Heritage Route 15: a history of the last open-platform bus route in the UK
Updated: Mar 21, 2019
We asked conductor Mike to write a blog post to commemorate the last day of regular Routemaster bus operations in London when Heritage Route 15 ended daily operations on 1st March 2019.
Friday 1st March 2019 was a day like any other mundane weekday in London although this day was to become noted in the annals of transport history as this was the day when a significant milestone was reached where it was the last day of regular daily open-platform bus operation complete with a conductor anywhere in the United Kingdom. I am of course referring to Heritage Route 15, the last normal Routemaster-operated bus service in London which gently shuttles its merry way to and fro between the tourist Meccas of Trafalgar Square, St Paul’s Cathedral and Tower Hill (for the Tower of London).
Heritage Route 15 (along with sister route Heritage Route 9) both came along in November 2005, where both routes were created by Transport for London (TfL) to appease various enthusiasts, tourists and traditionalists into retaining some sort of regular Routemaster operation in central London seeing as all the other remaining Routemaster-operated bus routes in the Capital went over to low-floor OPO vehicles between August 2003 and December 2005 under the auspices of Ken Livingstone during his term in office as Mayor of London. Heritage Route 9 was to become operated by First London with their RM fleet based at Westbourne Park bus garage; Heritage Route 9 originally ran from Aldwych to the Royal Albert Hall via Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and Hyde Park Corner. Not one of the most iconic parts of London is the stretch between Hyde Park Corner and the Royal Albert Hall but there you go. Heritage Route 15 on the other hand was to become operated by Stagecoach London with their RM fleet originally based at the former Waterden Road bus garage near Stratford in East London which was demolished in early 2008 to make way for the 2012 London Olympic Stadium and the Queen Elizabeth Park. Heritage Route 15 ran between Trafalgar Square, Aldwych, Fleet Street, St Paul’s Cathedral, Cannon Street and Tower Hill with a generous overlap of both Heritage Routes 9 and 15 originally running along the Strand between Trafalgar Square and Aldwych. And Heritage Route 15 had far more to offer the casual tourist to London in terms of the famous sights than Heritage Route 9. When both Heritage Routes were unveiled to the public in Trafalgar Square on that cold but sunny morning of Monday 14th November 2005 it seemed that a new dawn was beginning in the chapter of the history of the Routemaster bus with both routes operating a fleet of ten buses on each route running between 09:30 and 18:30 daily (with five buses running in service and with the other five as back-up) and with the buses on both routes freshly painted into the smart 1960s London Transport red livery with a cream relief band and gold London Transport fleetnames and fleetnumbers as well as having a dedicated team of drivers and conductors who were dressed in a smart new uniform for both Heritage RM services.
Things started to change from November 2010 when the western end of Heritage Route 9 was extended from the Royal Albert Hall to Kensington High Street near to Kensington Olympia station, this coming about as the Royal Albert Hall was a bit of a useless terminus for Heritage Route 9 seeing as the first eastbound picking-up stop for the route was located quite some way away from the Royal Albert Hall, this involving a long walk for the unwary tourist or passenger. This extension of Heritage Route 9 also coincided with the withdrawal of the route between Aldwych and Trafalgar Square and to add insult to injury Heritage Route 9 followed along the normal OPO route 9 by diverting west along Pall Mall instead of travelling up Lower Regent Street and turning left into Piccadilly at Piccadilly Circus, so this meant one of London’s most iconic tourist landmarks was by-passed. This inevitably made Heritage Route 9 start to lose its custom but worse was to follow in the autumn of 2013 when London United began to operate their New Bus for London (LT) fleet on the normal route 9 running between Aldwych and Hammersmith with the New Bus for London vehicles on route 9 back then being operated during the day as crew-operated vehicles with a Customer Service Assistant (CSA) on the platform helping passengers with information and providing any other assistance onboard the vehicle where necessary. As more and more passengers decided to flock to these revolutionary new vehicles operating on route 9 this made the RMs on Heritage Route 9 become under-used with many RMs running near-on empty during the day.
TfL soon picked up on this and realised that Heritage Route 9 was starting to lose money as a crew-operated route with a steady decline in passenger usage so in the end something had to give. In early 2014 a TfL consultation was placed on Heritage Route 9 (and as I know from experience a ‘consultation’ from Transport for London is usually a foregone conclusion just spelt with a fancy word). And so on Friday 25th July 2014 London said farewell to Heritage Route 9 after just nine years with RM 1627 ending up working the very last westbound duty from Trafalgar Square to Kensington High Street in the early summer evening before it ran out of service back to Westbourne Park bus garage for a special farewell party held for some of the staff. In all truth Heritage Route 9 was a non-starter from November 2005 as the Royal Albert Hall and Kensington High Street are pretty much the ‘Back of Beyond’ for most tourists who visit central London. Had there been another Heritage route such as a Heritage Route 11 running from say, Sloane Square to Liverpool Street in the City then that route would have been much more successful in terms of passenger numbers as the number 11 is London’s most iconic bus route with the route passing most of London’s famous sights along the way, as well as serving three of London’s busiest Main Line railway terminals (Victoria, Charing Cross and Liverpool Street) in the process.
