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All Posts, Transport

Author Guest Post: Matthew Wharmby

The Last Years of the London Routemaster

Over the autumn of 1994 London Buses Ltd sold off its operating subsidiaries one by one. All but one of the eleven companies to go out to the private sector at this point were Routemaster owners, each operating a single route or pair of them in central London.

Always the bread and butter of Upton Park bus garage, the 15 had been RML-operated since 1966 but was the first of the main twenty routes to fall to OPO, on 30 August 2003. Prior to that, the vehicles stood out through Stagecoach East London’s treatment of them to gold fleetnumbers and fleetnames, as on RML 2550 (JJD 550D) in Oxford Street on 30 September 1999.
New in 1992, the 23 was a comparatively new route and was created to cut the western half off the 15, taking its Westbourne Park garage allocation in the process. Post-privatisation, the operator became Centrewest, and by the time this shot of route-branded RML 2553 (JJD 553D) was taken at Charing Cross on 14 May 2002, was trading as plain First.

This book gives a company-by-company photographic overview of the Routemasters in daily service from 1998 until their last days in 2003-05. Converted to OPO with low-floor buses in chronological order in those years were routes 139 (1998), 10, 15, 11 and 23 (2003); 94, 6, 98, 8, 7, 137, 9, 390, 73 and 12 (2004) and 36, 19, 14, 22, 13, 38 and finally 159 in 2005.

Not an ex-LBL company, Sovereign derived from BTS, which was awarded the 13 in 1993 and kept it ever after, even when operations were federated with London United at a later date. The original leased RMLs in poppy red gave way in 2001 to a batch of reclaimed RMs fitted with Allison gearboxes and Cummins engines, one of which is RM 2089 (ALM 89B), seen in the company’s unflattering all-red at Aldwych on 21 October 2005, the last day of an incredible 43-year spell of Routemasters on the 13.
MTL Trust Holdings bought London Northern from LBL in 1994 and gave its buses an unappealing all-over red livery that looked particularly deficient on Routemasters, as Holloway’s RML 2479 (JJD 479D) demonstrates in Oxford Street on 26 May 1998. The company’s purchase by Metroline six weeks after this shot was taken would brighten up matters, adding a white band and blue skirt.

After the last regular service Routemasters had gone, on 9 December 2005, there remained two heritage routes, the 9H and 15H, which for the next decade and a half kept the type alive in London on a very limited basis. The 9H lasted until 2014 and the 15H came off in 2020.

London Central’s large holding of RMs was refurbished and re-equipped with powerful Scania engines at the turn of the century; for the most part they stuck to the 36 at New Cross garage, but transfers also made possible visits to the 12 at Camberwell, as in this Elephant & Castle capture of re-registered RM 1621 (KGJ 187A, ex-621 DYE) on 15 March 2003.
Ignominy faced the tremendously busy 38 when it was selected for conversion to articulated buses, which took over on 29 October 2005. Operated by Clapton garage (latterly of Arriva London North) since 1991, RML 2567 (JJD 567D) works out its last day in service in Graham Road, Hackney.

Packed with over 300 black & white and colour photographs, most of which have never been seen before, this book adds to the large canon already in being on Routemasters with a comprehensive study of the final operating years in London.

Each last day of Routemaster operation on the final twenty routes was marked with guest vehicles and large crowds of photographers, enthusiasts and finally regular Londoners, aggrieved as any that their traditions and culture were bring arbitrarily replaced. The last day of all, 9 December 2005, saw crowds so heavy outside the 159’s Brixton garage that shots like this were the best that most could get of the final buses going through! RM 54 (LDS 279A), of a small number brought back from private ownership to add to stocks later still, outfought officially-sanctioned RM 2217 to be the last Routemaster in normal service, arriving at the 159’s Streatham terminus at seven minutes past two.
Afterwards, the Heritage Routes took up the baton, with five buses each allocated to Centrewest and Stagecoach for the 9H and 15H respectively. The latter’s were refurbished inside an amazing three weeks after their exit from the 13 and lasted for three more contracts, though the last was cut short amid COVID-19 and never came back. This Trafalgar Square shot of 10 September 2015 sees RM 1968 (ALD 968B), by then allocated to the second West Ham garage, accompanied by a New Routemaster, which was Wrightbus’s effort, in conjunction with then-Mayor Boris Johnson, to give some distinctiveness back to London’s buses.


Last Years of the London Routemaster is available to preorder here.