Category Archives: Transport Icons

The Routemaster Bus

Routemaster BusWith most British products now designed and made elsewhere (albeit by British designers very often), we sometimes have to be reminded that we once built rather good vehicles. Every nation could unearth a few classics, but our little islands have produced a whole encyclopedia: beautiful ocean liners, graceful steam engines, grand cars, aircraft, motorcycles and of course buses.The theory behind Britain’s long love affair with the double-decker bus is that our narrow city streets made it necessary to build upwards. Perhaps, although the same could be said for any number of European cities. More likely, we just enjoyed being different.

How did London’s Routemaster bus become such an enduring icon – a symbol of the capital, recognised the world over? Although comparatively recent, the design successfully combined old and new in an alluringly British way: the open rear platform and steep stairs had their origins in the horse-drawn omnibuses of the Victorian era, but the running gear and general space-efficiency of the machine were right up to date. In terms of overall dimensions versus passenger capacity, it was a remarkable bit of packaging that may never be surpassed, and although designed and built in the 1950s and ‘60s, the Routemaster – like all the best icons – remains a strangely timeless machine.

RM1, the Routemaster prototype, was built at London Transport’s Chiswick garage in 1954, and was followed by a further three as the details were refined. In 1956 an order was placed for 850 production machines, the mechanical bits being assembled at lorry maker AEC’s factory in Southall, and the bodywork at the company’s nearby Park Royal plant. Buses gradually came into service from June 1959.

…it was a remarkable bit of packaging that may never be surpassed…

Several variants were made over the years, but the classic Routemaster was bright red (naturally), 27′ 6″ long, eight feet wide and just over fourteen feet tall. Access was via an open platform at the rear kerbside, leading to a flight of steeply curved stairs to the top deck, or a single step up to the bottom deck. Early examples had 64 seats, but from 1965, an extra centre section was added to create the RML; a shade over 30 feet long, with 72 seats.

Routemaster bus platform

The open platform was a bonus in congested central London, but the free and easy access also made them dangerous for cyclists nipping up the inside

The Routemaster may look timeless, but beneath the surface, the design was seriously cutting edge. Previous double-deckers had been built of steel and wood around a substantial steel chassis.They could be prohibitively heavy, and the Routemaster’s predecessor, the RT, was limited to 56 seats to keep the weight within limits.

Instead, the Routemaster was built around a strong, but lightweight ‘monocoque’ aluminium body, doing away with the heavy chassis altogether, at a time when such technology was considered adventurous in the car world. The AEC 115hp engine, 4- speed gearbox and suspension were bolted to subframes under the body. At 73/4 tons, the Routemaster was incredibly light for its day, and remains smaller, some two tons lighter, and more economical than similar modern buses.

The best bit for large and small boys alike was the driver’s  cab. Once again, there were Edwardian echoes, with the driver sitting in stately isolation up front, to the right of the engine. But beneath the surface, the cab bristled with innovation – independent front suspension, power steering, power-assisted hydraulic brakes, and a fully automatic gearbox. All very conventional today, but state-of-the-art for the 1950s.

Rise & Fall

Numerous design changes were made over the years. Most were very minor, but a Leyland diesel engine was tried for a while, and a faster RMC coach derivative with fewer seats and electrically-operated doors, was built in quite large numbers to race rather incongruously in and out of London, notably to Heathrow Airport.

Altogether, more than 2,800 Routemasters were produced, mainly for use in London, but with a small number going elsewhere.The last of the series of development prototypes, unveiled in 1966, was as strikingly modern as RM1, with front platform doors and a rear engine, but for political and practical reasons, the design was never put into production.Another option put forward by the design team was to put the engine under the front stairs, a brilliant bit of packaging, but nothing more was heard of the idea.

…the buses were just too cost-effective to be withdrawn en masse…

From then, as with so much of British innovation, the story was one of gradual decline, although the Routemaster, designed for a life of twenty years, was to outlive its contemporaries by a considerable margin.

Withdrawals began in the late 1970s, but the buses were just too practical and cost-effective to be withdrawn en masse. Newer one-man- operated buses saved on manpower, but caused traffic delays and were unable to dispense change or cheerful cockney travel advice like the Routemaster conductors. Although losing ground in the suburbs, the old buses clung tenaciously to the congested inner urban routes.

