London pride21 October 2013
Purported to cost in the region of £200 million, the New Bus for London project continues to grab headlines. Following its launch on two new routes − with a third set for completion by the end of year − Ross Davies talks to Transport for London’s Mike Weston about the long-term cost benefits, green credentials and why Londoners should be proud.
When Urban Transport Agenda last spoke with Mike Weston in the summer of 2012, Transport for London (TfL) had not long unveiled a trial of its New Bus for London (NB4L) project on the capital's streets. At that point, it consisted of eight prototypes running on a limited basis along the 38 route from Clapton Pond to Victoria.
Fast forward a year, and Weston, operations director at London Buses, is once again talking to us within the confines of TfL's spacious, open-plan headquarters in Southwark. Launched only a week before our meeting, the 24 route between Hampstead and Pimlico became the first route to be fully served by the NB4L.
The roll-out of the new Routemaster, with its familiar hop-on, hop-off design (upgraded by London-based designer Thomas Heatherwick), complete with onboard conductor, has been the subject of much discussion, not least over the enthusiastic involvement of Mayor Boris Johnson, who personally commissioned the project. Weston carries a similar sense of optimism over recent developments.
"The reaction from the public to the rollout on the 24 route has been fantastic," he says. "We had families lining the streets of Camden just to see this new icon. The feedback from drivers has been really positive as well."
The 27 buses now on the route are able to carry 28,000 travellers every day, and while the vehicles may feature no discernible differences to the said prototypes, Weston stresses that a great deal of maintenance and "below-the-bonnet" tweaking has taken place in order to improve performance.
"We have learned a lot since the initial production of the vehicle," he explains. "For instance, it was clearfrom the prototypes that the insulation between the engine compartment and rear stairs could be better in terms of heat. So, we've changed the specification of the material to reduce the amount of heating being transferred between those two areas of the bus.
"However, I would say that the adjustments we've had to make have been minor; most of that has tended to be software-related - predominantly relating to the engine management system."
Specifically, this relates to the verification of the bus's hybrid system and optimising fuel consumption. After all, NB4L is 40% more fuel-efficient than conventional buses; not to mention 15% more efficient than other diesel-electric hybrids already in operation.
Aside from Mayor Johnson's well-publicised goal to reduce London's CO2 emissions by 60% by 2025, has TfL set out any internal emissions targets?
"Apart from the tests we've run [conducted at TfL's proving ground at Millbrook in Bedfordshire], we haven't set out a specific target," says Weston. "That's not to say that we are not monitoring fuel consumption, but you have to remember that on the 38 route - which wasn't entirely converted - the bus was mainly running during the daytime period.
"So the fuel consumption figures were atypical. It's route 24 where we will see the real benefits of fuel consumption and environmental buses in the coming years."
In line with the current debate over how urban transport systems can get a greener bang for their buck, the use of hydrogen cell technology - which converts hydrogen and oxygen into energy and water as bio-products - has also been mooted.
According to Weston, this is an area TfL is looking into and has been since it first began trialling hybrid fuel cell buses between 2003 and 2007. However, at present the industry is far from being in unison over its viability.
"The original vehicles we had back in 2003 were pure fuel cell buses - they were very reliable and could run for about ten hours before needing refuelling," he explains. "The latest generation obviously combines hybrid technology, and has also proven to be very reliable - it can run for 20 hours a day."
"But, it's worth keeping in mind that this is technology for the medium-longer term, because of the cost - it's an expensive piece of technology. But our view is that we run the biggest and busiest bus network in Europe; while we appreciate that that it's important to do things in the short term to improve environmental performance, we also need to look at what's on the horizon in ten to 15 years, as well," he adds.
Counting the cost
The strap line of cost has proven to be an inescapable theme running through all of this. For every champion of the Routemaster's aerodynamic design and reduced noise emission, there is a detractor questioning public spending on such a scale - buses are said to cost £354,000 each - a significant expense during fiscally challenging times.
In this regard, Weston understandably toes TfL and Mayor Johnson's party line: the long-term fuel savings justify the costs.
"There are two things to consider," he says. "First, the buses that we will buy over the next few years, we would have bought anyway; so they shouldn't be described as extra. Yes, they are more expensive, but when you look at the extra fuel savings we are expecting over the 14-year life of the vehicles, it more than pays for itself."
And, besides, Weston argues, the bus is making a considerable contribution to the UK's economy, offering a "whole host of benefits on a local and national level". The vehicles are assembled in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, the engines are from Darlington in Yorkshire and the seat coverings are from Huddersfield - which signifies considerable investment in UK manufacturing jobs.
The plan to roll out 600 vehicles by 2016 would also appear to be on course. In September, TfL converted a second route, the 11, running between Liverpool Street station and Fulham Broadway. The third, route 9 (Hammersmith to Aldwych), will be added in October, to be followed by the 390 (Notting Hill Gate to Archway) at the end of the year.
TfL is in the process of vetting the progress of trials for electric buses, which continue to take place across Europe. According to Weston, further to the planned introduction of "some electric buses by the end of 2012", there are plans in place to greater pioneer electric technology in the next couple of years.
"We are looking at doing some further trials on both pure electric buses and diesel hybrid electric models next year," he says. "This really means looking at charging, implementing terminal points, so as to reduce the amount the engine has to work.
"The challenge for electric technology is the range. If you take a typical double-decker diesel bus, it will be out on the streets for 18-20 hours a day; at the moment, electric technology cannot compare to that. The logistics and costs of bringing buses back to garages to be charged is very expensive.
"But our expectation is that cost and weight of the battery will improve over the next few years, so electric buses will become more and more viable. But it is the battery manufacturing industry that will determine - based on commercial opportunities - whether that's in five or ten years," he adds.
Weston is also appreciative that the cutting-edge of technology today may well change in the near future, requiring TfL to adapt NB4L accordingly.
"We are expecting some of the technology to change," he says. "It would be unrealistic to think that in three or four years we will be using the same technology that we are using now. So, if a better hybrid system or electric motors come along, some batches may well be evolved to take advantage of these developments. It's important that we keep things as fresh as possible."
City Hall has certainly gone above and beyond to offset accusations of contentious politics from its critics - led, in particular, by former Mayor Ken Livingstone. But for all the ballyhooing in the national press by Mayor Johnson, the Routemaster's validation will ultimately be judged by its performance on the road.
For Weston, the new bus not only represents a feat of green engineering; it has already become a source of totemic pride for Londoners that make use of the city's public transport system every day.
"It will do a lot of good in terms of promoting and raising the profile of buses in London," he says. "It's a very distinctive vehicle, and in terms of the desire for a true icon, which Londoners can be really proud of, I think it's already starting to achieve that."