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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lee

History of the Routemaster Bus Part 3 - The 1990s and 2000s.

Updated: Jan 27, 2019

When our vintage buses are out on Wedding and private hire work we are regularly asked about the history of the Routemaster bus, so we asked conductor Mike to write a decade-by-decade report about the history of the iconic buses we now offer for private hire across Cheshire, North Wales and the North West...

The 1990s was the decade that gave us Britpop, the Spice Girls, the opening of the Channel Tunnel, Yuppies, the mobile phone, Channel 5 and satellite television. If the 1980s saw a revival of the humble RM in various towns and cities outside of London then the 1990s saw the revival of that faithful central London workhorse – the RML – with its new beginnings.

A unique surprise came when RML 900 became the first RML to be sold by London Buses to Clydeside Scottish following a severe accident to its cab and bonnet area in 1988 and by that time RML 900 was deemed uneconomical to repair by London Buses due to how bad it looked, which was a pity as had Aldenham Works still been in business a few years before I’m sure RML 900 would have been rebuilt by the Aldenham team and it would have still been serving the streets of London. However a bit of Scottish enterprise (and hard work) shone upon RML 900 with the vehicle being acquired by Clydeside Scottish and by using a former cab from a withdrawn RM, Clydeside Scottish rebuilt RML 900 and brought it back into service as one of their own Routemaster fleet where it worked alongside their resident RMs on the streets of south-west Glasgow and Paisley, with RML 900 being named ‘Oor Wullie’s Special’ after the cheeky cartoon character from Glasgow’s Sunday Post newspaper.

By the early 1990s it was evidently noticeable that London Buses’ resident RML fleet (RMLs 880 to 903 and RMLs 2261 to 2760) were starting to look very scruffy, dowdy and generally unloved with many of them having been in the wars with various tree branches having bashed in their front roof domes and with their red paint flaking away to show the unpainted aluminium beneath – not the kind of image of London you’d want to feature on a postcard to send to your friends and loved ones over in California! In 1991 a view was taken to replace the life-expired AEC engines in the RMLs with more modern Cummins and Iveco units and in the beginning of 1992 a decision was taken to refurbish the remaining fleet of RMLs in London, following a successful trial refurbishment on RM 994. The refurbishment work was split between three separate contractors: TBP Holdings of Birmingham, South Yorkshire Transport of Rotherham and Leaside Buses of Enfield where the work involved replacing the seating with new seat moquette, Transmatic fluorescent interior lighting, white-coloured ceilings, brighter headlights and the replacement of all worn and damaged panels.

Although the refurbishment of the RMLs came as a shock to many Routemaster purists the refurbishments were welcomed by many passengers and conductors as originally the tungsten interior lighting was too dark to see inside the bus in the evenings leading to some conductors being assaulted at night and not being able to focus on the job they were doing. The RML refurbishments, although making the vehicles look a bit bland and clinical were completed by the summer of 1994 with only RML 903 and RML 2760 escaping refurbishment as these two RMLs were historically the last of their respective RML batches so they were both left in their original 1960s condition inside and out.

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RML 2514 in Princess Street, Manchester, April 2010 © Mike McDermott

April 1993 saw the first Routemaster-operated bus route in London being offered out to competitive tender with route 19 becoming the first crew-operated bus route to have its RML fleet painted in a non-red colour scheme, with the contract being awarded to Kentish Bus, who applied their distinctive maroon & cream livery onto their RML fleet. This Kentish Bus livery looked lovely when the RMLs were freshly repainted but in the winter months with all the ice and slush on the roads it soon got dirty and became grubby very quickly. During December 1993 another Routemaster-operated bus route in London went out to competitive tender with the contract being awarded to Borehamwood Travel Services of Hertfordshire (trading as BTS) taking over the operation of route 13, with BTS’ Routemaster fleet being painted in their smart poppy red livery with a gold relief band which was another attractive livery combination on a Routemaster. Finally in January 1994 South London took over the complete operation of route 159, leading to their RM fleet based at Brixton bus garage being painted in a simple yet attractive red & cream livery that was reminiscent of the former livery of the Brighton Hove & District and Brighton Corporation buses and trolleybuses back in the 1950s and 1960s. Prior to January 1994 the operation of route 159 was a joint affair with buses operated by London Central (working out of Camberwell bus garage) and South London at Brixton.

