Preliminary discussions had settled the plan … along with two friends I would share the crewing of a 1960s Routemaster bus on London’s number 25 bus route, the capital’s busiest – collecting for Red Nose Day instead of taking fares.
Two of us would share the driving, with all three of us doing our bit on the rear of the bus, making sure we loaded and unloaded safely, and also seeking donations in our coin collection boxes.
TfL had agreed the plan (there were about nine buses across various areas of London doing the same thing) so off we went. Large amounts of starting and stopping, of course, and a lot of squeezing through small gaps was the order of the day.
Bus lanes are a great help at times, but when they become blocked with parked vehicles, or when people encroach onto them just a little, they can become space you just can’t use.
Anyone who has ever driven a long vehicle will understand that sometimes a gap is wide enough, but the need to turn as you go through it can mean there simply isn’t enough effective width – and dropping in and out of a bus lane in a queue of slow moving or stationery traffic can quickly demonstrate the problem, with the kerb forcing you steer before the rear wheels have cleared the pinch point of the gap.
Routemasters are really quite nice things to drive. Like any bus they are big square boxes, so working out how much space you need is quite easy.
Whilst most were automatic when new (even back in the 1950s when they were designed the technology was well enough developed), nearly all the survivors have been converted to semi-automatic gear operation.
That means you have a gearlever but no clutch pedal, and with a little care it is possible to give a really smooth ride. The steering has some assistance, not as light as a modern vehicle, but not a workout for the upper body like some other old commercial vehicles.
Driving an old fashioned open platform bus is excellent for reminding you to use the nearside mirror. People will get on or off at traffic lights, or other stops in a queue of traffic, and the need to check there isn’t someone with a foot on the platform and a foot on the ground as you start to move is rapidly apparent.
Reactions to an old bus are highly varied. A few people don’t know how to get on and look quizzically at you in the cab, expecting there to be a door. But very many more smile (not just the ones looking for a bus), give a thumbs up, or stop dead in their tracks, then turn and head for the platform at the back.
On board it became a bit like a party downstairs with conversations about memories of going to school, probably the most common.
Upstairs was almost silent. Routemasters are great things to drive and our share of the money raised across the capital (about £2,000 with some results still awaited) was £275 – so we had a great day, and Comic Relief is a little better off.
Thanks to award winning bus operator Ensignbus for the bus, and TfL for permission to run the route.
By Peter Rodger, IAM RoadSmart head of driving advice