b) preserve the Routemaster which ran on some of the routes planned for bendification. The campaign was orchestrated by the Standard's then resident attack hack, Andrew Gilligan. My impression was and remains that this campaign was more a vehicle (no pun intended) to attack the then mayoral incumbent, Ken the Newtfucker, than a reflection of serious concerns about public transport.

So what was on the charge sheet against the bendies, according to the Standard's campaign?

1. Obstructive size and poor manœuvrability
2. Fewer seats
3. Prone to fare evasion

Of course any choice of bus is a compromise between competing requirements. The much fetishized Routemaster, manœuvrable, compact and seating 64 (RM variant) or 72 (RML variant) passengers, has the advantage where passengers undertake relatively long journeys with relatively small numbers getting on and off at most stops. They compare poorly, however, for short central journeys where standing may be acceptable or unavoidable, for significant extra standing capacity and rapid loading/unloading during intense peaks (they are certified for 5 standees only and getting on and off practically requires you to climb over standing passengers) and are completely useless for passengers with baby buggies or wheelchairs.

Clearly the manœuvrability issue is a major one, and the introduction of bendies onto London's tortuous and often narrow streets requires careful planning. But I really don't buy into the "Bendies Bad, Routemasters Good" oversimplification.

Now BoJo is a politician and when he found himself cornered into reacting to the Standard's campaign, I did expect that he would find a way of quietly dropping these useless promises after the election. Bugger me if he has not only made a start on replacing the bendies (at great expense) but also on prototyping his entirely pointless replacement Routemaster. Pointless because current legal and operational requirements require so many changes to the design that this overpriced red elephant turns out to be, in essence, a standard decker with an extra staircase and some extra curvy bits in nostalgic homage to the old design. Hardly worth all that moolah for such a travesty, was it BoJo?

Not that it matters. Sunny Hundal thinks that this flight of fantasy can be capitalized on next year to attack Boris and bring us bigots of the outer boroughs flocking back to Ken. Dream on, Sunny-ji. Us bigots remember Ken. Some of us have been around long enough to remember Ken when he was running the old GLC. Believe me, hell will freeze over before we vote for that tiresome rat-faced Marxist and his posse of freeloading cronies again.

So how has the Boris plan worked out in practice? Route 38 has replaced the bendy with a bog-standard modern double-decker. I am familiar only with the Islington - Victoria section of the route, where the bendy was perfectly fine in my experience. But I can't speak for the northern section towards Clapton. I defer to others on that one.

Instead I want to concentrate on the piece of resistance of joined up thinking, the replacement of the 507 and 521 city-centre routes.

Routes 507 and 521 are the successors to the old Red Arrow interstation services, running between mainline rail termini and central London. The traffic is short distance, very peaky, and benefits from rapid loading and unloading at busy stops and minimal ticket transactions between passengers and driver. Manœuvrability considerations apart, these routes are actually very well suited for the bendy bus.

So how were they replaced? With a "fixed bendy". There is no better way to describe it. The replacement vehicle (Citaro LE?) has only 21 seats, with fully half the floor space cleared for standing passengers. Passengers enter and leave by both doors and do not interact with the driver. As with the bendy, Oyster PAYG ticketholders are responsible for "touching in" at an Oyster pad. Other passengers, whether ticketholders or freeloaders, do nothing.

So nul points for seating capacity or fare enforcement. But what about manœuvrability? Surely there's a win there. Well, not in my observation. This rigid bus is 12 metres long, the same as your typical long distance "coach". And it has a correspondingly long wheel base with huge overhangs at either end. The Citaro G "bendy" is an 18m long vehicle composed of two articulated 9m segments. Having both ridden on and watched both types of vehicle and humbly admitting my pig ignorance as a non-driver (of anything, never mind sodding great PSVs), my impression is that manœuvrability when cornering is much the same — basically both types of vehicle have to take the corner just as wide — while the more sinuous bendy has the edge in lane switching and similar manœuvres.

Here's a typical Citaro LE (a Polish one in this picture):

Just clock that overhang!

So no overall difference either way then? Apart perhaps from the obnoxious amount of roadspace taken up by a single bendy.

No so fast! The new buses necessarily have a lower capacity. So you need more of them. And more drivers. In fact the peak vehicle requirement (PVR) for the replacement buses is 80% higher than the old buses to run the same service capacity. In round numbers, the replacement buses require 80% more drivers, have 23% fewer seats in aggregate and occupy 20% more roadspace in aggregate.

Nice one Boris. At least you fulfilled your election pledge.

Welcome back!

"Dream on, Sunny-ji. Us bigots remember Ken."

Dear old Ken has a way of reminding people just what he's like every now and then..

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