London's Red RouteMasters retiring
London is retiring its famed double deckers. -- Churchbus
LONDON - After half a century, London's red Routemaster buses are rattling into retirement. Thousands of fans said farewell to the hop-on, hop-off buses Thursday, the last full day of regular service for the icon that has been the subject of thousands of tourists' photographs and postcards.
Transport authorities are withdrawing the blunt-nosed double-decker from its last route — the 159 from Marble Arch to Streatham Hill — on Friday. The final Routemaster was leaving central London just after noon, bound south of the river to a bus garage in Brixton.
"My experience of London is diminished by their passing," said Travis Elborough, author of the Routemaster book "The Bus We Loved."
Many Londoners agree. In a poll last month for the city's Evening Standard newspaper, 81 percent opposed scrapping the Routemaster.
But city transport bosses say the venerable vehicle cannot accommodate disabled people and must be replaced by more user-friendly buses. Some of the replacements are doubledecker, but don't allow people to get on or off while the bus is moving.
"We want to provide the most modern, fully accessible safest buses we can," Transport for London spokesman Stephen Webb said. "It's not romantic, but it works."
The bus is not disappearing completely. Sixteen Routemasters, restored to gleaming 1960s glory, will remain on two "heritage routes" that run through central London between 9:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.
But its demise as part of everyday London life has triggered an outpouring of nostalgia. The British Broadcasting Corp. is running an evening of TV programs Saturday celebrating the bus. Composer Tom Smail has created "Requiem for the Routemaster," an orchestral piece that evokes the throb of an engine, the tinkle of a bell and the zip of a conductor's ticket machine.
"It's actually more of an 'in memoriam,'" Smail told BBC radio. "So you have the sadness, and you have the joy of being on a bus."
The snub-nosed, open-backed Routemaster entered service in the mid-1950s as a replacement for electric trolley buses. It was the last bus to be designed specifically for London, by engineers who had worked on World War II bombers. Supporters say its light but durable aluminum frame, fuel efficiency and easy-to-repair components make it a classic piece of British design.
Travelers appreciate the conductors who dispense tickets — and offer travel information — once passengers are seated.
By the 1960s, the scarlet bus had become a symbol of vitality in a city reviving after years of postwar austerity. The 1966 Time magazine cover celebrating "Swinging London" featured a Routemaster.
"The Routemaster is a child of austerity, but it comes into its own in the late '50s and early '60s, when London is becoming a much more polychromatic city — the Kodak-color, James Bond, color-supplement London," said Elborough. "It becomes an embodiment of London at that point."
The long-lived bus has been condemned and reprieved in the past.
The first warning sign came in the early 1980s, with the introduction of a bigger, boxier double-decker operated by a driver alone.
In 1996, London transport authorities said the Routemaster would be phased out within five years because modern safety regulations frowned on the hop-on, hop-off platform at the back. Many a Londoner has suffered a twisted ankle, or worse, while making an unauthorized exit between stops.
A potential savior appeared in the person of Ken Livingstone, a populist Cockney who in 2000 became London's first elected mayor. In 2001, Livingstone said that "only some ghastly dehumanized moron would want to get rid of the Routemaster."
During Livingstone's first term, old Routemasters were refurbished, and fans hoped they would stay in service at least until 2016, the deadline for making all buses wheelchair-accessible under European Union rules.
But in 2003, Routemasters began disappearing, replaced by newer double-deckers or even by single-decked, articulated behemoths known as "bendy buses." Two years ago, there were still 500 Routemasters running in London; after Friday, there will be only the 16 "heritage" vehicles.
Fans see their passing as a missed opportunity to preserve a bit of London's heritage.
"We live in an era where brands are constantly reinvented — new VW Beetles, new Minis, new London cabs," said Elborough. "It's just a shame that we are losing this key piece of London vernacular."
Learning by experience isn't always the most fun, but it's effective.