With Heritage Route 9 by now all but a memory, this just left Heritage Route 15 running as the only normal daily Routemaster-operated bus service in London. The summer of 2011 saw Stagecoach London’s operating manager Jon Batchelor, an enthusiastic and committed busman who oversaw the presentation of the vehicles and the smart appearance of the driving and conducting staff since the route began in 2005 leave Stagecoach London to work for another London bus operator so a new operating manager took Jon Batchelor’s place. Sadly this new operating manager was not as enthusiastic as Jon was back in the day and eventually standards began to slip on Heritage Route 15 with the vehicles starting to look shabby and grubby externally (from being parked outside West Ham bus garage in all weathers) and with some of their drivers and conductors starting to dress scruffily and behaving rudely to passengers – not the kind of image of London’s iconic big red Routemaster bus I would want to showcase to any visitors from overseas. The fact that the conductors' electronic hand-held machines were still the ones as used on the normal Routemaster routes between 2003 and 2005 did not help either and with London’s buses becoming 100% cashless from 2014 this meant that the conductors in some cases were not bothering to do the job properly. Some of the conductors even detested working on Heritage Route 15 as they personally saw it as a demotion from their normal duties of driving an OPO bus around the wilds of inner East London. Needless to say Stagecoach London received complaints from the public about the attitudes of some of the conducting staff, a far cry from when the route began in November 2005 when most of the conductors were proper long-serving bus conductors who worked on the Routemasters when they were in service with Stagecoach London on routes 8 and 15 during the 1980s and 1990s.
As was the case with route 9 in autumn 2013, from the early spring of 2015 the normal route 15 running between Blackwall and Trafalgar Square went over to New Bus for London/LT operation, but with the route operated as a normal OPO route without the use of Customer Service Assistants (CSAs). This had an effect on the operation of Heritage Route 15 as if an OPO 15 arrived at Tower Hill before a Heritage Route 15 the following Heritage Route 15 would not stop at the bus stop, thus letting the OPO 15 carry all the tourists and passengers, with the RM on Heritage Route 15 running practically empty – with no doubt a lot of bemused and upset tourists waiting at the stop on Tower Hill who may have been planning to enjoy a ride on a classic 1960s red London Routemaster bus as part of their visit to the Capital. The latter part of 2015 saw a glimmer of hope for Heritage Route 15 as the Transport for London contract to operate the route for a further five years was retained by Stagecoach London in November 2015. As part of the TfL contract for Heritage Route 15 it was planned for all ten vehicles used on the route to be refurbished internally and externally into as-near the original 1960s condition complete with the correct dark red seat moquette, the reinstating of the original tungsten interior lighting (albeit using modern energy-saving LED lightbulbs) and the refitting of the traditional style of wind-down window vents so technically this was to be a ‘defurbishment’ of the fleet of the ten RMs if you will.
Regretfully the retrofitting of the wind-down window vents was inevitably ruled out by TfL on cost grounds (despite a job-lot of wind-down RM window vents being readily available) but the start of the defurbishment of the fleet of RMs for Heritage Route 15 began in earnest with RM 2060 being sent away to become the first vehicle to be completed by Hants & Dorset Trim down in Eastleigh in Hampshire in November 2015. The refurbishment of RM 2060 was quite an impressive affair with the interior looking immaculate with the dark red seat trim, cream saloon ceilings and the old intimate feel of the tungsten lighting in both saloons reinstated along with a fresh lick of paint on the exterior of the vehicle, making the Routemaster a brand to be proud of in the London scene of the 21st century. Sadly as a sign of the times RM 2060 returned sporting three CCTV cameras mounted on the vehicle – with one camera placed on the nearside, one placed on the offside and one placed on the rear directly above the platform. As the lower and upper saloons of RM 2060 were already fitted with interior CCTV cameras the placement of the three exterior cameras proved to be a little extreme by some but as this was a requirement stipulated by TfL (as the RMs on Heritage Route 15 are owned by TfL and leased to Stagecoach London) then they had to be fitted. The only problem with this was that due to their high power consumption the three external CCTV cameras along with the LCD display monitor (this LCD monitor being placed above the conductor’s cubby-hole beneath the staircase) kept constantly draining the vehicle battery, thus leading to RM 2060 at first only operating spasmodically on Heritage Route 15 until this problem with the battery consumption was eventually rectified during the summer of 2016.