In the following thirty years, some 1,500 Routemasters were scrapped, but many cast-offs found a new lease of life with provincial bus companies, particularly in the cut- throat post-deregulation world, where the space- and fuel-efficiency of the design often outclassed newer machines.

In London, Routemasters were even being upgraded, 600 of them receiving new Cummins and Iveco diesel engines in the early 1990s. Privatization came and went, and still the Routemasters kept rolling. Confidence was boosted with yet another refurbishment programme between 2001 and 2004, when mayor Ken Livingstone reiterated that the Routemaster was an essential part of the London scene.There was an anniversary party in 2004, featuring numerous early examples of the marque, including RM1, still in revenue service after an astonishing 50 years. But a few months later, the mood suddenly changed, and Transport for London announced that the last buses would be withdrawn and sold by the end of 2005.

Why? It seems that buses with open platforms are becoming increasingly difficult to insure in this litigious age, and the Routemaster’s high platform was never, ever going to be wheelchair accessible. Ironically, this most space-efficient of vehicles is being replaced with so-called ‘bendy buses’ – cumbersome articulated single-deckers that occupy a great deal more of London’s precious road space.

Now past its half-century, there’s no doubt the Routemaster needs updating. As one Londoner puts it, ‘Don’t get too misty-eyed: they’re good fun if you’re fit, childless and enjoy excitement and (very) cool breezes. Everyone else is better off on the new buses.’


Blake Cotterill’s updated Routemaster design

Like most older vehicles, the Routemaster is hardly folding bike-friendly either.The tiny luggage space under the stairs is small and often jealously guarded by the conductor. Modern low-floor designs, most of which incorporate a spacious wheelchair/buggy area, are much more practical in this respect.

New Routemaster

The updated Routemaster would be broadly similar in layout, but front-wheel drive

Could a new Routemaster still emerge? One interesting proposal is the Q-Master, a strong, low-floor Routemaster update, but as with the railways (see High Speed Train, A to B 27) 11 A to B 46 the funding mechanisms and political will just don’t seem to be there any more. But a generation of young British designers is refusing to go quietly. Blake Cotterill, a student at Coventry University, has proposed an updated driver-only-operated Routemaster with front doors and a host of new technologies.This ‘hybrid’ diesel/electric machine would feature an internal combustion engine in the classic front position to aid accessibility, but the engine would drive the front wheels, giving a low floor throughout.Acceleration would be boosted by an electric motor fed from a fuel cell and/or batteries, providing regenerative braking and – once again – class-leading fuel economy.

Routemasters are set to disappear completely in the next few months unless a ‘heritage route’ reprieve is announced. At the time of writing (January 2005) the buses were still operating on seven routes:

No 13 Aldwych – Golders Green
No 14 Putney – Tottenham Court Road
No 19 Finsbury Park – Battersea Bridge
No 22 Putney – Piccadilly Circus
No 36 Queen’s Park – New Cross
No 38 Clapton Ponds – Victoria
No 159 Streatham – Marble Arch

You can help save the Routemaster.There’s plenty of information at or where more than 10,000 people have signed the online petition to date. Meanwhile, do take a last ride (preferably without a folding bike).


Mailstar Delivery BikeIf you think about it, the toughest most cost-effective bicycles on the planet will be machines honed to perfection in a tough commercial environment. Forget those fair-weather mountain-style machines with wobbly suspension pivots and 521/2 useless derailleur gears; the ultimate bicycle will be a machine designed for daily commercial use, where time means money.

Mail deliveries rather lend themselves to the bicycle, which helps to explain why most postal services round the world use bicycles for at least some deliveries, and posties in the UK alone clock up a remarkable million plus miles in the saddle each week.That, says the Royal Mail, is the equivalent of riding 40 times round the world, or if you prefer, to the moon and back twice… every single week.

Back at the dawn of mail deliveries, the Post Office experimented with early velocipedes, much in vogue with dandies of the time (a bit like today’s equally useless MTBs), but the machines proved impractical, which shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

Numerous trials followed, as both the bicycle and the Post Office evolved, but it was not until 1896, when an initial fleet of a hundred machines were purchased, that bikes began to be taken seriously. In 1929, a standard design was introduced, with a carrying capacity of 50lb (22.7kg), and a service life of four years. By 1935, this standard bicycle had swept away all previous designs. It was to remain essentially unchanged for an astonishing 63 years, produced by a number of companies, including W R Pashley of Stratford upon Avon, who became a primary supplier from the 1970s onwards.

