Tuesday 18th October 2022
Three Routemaster buses are back in service on a bus route in central London. New route A started running between Waterloo and Piccadilly Circus on Saturday. From social media posts over the last couple of weeks it looks unashamedly targeted at bus enthusiasts and tourists, but will it succeed where TfL’s routes 9H and 15H failed?
As TfL found, the bus enthusiast market is finite especially once each of the three buses (a fourth is on its way as a spare for the operation based at TfL’s former Wandsworth bus garage) have been ridden in both directions and photographed from every conceivable angle and location.
More pertinently winter months are never the best time to launch a new commercial venture to tempt the lucrative tourist market.
Although as commentators observed on Diamond Geezer’s blog on the topic on Sunday – with the pound in the doldrums this winter could well be a bumper time for overseas visitors to London.
Route A begins at the bottom stop in the Cab Road at Waterloo conveniently close to the station’s main pedestrian exit. The stop is mainly used by TfL’s route 507 to Victoria.
Buses turn left into York Road then over Westminster Bridge, around Parliament Square and up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square and Pall Mall with a right into Waterloo Place ending in Regent Street St James’s for Piccadilly Circus. Buses return via Haymarket. The timetable allows 20 minutes from end to end.
Buses run between 09:00 and 17:00 from Waterloo at a frequency advertised as “every 15 to 20 minutes” which probably reflects the uncertainty of central London’s traffic conditions.
Being a commercial initiative Oysters, Travelcards and Concessionary Passes aren’t valid and tickets are priced at £5 for adults, £4 for concessions and £3 for children and students with a £15 group ticket. Tickets offer a hop on/hop off facility adding value to those prices.
This Routemaster initiative comes from a previously unknown outfit to me called Londoner Buses. It turns out to be the latest trading name from another relatively new company called Transpora.
Transpora also trades as Coastliner Buses running two tendered bus routes and a number of school contracts in Blackpool as well as promoting a sightseeing tour of Manchester.
Transpora’s website is a rather grand affair giving links to its varied activities, but some of these look more aspirational than actual. For example the “Sightseeing Bus” brand, with its own website, lists routes in Birmingham, Chester and Leeds as well as Manchester but the first three are shown as “Sorry folks, this tour is not operating in 2021” which doesn’t inspire confidence other information is bang up to date.
Then there’s the long established Hampshire based Altonian Coaches which Transpora acquired in February 2022 and is involved in private hire, works contracts and rail replacement as well as a brand called MiCab based in Bristol and looks like it has evolved from a taxi company in that city. Both Altonian and MiCab are run by the same ‘Regional Manager’ Andrew Murphy.
Transpora itself is overseen by Philip Higgs who has been involved in the industry with various companies for many years, not least renowned for his high profile legal battles with former Senior Traffic Commissioner Beverley Bell in 2014/15 which ended up in the Supreme Court in 2020.
I could write a whole blog about that industry drama but it now belongs in a past era as do Philip’s various companies such as Classic Bus North West, Totally Transport, Red Rocket, Oakwood Travel and Catch 22.
As well as Philip, who became a director of Transpora Ltd in February 2022 on its aqusition of Altonian Coaches, two other directors of the company, which was incorporated in August 2021, are Charlie Butler who describes himself on his Twitter account as the company’s ‘Interim Marketing Manager’ and Rhys Hand who joined in June 2022 as the company’s Operations Director.
I rocked up to Waterloo’s Cab Road bus stop A yesterday morning to give the new route a try out.
I just missed the 10:00 departure but it wasn’t long before RML 887 came over the brow of the Cab Road summit and glided down into bus stop A for a 10:15 departure.
The lack of passengers was more than made up for by the enthusiasm of the staff who are very much still in launch mode; this being the first weekday operation.
With this in mind there was some uncertainty how the journey would be impacted by weekday morning traffic conditions but it turned out the biggest delay was clearing the pedestrian crossings right by the station exit – pedestrians just kept streaming across in front of us as we tried to get going.
Once clear of that and on our way, while waiting to turn from York Place on to Westminster Bridge, RM 871 passed at the end of its run from Piccadilly Circus ready to hit the Cab Road for the next departure after us at 10:30, so headway maintenance was looking good.