Next to be ‘defurbished’ by Hants & Dorset Trim was the former Heritage Route 15 showbus RM 1933, which from October 2009 up until its defurbishment in January 2016 was famous for being painted in the attractive mock-1930s London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) red, black, white & silver livery; this LPTB livery style (as also carried by RM 8, RM 17 and RM 2116) originally being applied to RM 1933 to commemorate the 50th anniversary celebrations of London Transport in July 1983 when the vehicle ran out of the former Chalk Farm bus garage on route 24. Interestingly the defurbishment of the RMs was not done in terms of the fleetnumber order of the vehicles but rather on the dates of their MOT renewals, hence the random ‘jump’ in the order of vehicle fleetnumbers. After RM 1933 was completed the next member of the Heritage Route 15 RM fleet to be defurbished was RM 1941 in the summer of 2016 and RM 2089 in the autumn of 2016. However alarm bells started to ring in my head as after RM 2089 there was a long gap before I learnt that no more RMs were to be defurbished so only four out of the ten RMs for Heritage Route 15 were done, meaning that TfL decided to pull the plug on the remaining RM defurbishments as things were getting too costly as by this time TfL were well over-budget with the funding of the Crossrail/Elizabeth Line project so TfL decided to leave the RM refurbishments as they were. This meant that the remaining fleet of six RMs were still in their former interior state as they were when they were refurbished by Marshall of Cambridge in the early 2000s with the interiors starting to look slightly dowdy. The worst case was the outward appearance of some of these six RMs as the red paint on the vehicles was starting to look shabby with the vehicles just having a look of being unloved and unwanted. I still find it somewhat strange that other world cities such as Melbourne, San Francisco, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Berlin, Buenos Aires and Hong Kong are justifiably proud of their transport heritage yet Transport for London sees a small fleet of ten Routemaster buses operating on just one central London bus route as an embarrassment so it pretty much says it all about how much interest they have in keeping a bit of London’s history and heritage alive for the public and for the tourists (who contribute the most to central London’s annual economy) to appreciate.
As the year 2018 almost came to an end and with many bus routes serving the West End of London being reorganised as a result of the much anticipated official opening of Crossrail in December 2018 there were various rumours circulating of the complete withdrawal of Heritage Route 15, with the plan being for the route to continue operating but only on summer weekends and public holidays in order to save money seeing as during weekdays many Heritage Route 15 buses ran nearly empty.
As predicted Crossrail never opened in December 2018 due to delays with the protracted testing of the signalling and other problems with the rolling stock and TfL had some explaining to do to a Parliament Select Committee as well as to the various businesses who were relying on the opening of Crossrail. Nevertheless the situation regarding Heritage Route 15 had to be addressed so another TfL consultation was put out with most respondents to the consultation wishing for the RMs to continue on Heritage Route 15 as a daily service but in all honesty TfL could not cope with the fact that the route was losing money in terms of its operation and TfL could not justify the daily use of a route operated with a driver and a conductor along with a fleet of buses dating from the early to the mid-1960s with the vehicles only carrying a small to medium amount of passengers, more so seeing as the OPO 15 route operated by the New Bus for London vehicles parallels Heritage Route 15 and where the New Bus for London/LT vehicles have low-floor access. Travelling west Heritage Route 15 normally has a healthy load of mostly tourists travelling from Tower Hill to St Paul’s Cathedral but the route goes pretty quiet westwards from St Paul’s Cathedral to Trafalgar Square. Not many tourists make the whole end-to-end journey on Heritage Route 15 and if the weather is cold or raining heavily nobody will want to wait for 20 minutes to get on a Routemaster as all they want is to get on the first available bus to take them to their destination.
In the end a date was finally (and somewhat reluctantly) set for the end of regular weekday operation on Heritage Route 15, with Friday 1st March 2019 being marked as the last day of weekday operation before the route would only work on weekends and on public holidays from March until the end of September. Transport for London did not release a statement to the public advising this as most people only found out this change of operation on Heritage Route 15 through social media and through various London-based newspapers such as Metro and the Evening Standard. It was as if TfL were letting Heritage Route 15 slip away unnoticed via the back door – not the best way of recognising the achievements of the transport and cultural icon the big red Routemaster bus has become over the past 65 years but it sadly seems that the Routemaster has had its day in normal passenger service in London in the 21st century, despite still featuring prominently as toys and models, on postcards, shopping bags, posters and other souvenirs of London that the tourists seem to crave. And even to this day tourists and other normal people who would never look twice at a bus normally get their cameraphones out when they see a Routemaster bus as the Routemaster is a global and potent symbol of London and the United Kingdom to the world at large.