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RML 2659 at Golders Green bus station, January 1994 © Mike McDermott

In the autumn of 1994 the ten former London Buses operating units were all privatised with the last London Buses operating unit (South London) finally being privatised in January 1995. This led to all buses at first losing their red & yellow London Buses roundels as applied back in the summer of 1987 and now London Transport were no longer responsible for owning and operating the buses; all 7000 buses were now in private hands operating on five-year contracts to London Transport. The only things LT were still responsible for during the 1990s was the infrastructure such as the bus stops, bus shelters and the various bus stations dotted in and around the Capital. Privatisation of London’s buses originally caused a bit of panic as some people were wondering if all the different bus companies would paint their buses in different colours. Thankfully this was allayed by a clause from Parliament stating that all privatised bus operators in London were to paint their buses in red with the proviso that the main base colour was 80% red and that 20% of the livery could be of another colour to offset the red. With this in mind many companies made variations to the ‘80% Red’ rule, with Metroline painting their RML fleet in red with the white relief band and a thin blue skirt, making for an attractive combination.

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RM 1171 at Archway bus station, April 1996 © Mike McDermott

Stagecoach East London decided to opt for the ‘retro’ 1960s look on their RML fleet whilst London United painted their RML fleet in red but with the relief band being painted in light grey. In my view the worst of the post-London Buses privatisation liveries was applied on MTL London Northern’s RM and RML fleet which were painted in a drab all-over red livery without any thought for the history of the vehicle. It seemed the future of London’s remaining Routemasters and routes looked set to be secure under the LT tendering process in the 1990s but as London welcomed in its new elected Mayor in the spring of 2000, an uncertain future for the Routemaster bus lay ahead...


The 2000s was the decade that gave us the Millennium Dome, Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee, the X-Factor, the invasion of Iraq and the tragic events of September 11th 2001.

During the late 1990s all of London’s remaining Routemaster-operated routes were still performing well and operating under their standard five-year contracts to London Transport although change was in the air when at the end of March 1998 Routemaster-operated route 139 was controversially converted from crew-operated Routemasters to OPO single-deck buses.

May 2000 saw the appointment of London’s first elected Mayor, with the Labour Party’s Ken Livingstone winning the votes and taking his special seat at the new Greater London Assembly (GLA) headquarters at City Hall by Tower Bridge. During electoral campaigning one of Ken Livingstone’s pledges was to bring back Routemasters to bolster the remaining Routemaster operations in London and also to bring back conductors to make the bus services in central London more reliable and secure. One of Ken’s comments on a TV News report showed him stating this fact and reiterating a point by saying: “Only a ghastly de-humanised moron would want to get rid of the Routemaster”; words which would be somewhat ironic some three years later.

By this time the iconic name of London Transport had been rebranded as Transport for London (or TfL for short) but true to his election pledge as Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone said he would set about bringing back Routemasters onto London’s streets and in the autumn of 2000 TfL searched for Routemasters from preservationists, museums, back gardens and anywhere they could source them if they were in a decent condition to be rebuilt. Sure enough, a total of 50 standard RMs were acquired by TfL and assessed in order for them to be fully rebuilt and refurbished to serve the streets of London once again.

RM 1913 at Golders Green bus station, September 2005 © Mike McDermott
RM 1913 at Golders Green bus station, September 2005 © Mike McDermott

Regrettably one RM that was acquired by TfL was in too bad a state to be rebuilt so in the end 49 standard RMs were selected for their second life in London. The company selected to rebuild these acquired RMs was Marshall of Cambridge who had a long-standing track record of building bodywork for buses back in the 1970s and 1980s and the rebuilding of these RMs was tantamount to the refurbishing of the RMLs in the early 1990s, albeit with some new features such as hopper window vents in place of the familiar 1960s wind-down window vents plus the installation of Cummins B-series engines and Allison gearboxes as used on Dennis Dart single-deckers during the 1990s – which immediately gave rise to these RMs being nicknamed ‘Dartmasters’ by enthusiasts. The refurbishment work on these RMs was completed with most of these rebuilt Dartmasters operating in service with London Sovereign on route 13. However during the late summer of 2002 Marshall’s went into administration, leaving just six RMs needing to be refurbished.

