Last May, I noted that, if the order for 600 production examples of the New Bus For London (NB4L) were completed, and all those buses crewed so as to allow the rear platform to be open during the day, this would lumber the capital with a bill for well over half a billion pounds over their service lifetime. Since then, financial push has come to shove, and reality is swiftly taking over.
For starters, the remaining prototypes on Route 38 have had the rear platform closed at all times – except when the driver opens the door at stops. The TfL excuse was that the buses were in a minority on the route, and passengers were used to boarding at the front, as is the norm elsewhere in London. But now the rear platform closure is being extended to routes that have gone over completely to NB4L.
As the Beeb’s Tom Edwards revealed yesterday, when Route 9 goes NB4L, the platform will be closed not only in early morning and evening hours, but all weekend as well. A new excuse has been devised for this: there are allegedly more passengers on weekdays. It will not be lost on some TfL watchers that part of the 9 also runs real Routemasters as part of a heritage bus operation.
So that will be another unfavourable comparison with the vehicle that London’s occasional Mayor Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has claimed is the inspiration for the NB4L. Will there be any reduction in that overall half a billion cost, though? Well, if the weekend platform closure were extended across all NB4L routes, the lifetime cost might come down to £300 to £350 millions.
It would still be a millstone round TfL’s neck, and at a time when subsidies and grants are being cut back. But there is one economy that could save all the cost of that second crew member, and that is to do away with them altogether. Although complete removal would be politically unpalatable for Bozza, he is unlikely to be around after 2016, or maybe even earlier if he returns to the Commons.
His successor, whatever their political stripe, would have that option on the desk on day one, along no doubt with other money saving necessities like getting better value out of the Cable Car and the cycle hire scheme. The pay-offs could include being able to revisit the Cross River Tram scheme, and thereby improve public transport provision in the capital’s South-Eastern suburbs.
Making the NB4L fleet driver only at all times will, of course, beg the obvious question: why order a two-staircase vehicle with a rear platform in the first place, if the things are going to be such a drain on resources? With 1950s technology, London could specify its own bus design. Today, the NB4L saga has demonstrated that it cannot. This has not been Bozza’s finest hour.
Nor has it reflected well on his cheerleaders, or his future political prospects.