…By this time, the British bicycle industry had more or less evaporated…

In 1992, the familiar postie bike, now coded RM92, was upgraded and renamed the Millennium.The principal changes were Sturmey-Archer hub brakes in place of the reliable, but archaic, rod-operated type, a lighter frame (not difficult), wider tyres, 26-inch wheels, and a few plasticky bits. Incidentally, records suggest that an electric version was introduced in January 1993, but no one seems able to verify whether this was a single prototype or a large-scale experiment – it certainly didn’t catch on.

Mailstar delivery bike - Spectro 5-speed

Spectro 5-speed hub, well protected cable and (just visible below) sprung chain tensioner

By the late 1990s, the Royal Mail was running the largest and possibly the oldest fleet in Europe – more than 30,000 machines, many still with rod brakes and other pre-war fittings. Despite some tentative experiments with mopeds, it was clear that bicycles would always be needed, and the Royal Mail invited 12 companies to tender for the contract to replace RM92, of which six expressed an interest and supplied a prototype.

Mailstar Delivery bike panniers

Big panniers and plenty of room for awkward parcels on the rack. An LED light completes the package

By this time, of course, the British bicycle industry had more or less evaporated, and of the three short-listed for evaluation, the only truly British contender was the Pronto workbike from Pashley, the company already building the post bikes. The other shortlisted manufacturers are thought to have been Dawes (but made in the Far East) and Valdenaire. The Royal Mail ordered 60 of each design and began a twelve- month trial.

…our bike broke the Royal Mail testing machine! The Pashley Pronto was the winner…

With such a large and hard-working fleet (surprisingly, the Royal Mail has more bicycles than vans) reliability was to prove a crucial factor, working in favour of hub brakes and gears, and against flash derailleurs. Posties had also asked for stands and locks (which would be easy) and suspension, a much more difficult proposition within the strict price, weight and reliability constraints of the contract.To add to the pressure, one of the stipulations was that the bike should carry more than the 23kg payload of its predecessor.

According to Dan Farrell of Pashley, the selection procedure was extremely rigorous, but where the Royal Mail testing machine eventually broke the other bikes, ‘our bike broke the testing machine!’

In 2000, the Pashley Pronto was pronounced the winner, and the Stratford upon Avon manufacturer geared up to start replacing the Royal Mail’s ageing fleet from 2001. The MailStar name was chosen by Royal Mail from competition entries submitted by Pashley employees.

SRAM Hub BrakeThe bike has a rugged specification: simple, but immensely strong step-thru frame, 5-speed SRAM hub gears, hub brakes, alloy rims, ‘multi- surface’ Nokian or Schwalbe tyres, plastic chainguard, aluminium mudguards, rugged centre stand, frame lock, automotive-grade brake cables and front and rear carriers. Interestingly, lights are not integral with the design, and with the accent on safety and reliability, a front hub dynamo would seem an obvious upgrade.The design load (rider and mail) is 150kg, with a total mail capacity of 32kg, split evenly between the front tray and rear panniers and rack.That’s appreciatively more than the RM92, provided, of course, that postmen and women don’t weigh more than they used to.

The design life was five years, but this is expected to be exceeded in practice – quite an achievement, considering the environment the bikes operate in. Not only does the MailStar carry impressive loads, it also has to withstand being dropped (sometimes literally) from vans, to speed up deliveries to outlying suburbs. Not surprisingly, it’s a fairly chunky machine. Complete with massive rear rack, twin panniers and front letter tray, the bike weighs about 26.6kg (59lb).Weight is one of the few complaints from staff, who are otherwise very appreciative of the improved brakes and gears.

Safety is paramount these days, thanks to Health & Safety legislation. Helmets have recently been made compulsory for posties – an unpopular move in our part of the world, at least, but perhaps inevitable in the current climate.

Health & Safety excesses aside, the Royal Mail shows no sign of giving up on the bicycle.The company has experimented with bikes other than the MailStar in recent years, but none has quite made the grade.The Brompton has been considered for pecialist deliveries and the Royal Mail has held trials with Powabyke machines in Essex and Plymouth to judge whether power-assisted bikes might speed things up in hilly areas. The electric-assist bikes proved popular with postmen, but were not judged tough enough, and none have yet been adopted.