RM 1975 about to cross over Battersea Bridge, July 2003 © Mike McDermott
RM 1975 about to cross over Battersea Bridge, July 2003 © Mike McDermott

Enter Arriva, who ended up taking these six RMs (RMs 54, 85, 346, 713, 1292 and 1975) to their large bus repair workshops in Enfield where they all got refurbished to the same specification as those done at Marshall’s, although the good thing about the RMs that were refurbished by Arriva was that they retained their original wind-down window vents instead of gaining the ungainly hopper window vents, making for a much better look all round. The six RMs were all refurbished by the spring of 2003, entering service in the early summer of that year. RM 54 was unique as although it was extensively refurbished by Arriva it retained its original plain front window layout on the upper deck, making the vehicle stand out when it operated in service on route 19 as by the early 2000s it was rare to see an RM with plain front windows as by this time only a small handful of them were still running in public service. 2003 also saw the introduction of TfL’s revolutionary new ‘Oyster’ card to the public following trials with TfL staff the year before.

This Oyster card was a new way of paying for bus and Underground travel in London where you loaded up your payment on the card and touched the card on a reader to deduct the fare from the balance on the card and this was seen as the way forward on London’s buses, where you literally paid the fare before you boarded. With the Oyster card system rolled out this made the job of bus conductors less important as they did not need to issue fares in the traditional sense and in the early spring of 2003 a statement was released by TfL stating that they had plans to replace Routemasters on their remaining routes with one person-operated (OPO) buses and this really was the beginning of the end for the Routemaster after 50 years of loyal service to London.

At the end of August 2003 the iconic route 15 was to become the first route to lose its Routemasters in favour of one person-operated buses, with the iconic London route 11 and route 23 following soon after in October and November 2003 respectively. 2004 saw routes 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 73, 94, 98, 137 and 390 all lose their Routemasters through the course of the year.

RM 809, RMC 1459 and RML 2317 at the RM50 rally, July 2004 © Mike McDermott
RM 809, RMC 1459 and RML 2317 at the RM50 rally, July 2004 © Mike McDermott

During July 2004 a special ‘RM50’ Routemaster rally weekend was held in Finsbury Park in North London to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Routemaster bus where around 120 Routemasters from London and from around the UK (plus a few from abroad) attended, with the rally being blessed with some superb sunny weather. 2004 also marked the 175th anniversary of London’s buses with two Routemasters (RM 25 and RML 2524) being painted into two special commemorative liveries of former horse bus operators in the London area to celebrate this historic milestone.

RML 2590 in King's Road, Chelsea, July 2005 © Mike McDermott
RML 2590 in King's Road, Chelsea, July 2005 © Mike McDermott

2005 saw the final round of Routemaster withdrawals in London with routes 13, 14, 19, 22, 36 and 38 losing their Routemasters through the course of the year. In November 2005 the Mayor of London launched two ‘Heritage’ Routemaster routes 9 & 15 to the public at large, with these two newly-created routes using a fleet of Dartmasters that previously ran on route 13.

RM 2217 entering Brixton Garage, December 2005 © Mike McDermott
RM 2217 entering Brixton Garage, December 2005 © Mike McDermott

By November 2005 just one normal Routemaster route (route 159) remained in service and on 8th December a special running day of vintage LT buses operated on route 159 to say a special ‘Thank You’ to the Routemaster. On the early afternoon of 9th December 2005 the people of South London all turned out to say a fond farewell to a London icon, where at 2:05pm on Friday 9th December 2005 Arriva London’s RM 2217 entered Brixton Garage for the final time to the sounds of clapping and loud cheers from the crowds lining Streatham Hill. The streets of London have never been quite the same since.

To read the final part of Mike's History of the Routemaster please click the following link...

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