And so Friday 1st March 2019 finally arrived so I decided to have a ride on Heritage Route 15 on its last day in normal daily service just for old time’s sake. I travelled from Aldwych east to Tower Hill onboard RM 2050 with this vehicle looking rather shabby externally and with its interior still as it was following its refurbishment by Marshall of Cambridge in 2002. Unusually the top deck of RM 2050 was not all that full but many of the seats were filled with various bus enthusiasts enjoying one more ride on a real London bus. The Stagecoach London conductor of RM 2050 was one of the long-serving conductors who worked on Heritage Route 15 from the beginning in November 2005 and before that he worked on the eclectic mix of RMs, RMLs, RMCs and RMAs on the ‘proper’ route 15 out of the former Upton Park bus garage in the 1990s so he knew his job inside out. A polite and quietly-spoken man but he told me in no uncertain terms as to what he thought about the end of Routemasters in normal service along with his observations on the people in their ivory towers at TfL who go about making the decisions.
After an easy eastbound ride from Aldwych (despite the usual queue of heavy traffic in Fleet Street) we eventually arrived at Tower Hill where I took a few photos of RM 2050 at the setting-down stop for Heritage Route 15 opposite the Tower of London so it was a good opportunity to take a photo of a London icon opposite a London icon. After an hour or so taking photos of some of the RMs parked up on the bus stand in Goodman’s Yard I walked back to the Heritage Route 15 picking-up stop in Tower Hill. At Tower Hill a large number of young tourists were waiting for the next Heritage Route 15 to come in and as luck would have it ‘defurbished’ RM 1933 was the next westbound vehicle so I got on first followed by the large group of tourists who as you would probably expect instantly made a bee-line for the upper deck of the vehicle. Once the conductor rang the starting signal I got talking to some of these tourists and advised them that they were travelling on a bit of London’s history as it was the last day of normal weekday service on Heritage Route 15, to which they were quite amazed at this fact.
This large group of young tourists were visiting London from Holland and they were quite impressed at the interior of RM 1933 and the fact that a bus that was built in the year 1964 was still very much in normal public service on the streets of London. I was telling some of these tourists about the history of the Routemaster and its contribution to London’s and Britain’s cultural history as well as pointing out some of the various historic landmarks in the City such as the Monument and London Bridge. This large group of Dutch tourists who filled up most of the seats on RM 1933’s upper deck eventually all got off at St Paul’s Cathedral but most of them thanked me for my knowledge of London and for my help in getting them around as London can be a very lonely place for those who don’t know their way around. I stayed onboard RM 1933 for the remainder of its westbound journey through Ludgate Circus, Fleet Street and Aldwych to the setting-down stop for Heritage Route 15 outside Charing Cross station, where at Charing Cross I decided to hang around and take some more photos of the Heritage Route 15 RMs at the western terminus of the route whilst it was still daylight. Inevitably after a few remaining hours RM 1933 was to work the last eastbound weekday Heritage Route 15 service from Trafalgar Square to Tower Hill before running out of service through the streets of the East End back to its home base at West Ham bus garage.
To me the Routemaster bus is a vehicle where people can feel relaxed and lose their inhibitions as on a modern bus in London most passengers keep to themselves. The welcoming and ambient interior of a Routemaster makes the passenger feel like a valued customer instead of as an inconvenience and above all the Routemaster has the personal service of a conductor where he/she is the human face of the bus company instead of some miserable person sitting behind a toughened Perspex screen. Will the summer weekend and public holiday operation of Heritage Route 15 become a success? We will have to wait and see but as the contract for Heritage Route 15 is up for renewal in November 2020 I guess this will be it for the Routemaster running in normal service on London’s streets, thus bring an end of bus conductors in regular service in the Capital since George Shillibeer’s horse-drawn Omnibus became the first public bus service in London way back in 1829. The only other Routemasters we will get to see running on London’s streets in the 21st century will be those operating on sightseeing services as well as those operating on wedding hires or those taking part in TV and filming work. And of course a small fleet of Routemasters usually return to public service whenever the London Underground inevitably have one of their strikes and on special events throughout the year such as raising money for BBC Comic Relief or the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal where happy passengers get to evoke and share their memories of their travel on a real London bus, albeit for just one day. After all, you can’t keep a good bus down!
My personal observation on Heritage Route 15 (and 9) is that back in November 2005 both routes could have been promoted far better by means of a leaflet or a flyer with the route details and the route diagrams printed therein as back in the 1990s London Transport went out of their way to produce maps, leaflets on various changes of bus operators and booklets promoting new bus routes to the public as promotion is the best way to get bums on seats. These leaflets for Heritage Routes 9 and 15 could have been placed in hotel foyers as well as at London Underground and Main Line stations and other major transport hubs such as Heathrow or Gatwick Airport, thus drawing the attention of tourists as soon as they arrive from their airline. However it did not turn out that way and the only way people found out that the RMs were running in public service was by casual word of mouth or by asking the conductor if the bus was in normal service. And instead of a Heritage Route 9, I personally would have opted for a Heritage Route 11 service, with Heritage Route 15 extended westwards to serve Oxford Street. Wishful thinking?