Thoughts on The New Routemaster and Green Transport

The new Routemaster buses by Wrightbus have finally begun to appear in London. These buses have been championed by Boris Johnston to replace the bendy buses brought in by Ken Livingstone when he was mayor. The buses seem to have proved reasonably popular with the public though a protest bus followed the first new Routemaster to complain about the rise in fares.
Several London politicians also joined in the attacks (from the BBC):

In an open letter to the mayor, Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy said each new bus costs £1.4m compared with the conventional double-decker bus which costs about £190,000.
Riding this bus is surely the most expensive bus ticket in history,” he said.
“With 62 seats at a cost of £1.4m, the cost per seat is £22,580. At £22,695, you can buy a brand new 3 series BMW.”
The Green Party said its London mayoral candidate Jenny Jones had questioned “how the mayor will deal with the problem of fare evasion and also, whether expenditure on the new bus is the best environmental choice”.
“Jenny is concerned that London bus operators will refuse to buy these new buses for London, as their costs will be considerably higher if they are unable to re-sell them second hand to either UK operators or foreign operators,” a Green Party spokesman said.
Caroline Pidgeon, leader of the Lib Dems on the London Assembly, said: “What Boris Johnson has managed to achieve is to hike up the cost of a single bus fare by 50% and ensure that buses on routes across London are far more crowded.
“A single new bus which has cost Londoners’ a fortune will not cover up Boris Johnson’s real record on bus services.”

Labour have previously called the new buses “A shiny Vanity Project” though the Guardian has been supportive.

Leaving aside the issues over Johnston’s record on public transport which are more relevant to a London audience, the issue of the costs of the buses raises one of the fundamental problems with green transport considerations. There is (somewhat surreally) a review of the bus from Autocar here which offers high praise. It seems from this article that the vehicle is a more sophisticated hybrid than that found in most cars (or current hybrid buses). In a normal hybrid most of the power is provided from the petrol or diesel engine and the battery powered electric motor is an additional source of power, reducing the need for the internal combustion engine and at times allowing it to be turned off. The Routemaster, appears to be a true diesel electric (more like a train) and uses the small (for a bus) diesel engine to power the electric motors and charge the battery rather than provide motive power directly. This probably also helps explain the bus running out of diesel on the M1: this system with a small diesel engine is probably not powerful enough to run the electric motors at motorway speeds for prolonged periods. The Routemaster does, however, offer greater economy and lower emissions than traditional diesel or even hybrid buses.

Clearly if the buses are brought in greater numbers the unit cost will fall and in actual fact an £11 million cost to develop a substantially new vehicle is trivial in motor industry terms. However, the simple fact remains that hybrid vehicles such as the new Routemaster are more expensive to make. This in turn makes them more expensive to buy and if a major shift to such systems was decided on for buses the fare cost to the public would be likely to increase. Therein lies a paradox for the Green movement: Increasing public transport use such as buses is environmentally friendly and reduces congestion. However, newer, greener public transport is more expensive than older technologies. This means that one has to increase the subsidies to transport and / or increase the ticket prices. The first tends to be politically unpopular and the latter may reduce public transport usage, drive people back to their cars and, hence, create more pollution and congestion.

The Green Party’s complaints about fare evasion also raise problems. Allowing a hop on hop off system makes public transport quicker and more popular yet will allow fare evasion. However, more popular public transport will reduce pollution and congestion.

Attempting to increase public transport usage is a perfectly sensible position especially from an environmental standpoint as is making public transport more environmentally friendly. However, as the Routemaster shows it is not always easy to achieve both these together in one bus. That is even before the assorted personalities and their pet topics and projects are taken into account.

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