The Boris Bus, controversially introduced by London’s Tory Mayor as a replacement for the Routemaster, has major faults which put passengers’ lives at risk according to drivers on the No 24 route, which was the first to have the new buses.
Christian Wolmar being interviewed by Tom Edwards, BBC London
The Boris Bus turns out not only to be an expensive scandal, but it is also a dangerous con.
As well as posing a safety risk, the buses are not operating in the environmentally friendly way that was promised because the batteries which are supposed to provide the vehicles’ hybrid power are frequently failing. Consequently, the Boris Buses are running as old-style diesel buses, with a high fuel consumption and high pollution output.
The fact that they cannot operate on their electric motors because of battery failure is causing difficulties for drivers and posing a risk for other road users.
One driver has been sacked following his persistent refusal to take out what he felt were unsafe buses and he is taking the bus company to Employment Tribunal over unfair dismissal.
Another driver told me: “There is going to be an accident and someone will get seriously hurt. We want to stop that and that is why we are talking to you.”
The cost to Londoners of replacing the faulty batteries on the malfunctioning buses could be more than £20 million.
The Bus for London was introduced in 2012 after being commissioned by Boris Johnson following an election pledge to restore conductors and an open back door to London’s double-deckers. The bus was designed by Thomas Heatherwick, who is involved in another Boris vanity project, the equally controversial Garden Bridge.
Forty bus drivers at Holloway Garage have prepared a dossier – which I have seen - on the many faults of the new bus. The drivers report that because the batteries powering the hybrid system do not work, the buses operate on diesel for 90 per cent of the time.
This is not how the buses were designed to operate, and this causes a number of problems:
* Because the hybrid batteries are not charging, the bus responds slowly when moving off at bus stops or traffic lights. Consequently, other road users start hooting and shouting, resulting in slower traffic and potential accidents
* The reason for the slow response is that the engine splutters when the accelerator is engaged. As a result, some drivers keep their foot on the accelerator while stopping, with the handbrake engaged, a risky practice and also wasteful of fuel
* The diesel engine is relatively small and was not designed to be in use all the time. However, with the batteries out of use, it is the only way of powering the bus.
* Most dangerously, if the bus is on an incline, it can roll back when the driver disengages the handbrake, even though s/he is applying the accelerator. There have been several such incidents.
* Some buses disengage from gears on flat ground or even on slopes. If this happens, the dashboard lights up with lots of warning lights and the whole bus has to be restarted, a frustrating sequence that delays journeys and angers passengers.
There are numerous other problems with the buses, notably with the air conditioning. The over-heated upper decks of the buses, with no opening windows, have led to the buses becoming unaffectionately known to Londoners as the “Roastmaster”.
Passengers complain to the drivers who have no control over the air conditioning system. “Customer assistants” – the conductors - find it so hot at times that that they get off at every stop to cool down. The air conditioning for the drivers doesn't work in most of the buses.
One driver told me: “This makes the cab a very uncomfortable place to be in... adding to the stress and pressure that the driver already is under.”
The back doors are also a safety risk. When there is no customer assistant working at the back, and the driver opens the door, passengers who stand too close to the back door risk having it slamming in their faces as it opens inwards.
The Boris bus: a con
The No 24 route is operated by Metroline, a subsidiary of ComfortDelGro, a Singaporean conglomerate which operates nearly 50,000 buses across the world. The company has refused to address the drivers’ concerns and has ignored their attempts to explain the dangers.
It is thought that the company is reluctant to replace the batteries which cost £35,000 each.
All the drivers who have contributed to the dossier risk the sack if management finds out they have talked to me.
One driver said: “We have reported these faults to management. We did not want to make a fuss, but just wanted the problems to be resolved. Instead, they have accused us of troublemaking and done nothing to sort out the issues. I can’t understand why – it is not their fault, but the fault of Transport for London who made them take on these buses.”
Because route No 24 was the first to get these buses back in 2012, they have been in service longest. Similar problems are beginning to emerge on other routes.
Under orders from Mayor Johnson, the original order was for 600 of these buses, but Transport for London has since ordered more and soon all these will be in service.
The design of the bus has long been criticised, not least because if the back door is used, then for health and safety reasons a “customer assistant” has had to be employed who does not collect fares since London’s buses are now cashless.
The estimated cost per bus of having the extra person is £62,000 per year.
“The most unreliable and poorly engineered bus that has ever been made”
Transport for London is planning to operate its latest batch of Boris Buses on route No 73, but will do so without using customer assistants, and therefore with the back doors firmly shut – preventing the “hop on a bus” notion that was the very reason for their design and commissioning.
“It is the most unreliable and poorly engineered bus that has ever been made,” another driver told me.
“It causes stress to bus drivers, discomfort to passengers and inconvenience and stress to other road users.”
As someone who has been campaigning to be selected to run as a candidate for Mayor of London next year, I have followed closely the design and development of Boris’s Bus for London.
This bus has been a scandal from start to finish.
First it was unnecessary to design a specific bus for London that, because of its ridiculous back entrance, will not be used in any other city.
Second, it was more expensive than conventional buses – each Boris Bus costs nearly 50 per cent more than equivalent buses.
Third, it requires a costly “customer assistant” to satisfy Boris’s nostalgic desire to restore hopping on and off a bus at traffic lights.
And now we find that the supposed environmental benefits are a con and it is posing a risk to passengers and other road users.
The WolmarforLondon campaign is calling for an urgent review of the procurement process and operation of these buses by an independent panel of experts. I have referred the matter to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee for its immediate consideration.
We need action on these buses immediately, before someone is seriously hurt.