The history of the Routemaster bus

Sam Bisby

By: Sam Bisby

Former Prime Minister William Gladstone once said: "The only way to see London is from the top of a bus."

There’s one bus worth talking about in England’s capital and that’s the iconic Routemaster. The double-decker bus is celebrating 60 years worth of service in 2014, and in that time the red coloured icon of London has become as important a landmark as Big Ben, the Tower of London and even Buckingham Palace.

AEC Routemaster - Genesis

The original AEC (Associated Equipment Company) Routemaster was developed and designed between 1947 and 1956 by a London Transport team including AAM Durant, Colin Curtis and Douglas Scott (designer). The main aim of the new vehicle’s design was to make a lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicle that was easy to operate and simple to maintain.

The Routemaster buses were built by the Park Royal Vehicles and Associated Equipment Company (AEC). The resultant double-decker bus was made from lightweight aluminium and introduced bus features such as independent front suspension, power steering, an automatic gearbox and power-hydraulic braking. The double-decker bus also had a hop-on-hop-off rear feature as well as a bright red finish that made the bus famous and beloved around the world.  

There were four prototypes used by London Transport; these were the RM (the standard bus - Routemaster), the RML (the long bus – Routemaster Leyland), the RMC (the coach) and the RCL (the long coach) and the rear-engined FRM (front entrance bus). 

The RM, which could seat 64 passengers and RML that could 72 passengers, had space underneath the rear staircase where the conductor could stand. London Transport used 2,760 AEC Routemaster buses. Finished in a dark green to symbolise the London Transport’s Green Line route, the RMC featured 57 passengers, modified suspension, a semi-automatic gearbox and an electrically operated door. The longer 65 seated RCL had a larger engine, while there were also front-entrance RMF and RMA Routemasters were made to serve the Northern General Transport Company and British European Airways.

Routemasters were celebrated as the best buses in Britain for the first 25 years of operation.

The decline

The early 1980s saw the Routemaster bus start to be withdrawn from operation and were instead used for training purposes; although the withdrawal of the buses took until 1992. Instead of having a conductor and a driver on the bus routes, the routes were streamlined to one-man operations making the driver take on the role of the conductor and driver. In their place, the iconic Routemaster buses were replaced by modernised rear-engined buses.

Privatised London buses

London Buses broke into 11 areas, with eight inheriting Routemasters. From 1989 to 1994, some Routemasters were refurbished and extended for use. Transport for London purchased fifty Routemaster buses refurbished and rebuilt by Marshall Bus from 2001 to 2002.

Withdrawal from London

In order to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act, Transport for London replaced and withdrew the last Routemaster vehicles on 9 December 2005. Crowds surrounded the Brixton garage that the Routemaster buses were to be retired and caused traffic to come to a standstill. The last Routemaster in service was the RM54 that reached its terminus at 14:07 at Streatham Hill.

London Heritage Routes, bus tours and museums

In 2005, Routemaster buses were used for two heritage routes described as Route 9 and Route 15 operated by First London and Stagecoach London using buses refurbished by Marshall Bus; however Route 9 was withdrawn in 2014. Some Routemaster RMA buses are currently used by the Big Red Bus Company in London. Routemasters are also used for tours in Edinburgh by Mac Tours and in York by York Pullman. Three RMs and one FRM are preserved at the London Transport Museum, while a Routemaster RCL is preserved at the Nottingham Transport Heritage Centre.

Celebration Routemasters

Some Routemasters were changed to celebrate important events. In 1977, 25 Routemasters were painted silver to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and 50 buses were painted gold to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002.

The New Routemaster

Brought about by the driving force that is London Mayor Boris Johnson, the Routemaster bus returned, much to everyone’s delight, in the form you seem above. The bus is now a hybrid diesel-electric bus and features a hop-on-hop-off rear open platform as well as front and rear staircases. The bus also features three entrances; these include front, middle and rear doors and these new, fully-accessible Routemasters were first used on 27 February 2012, holding a maximum of 80 passengers (87 without a wheelchair).