Pashley Pronto Bike

The Pashley Pronto is the ‘civilian’ MailStar and shares the same chunky rear rack, centre stand and simple but rugged construction

OK, it’s a classic workbike, but can I buy one? The Post Office refuses to pass on time-expired bikes to the public, presumably to avoid fraudulent use. Until recently, these were cut in half and scrapped, but many thousands of older machines are now shipped off to start a new life in Africa, where the rugged construction and sturdy carriers must make them prized possessions. Of 9,000 bikes exported to date under the Re- Cycle scheme, half have come from the Royal Mail.

Officially, you won’t get a postie to part with his bike for love nor money, but Pashley continues to produce the identical Pronto for some £450, although you can’t buy one in Post Office Red for obvious reasons. Many bikes are sold to overseas postal services, and a few to  industry.

Meanwhile, Pashley continues to churn out some 4,000 to 5,000 MailStars a year, replacing the hard-working machines on a never-ending seven-year cycle. After the expenditure of a considerable amount of time and money refining the product, neither Pashley nor the Royal Mail are planning changes. Seventy years in the making, and still delivering 75 million items a day to 26 million addresses. MailStar, a transport icon.

Pashley Cycles tel 01789 292263 fax 01789 414201 mail



PHOTO: Ryan Hemmings

It might seem strange lamenting the passing of a supersonic aircraft in a magazine devoted to transport alternatives, but as with our first Transport Icon (British Rail’s High Speed Train) Concorde helped to change the way we view travel, genuinely making the world a smaller place. If the supersonic dream really is now at an end, what does it say for the hopes and aspirations of mankind? In 1969, more than thirty years ago, we put a handful of men on the moon, but it seems we’ll never go back, let alone reach for the stars.We also looked forward to commuting around the globe by supersonic aircraft, but today that vision of cheap, convenient transport is looking increasingly unrealistic. Is it all downhill from here?

‘Green’ it Was Not

Concorde is one of the most expensive and polluting modes of transport ever invented, but it’s strangely comforting that a handful of spoilt wealthy folk can take day trips to New York. Perhaps it upholds our dwindling faith in technology; in our ability to do whatever we want if we really want it. In reality, of course, it was Concorde’s very exclusivity that made it viable, even on a limited scale, for had we all been able to travel supersonic, the environmental consequences would have been nightmarish.

Concorde consumes fuel at the rate of one gallon per 17 passenger/miles, squandering anything up to 95 tonnes during a typical flight. If that sounds a lot, it is, but fuel consumption of this order is actually only slightly higher than the cattle-class transporters criss-crossing our skies.

…directly beneath the flight path, windows would shatter and chimney pots quake…

Fuel consumption is greatly increased by reheat – normally found only on jet fighter aircraft – an injection of neat fuel into the exhaust, that (once clear of land) blasts Concorde from its take-off speed of 250mph to Mach 1.7. Cruising speed is around Mach 2, twice the speed of sound or some 1,350mph.Yes, Concorde really does cruise on the edge of space, way above the belt and braces airliners, and 60,000 feet above terra firma. As British Airways likes to put it: ‘Only astronauts fly higher – but they don’t enjoy the same quality of entertainment and luxury…’ They don’t pay their own fares either: A standard return trip to New York on Concorde costs around £8,000 (hurry, there aren’t many seats left). For that, you get rather limited legroom, as much pampering as the crew can achieve given the space constraints, and an arrival time at JFK before you left Heathrow…You will also have done something that only two and a half million others have done in the history of aviation, and you may be one of the last ever to do it.

This all sounds wonderful, but supersonic travel has brought many problems. It’s all well and good accelerating the occupants of a plane to twice the speed of sound as they sip their cocktails and leaf through the in-flight magazine, but for those under the flight path things can get a bit bumpy.

A personal recollection: Living near Weymouth on the Dorset coast, we’d wait every night for the french windows to quake – a barely discernible rumble perhaps, but we lived many tens of miles from those lucky sods slipping effortlessly through the sound barrier above the English Channel. Directly beneath the flight path, windows would shatter and chimney pots quake – sonic booms are tricky things.