After crossing Westminster Bridge the Piccadilly Circus bound route involves a circuit of all four sides of Parliament Square to access Whitehall whereas Waterloo bound buses simply make a left turn on to the Bridge but despite its notoriety for gridlock the Square was free flowing yesterday morning and we were soon heading up Whitehall and enjoying the time it took for three green traffic light phases before we could pass around the south west corner of Trafalgar Square after we’d seen the third bus out yesterday, RM 1941, heading towards Waterloo. Also operating on time.
It was then a short run along the first few yards of Pall Mall and a right turn into Waterloo Place to access route A’s terminus bus stop in Regent Street St James’s.
We’d easily made it in 20 minutes. But sadly no passengers.
I then did the enthusiast thing of part walking and part riding the route back, and then back again to sample the other two buses, take some photographs and enjoy my hop on/hop off ticket.
I came across a handful of passengers on board as midday approached which just went to highlight the challenge that lies ahead for this new venture.
It was interesting to bump into Philip Higgs at Waterloo who was driving RM 871 and we had a catch up during his short layover.
Not surprisingly Philip has high hopes for his latest venture but recognises the mountain to climb not least raising awareness and promoting the service to the huge potential tourist market.
There’s no doubt a traditional red painted Routemaster turns heads like no other vehicle in central London. I lost count of the number of cameras pointing at us as we travelled along – and I’m talking tourists and Londoners not just enthusiasts who’d probably had their fill on Saturday anyway.
As Philip remarked, the task now is to turn those camera wielding bystanders into paying passengers but that’s going to be resource heavy and involve an awful lot of marketing spend.
Philip observed that many supportive businesses in the tourism sector had made encouraging noises to get involved but had wanted to wait and see the operation up and running before actively promoting it, especially as it’s had a long gestation period.
Philip regaled his frustrating discussions with TfL, Westminster Council and particularly the DfT over securing the necessary approvals and satisfying various demands including putting a case forward for why route A should run without being fully accessible.
Those protracted discussions lasting 15 months explain why the service is being introduced now rather than its original intended date in July to capture the summer season.
Philip seems undaunted and up for the challenge and there’s no doubt will have the wherewithal to be fleet of foot with marketing – colleague Barry’s social media activity promoting the service since Saturday is a case in point …
… and something completely alien to TfL which pretty much ignored the need to actual market and sell its route 15H, seemingly content to let it wither away instead.
There’s no doubt there’s a market out there; you only have to see the number of tourist buses plying the streets of central London with some impressive numbers of passengers on board.
But those companies have extensive resources including sales people at major pick up points and well established routes covering all the tourist hot spots across the Capital as well as dedicated TfL bus stops and, crucially, hefty ticket prices.
Londoner Buses don’t have that benefit, at least not yet, with no publicity at bus stops or branding on bus stop flags, and only a limited 20 minute ride exposure with just the route’s bus stops on Westminster Bridge and Whitehall offering the main footfall opportunities and I’m very doubtful they’ll be enough to achieve viability.
So it’s going to be tough. It’s a commercial risk I personally wouldn’t take but I admire those with the courage to give it a try.
Which is ironic as Philip reminded me that during his time working as a consultant with TAS he wrote a report for me having looked into the implications of introducing the £1 flat fare in Brighton and Hove back in 2000 which concluded such a move would be far too risky a venture to introduce. I decided nonetheless to go ahead and take the risk … and it turned out to be one of the most successful commercial decisions of my career,
Now ‘the boot is on the other foot’ with me expressing reservations about this venture.
Good luck guys. You’re braver than me.
Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS
They clearly have work to do. There web site is very corporate and generic and not really targeted at the Tourist market. They have a bit on ticket prices which just says they vary from tour to tour. That tends to indicate is just a copy of the main corporate web site
Not a good choice of URL neither as it is almost the same as another bus site
Looking at some of the pictures the interior front of the bus looks as if it needs a bit of attention. The seat covers appear to be different. I assume the photos are of different buses as one has a blue seat covering rather than the traditional TfL seat covers
The exterior of the bus is very anonymous. It could be a typical London bus. Nothing says it is a tourist service
There is presumably no tourist commentary and appear to be no informative leaflets on the bus
The ticket price £5 is cheap but the competition is very much aimed at the tourist market and often includes a river cruise and walking tours and admissions to some attractions in the price as well as the basic route being longer. The competition is typically priced at £35 plus but is very much targeted at the high end of the market
In effect you are paying £5 for a short bus ride around London on a Routemaster. Is that enough to attract tourists?. I think it needs to offer a bit more
There could be a gap in the market for a lower priced more basic tour may be in the £15 to £20 Range
Tootbus – £23.72
Tootbus London £39
Tootbus plus London Eye £52.97
The London Pass £72.10
City Tour £32.10
City Sightseeing £32
Golden Tours £32.15
Go City £49
I’m pretty sure that the blue moquette is a genuine, albeit fairly recent, TfL pattern. Isn’t it this? : https://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/collections/collections-online/vehicle-parts/item/2010-7676
Brave indeed, but having watched the tenacity of Coastliner and in all it’s previous forms in Blackpool for years now, still miraculously clinging on albeit with a much reduced operation, perhaps they will surprise us yet? As a fellow career Conductor, I certainly feel the worst job will be trying to explain to many people, many of whom do not have English as their first language, that their Oyster card is not valid, or, if bank cards are accepted, why a £5 deduction instead of £1.55 or whatever the London fare is now.
The service does have great potential as a Tourist attraction, particularly with Christmas around the corner, but I think would have been better to have operated as a circular service just as other Tour buses do rather than a short fixed route.
Did you notice that RML887 standing in the cab road at Waterloo has a scotch block under the front offside wheel? Does this indicate their lack of faith in the handbrake with this particular bus or do they park them all like this when not in service for a time?
Scotching wheels while standing used to be standard policy for most bus operators in half-cab days.
Midland Red originally used hefty brass scotches, most of which vanished from depots (or buses) and were no doubt sold for their scrap value!
Regarding this venture, I wish them luck but looking at two of the names behind it I’m not filled with confidence – and those names may well be why TfL weren’t overly helpful. They are well known throughout the industry and unfortunately not in a positive way.
Perhaps Sir Boris Johnstone can ride this bus now he’s unemployed as he was very fond of Routemasters .He might however not approve of them giving the times in the sensible 24hr clock and his sidekick Sir Jacob even less so.
Companies House records suggest that Charlie Butler resigned yesterday. Maybe his time as “Interim” had expired?
I travelled on the route at the weekend. I think at £5 it offers good value and cheaper than a taxi fare to Waterloo from Trafalgar Square. Agree that the bus stops need publicity though (should TfL not provide this as part of the London Service Permit ?) and the operator should make an effort to target local hotels. It would help if all the buses had publicity for the service too. A good effort and I wish it luck. A London icon has been restored. Tourists will love it
£5 isn’t that good value when you can walk from Trafalgar Square to Waterloo in 15 minutes although you wouldn’t get to bash out a Routemaster although you might see one on your hike.
Well TFL just lack of ability to identify the needs of London in General what about the environment? TFL should focus in regulating rules for black cabs and Uber most of us are fed up to see parked cabs in bus stops dangerous driving factual.
I wish it every success, but wonder what will happen when there’s a protest march or other disruption in Westminster and Trafalgar Square, which can often occur at short notice.
It might help if TfL were to stick up some E-plates on the stops, and maybe some panel timetables. Or doesn’t the budget run to that nowadays?
It’s not just Londoner who are affected by this. I was at Heathrow Central a few weeks ago waiting for a tardy A10 to Uxbridge when the Carousel 102 turned up. I’d totally forgotten that this route had been re-extended back to Heathrow a couple of months previously, and there was nothing there to remind me: no timetable, no E-plate, no mention of it whatsoever.
Conversely the Sutton station (Quadrant) stop still boasts a TfL panel timetable for National Express services to Gatwick and Brighton , well over a year after NatEx diverted the services away from Sutton.