London bus doesn't fare well


LONDON - Patrick Shovelton at 84 years old is still a person who needs to get somewhere, and if that means he has to spend part of his time aboard his bus sprawled in the luggage compartment, well, so be it.

Just don't take that bus away.

Shovelton has been a passenger on the pug-nosed, red, double-decker buses of London since their birth in the 1950s. He is not ready to see them die.

London's government, though, is pulling the plug on its famous fleet of curve-topped "Routemasters," replacing them with new, charmless, squarish buses that have all the maneuverability of rolling buildings.

On the buses with the milk-truck noses and open-platform backs, over the decades, people such as Shovelton learned that bus stops are just markers, that getting off was merely a matter of waiting for the driver to slow enough to safely jump to the pavement. And that getting on was dependent only on how fast they could run to hop aboard.

On the new buses, almost hermetically sealed, getting on and off the bus is possible only when the driver gives his OK by opening the doors.

"You can hop on and hop off these buses at your leisure, though these days I have to wait for a red light for that," says Shovelton, aboard a soon-to-be-retired bus as it pulls away from Piccadilly Circus. "Try hopping off the new buses and you will run smack into a door."

Shovelton's is a quiet voice among Londoners upset over the retirement of the Routemasters, but there is a growing high-pitched chorus trying to save them.

The drivers of the old buses tend to take too much advantage of their maneuverability and fly around corners as if they're driving double-decker dune buggies - which is how Shovelton was sent flying into the luggage compartment a few weeks ago - but he likes the speed.

Transport for London, the government agency that oversees the buses, says it is replacing the old with the new because the Routemasters are tough for handicapped people and those with strollers or shopping carts to get aboard.

But Ben Brook, who has organized the Save the Routemaster campaign and has collected hundreds of signatures supporting his cause, points out that handicapped and non-handicapped people alike will fare worse aboard the new buses because there will be no employee aboard to assist them.

One of the charms of the Routemasters, aside from its look, is the presence of conductors, who collect fares but also aid passengers, make announcements about stops and connections and, late at night, help keep in line people who were sitting at London's pubs before hopping aboard the bus.

"The Routemasters to London are like bobbies on the beat and Beefeaters," says Brook, 26, who adds that he decided to get involved in the fight after calculating he could actually make an impact. "What's next? Tearing down Buckingham Palace?"

In a way, the Routemasters have become a victim of both London's mass transit successes and its failures.

The bus system carries about 1.5 million people every day, up about 20 percent over the past five years. Part of the increase has been caused by the continuing failures of the city's subway system - the London Underground, or the Tube - and part is attributed to the increased number of buses on the road.

Rarely in London is the wait at a bus stop more than 15 minutes; during much of the day the wait is closer to six minutes.

In addition, London's newest icon is fast becoming its packed streets, particularly in the center of the city, where the government has started charging $9 for each car passing through it as a way to encourage use of public transportation.

"At the end of the day, London's bus service has improved considerably, and the new buses are part of that improvement," says Nathan Fletcher, a London for Transport spokesman.

The Routemaster was invented specifically for London after World War II, when the city's system of trams and trolley-buses failed to keep up with the modern day. The first took to the road in 1954 or 1956, depending on who is asked, but they were discontinued in favor of cheaper-to-operate buses that require only a driver.

The Routemaster and the new double-decker buses are both about 30 feet long and both red, but there most of the similarities end.

Passengers on the upper deck of a Routemaster sit about 9 feet off the ground; passengers in the new buses are 14 feet in the air. The old buses have wooden floors; the new ones are metal. The Routemaster's capacity is 77 passengers; the new buses can handle 135. The old buses cost about $14,000 in the mid-1960s, while the new buses cost about $273,000 each.

And in addition to the new double-decker buses, Transport for London is adding to its fleet "bendy buses," those monstrosities that look like two buses mating behind an accordion-like shield. Those cost $275,000 each.

"With the cost, don't you think they could have redesigned the Routemaster to fit the needs of the disabled?" asks Brook. "Is this really progress?"

Apparently, to Transport for London it is. But there are signs the agency might do a bit of a U-turn. There are now about 500 Routemasters on the road - down form a peak of about 2,300 - all of them on central London routes favored by tourists, and all of them were scheduled to be pulled off and sold - they go for about $4,000 each - by 2006.

"There has been a lot of hard feelings over this," says Fletcher, the Transport for London spokesman. "I think what will happen is you'll still see a few on the roads for special occasions."

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