Those living near Heathrow will know all about reheat during takeoff too. At low speed Concorde makes a spectacular racket: far louder than anything else in the skies (although the plane is claimed to be no noisier than other first generation jets). But somehow we forgave Concorde all of these sins, because she was a beautiful plane and a deliciously effective A to B machine – a true icon of transport. Mind you, we might have viewed things differently if supersonic airliners were passing every ten minutes bound for the unfinished hotels of the Costa del Sol.

Entente Concordiale?

Concorde began life as a germ of an idea in 1961, when French and British aviation companies pooled their resources to investigate the supersonic option.Then in November 1962 – for all sorts of reasons that had nothing to do with aviation – the politicians came on board and Concorde was off the drawing-board and into the prototype phase. As this was the height of the Cold War, it was perhaps inevitable that President Kennedy should announce the start of a US project seven months later, probably because the Russians had starting work on the Tupolev Tu-144, or ‘Concordski’ as it became known to everyone else.The era of supersonic flight was just around the corner, or so we thought.

‘Concord’ was one of the few names that worked well in both French and English, but the name was to cause major problems as the two countries bickered over that final ‘e’. Eventually, British technology minister Anthony Wedgewood Benn caved in, announcing that the British planes would adopt the French spelling, preserving a sliver of national dignity by adding that the ‘e’ stood for ‘excellence’, ‘entente’, ‘Europe’, or a little tenuously, ‘England’.

…escalating fuel costs and security fears… the world no longer wanted or needed a supersonic plane…

Despite such differences, and the slightly uneven 60/40% airframe construction split in favour of France (we knew more about engines, you see), the race was soon on to launch the first Concorde. Rather disappointingly the laurels went not to France or Britain, but to the Russians, whose hastily assembled, and rather lethal, Concordski took to the skies on 31st December 1968. Concorde 001, the French plane, followed on 2nd March 1969, with the British 002 undertaking a first test flight on 9th April.

It seems hard to believe now, but the Concorde we know today was expected to be no more than a prototype for a family of supersonic airliners, offering improved range and payload with reduced fuel consumption and quieter take-off and landing – a thoroughly modern commercial airliner, in other words.

With the experience gained from the first machine (Concorde ‘A’), it was predicted that relatively modest changes to the engines and the shape and size of the wings would produce some major efficiency benefits, giving a maximum range of some 5,000 miles, making numerous long-haul destinations viable. One thing supersonic aircraft don’t like is floating around slowly, and for Concorde, less than 500mph is a walking pace.This helps to explain its roaring engines and strange nose-up attitude at low speed, necessitating the ‘droop-snoot’ nose to maintain pilot visibility. Unfortunately, low speed flight has become increasingly common as planes stack up to land at busy airports.

Concorde ‘B’ promised an improvement of no less than 41% in the lift/drag equation at low speed, but with sales languishing, and costs escalating, the French and British governments refused to provide further funding, putting Concorde on the long and lonely flight to commercial extinction.The prototype machine never was, and never could be a commercial proposition in the long-term.

Into Profit

The rest, as they say, is history.The fuel price shocks of the early 1970s convinced the Americans to concentrate on more prosaic airliners, and the Russian plane turned out to be impracticable. For Britain and France, so much money and prestige had been sunk into the project, there was no turning back. Concorde eventually entered service with British Airways between London and Bahrain in 1976 – hardly an economic route, but the Americans wouldn’t let it land.The following year, the plane finally gained landing rights at New York, giving at least one viable and cost-effective route, largely over open water. Concorde was making money at last, but only 14 examples ever entered revenue-earning service, and the developments costs were quietly written off.

For the next 23 years the plane performed almost faultlessly, without a single casualty, despite the odd tyre failure and occasional excitement with the engines. In 2000 that all changed, when a punctured fuel tank led to the loss of an Air France plane and all on board. Despite a clever fix that got the remaining planes back in the air, it soon became clear that Concorde’s days were numbered.With escalating fuel costs, and security fears causing a general loss of confidence in air travel, the world no longer seemed to want or need a supersonic plane. Perhaps the long-anticipated communications revolution – video-conferencing and email – has had an effect too? Whatever the reason, the world is certainly a very different place.

The End

Concorde is certified to fly until 2009, but after 27 years of front line service, British Airways and Air France have decided to retire the planes early.Virgin boss Richard Branson has offered to take the planes on, but A to B readers will hardly need reminding of the way his organisation treated our first transport icon.We trust that Concorde will be allowed to fade quietly and with dignity from the transport scene. Concorde. Gone, but not forgotten.