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A global icon is reborn: Londoners meet city's new $36,000 per seat red bus

Andy Rain / EPA, file

London's new bus is based on the iconic Routemaster. Each prototype cost about $2.25 million, compared to the $300,000 price tag for an ordinary double-decker.

LONDON – London's red double-decker buses are as globally recognizable as New York's yellow cabs, so there was dismay when the city's classic Routemaster vehicles were phased out six years ago.

This week's launch of a modern version of the bus – the first designed specifically for the U.K. capital since the original was introduced in the 1950s – has proven the double-decker is more than just a way of getting around.


The prototype features the same distinctive curves as its post-war predecessor, as well as the hop-on, hop-off rear platform used by impatient Londoners when stuck in traffic jams.

Its arrival fulfills an election promise made by Boris Johnson, the charmingly clownish mayor who believes public affection for the new Routemaster will restore some civic pride in a creaking and often-maligned transport system.

'Imagination'
The timing of the launch is no accident, five months ahead of the Olympic Games and 12 weeks before Johnson is up for re-election against an opponent who is making transport – in particular, inflation-busting fare increases – a big campaign issue.

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With a trademark rhetorical flourish, Johnson hailed the new bus at Monday’s unveiling as "a stunning piece of automotive architecture" representing "the very best in British design, engineering and manufacture" and "a demonstration of what can be done given imagination and determination".

Others see it as a vanity project for Johnson, a blustery Conservative whose mass cycle-rental scheme has earned the name "Boris Bikes."

Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images, file

London Mayor Boris Johnson sits in the driver's seat of one of the new prototype double-decker buses.

David Lammy, a Labour Party member of parliament, asked how the mayor could justify the "extraordinary" cost  – equivalent to $2.25 million each – of the eight prototype vehicles. That compares to the $300,000 price tag for an ordinary, off-the-shelf double decker – although a major order would reduce the individual cost considerably.

Lammy noted that the new Routemaster also has less space than its more functional rivals and costs $36,000 per seat – the same price as a new 3-series BMW.

Indeed, the whole project has been likened to Concorde – the supersonic aircraft that inspired awe and became a symbol engineering achievement despite costing a fortune to produce and never achieving widespread commercial success.

But the bus has already been welcomed by cheering crowds on its first trips in passenger service on the high-frequency route 38 between Victoria railway station and the north-east borough of Hackney.

Newly-designed bus may have sleek curves, but at $36,000 per seat are they worth the price?

One blog review even reported onboard conversation between strangers – a concept so rare among taciturn Londoners that it seems almost to be discouraged. "Vanity project or no, the new bus is certainly a head-turner and a talking point," the Londonist concluded.

There are other advantages: its hybrid engine uses a mix of battery and diesel power, producing less than half the CO2 of its rivals.

"The green innards of this red bus mean that it is twice as fuel efficient as a diesel bus and the most environment-friendly of its kind," enthused Johnson.

Teething troubles
Anyone hoping to catch a ride could be in for a long wait: only one of the eight prototypes is yet in service, out of a total London-wide bus fleet of 8,000, and teething troubles have forced it off the road repeatedly. A msnbc.com reporter who tried to catch the bus on Thursday found a small expectant crowd waited for over an hour at Victoria only to discover the vehicle was at a depot undergoing "diagnostic tests" of its onboard computer.

There are also concerns that its three doors could make life easier for fare-evaders who fail to swipe their electronic Oyster travel passes to make payment.

But enthusiasm for city's new icon is infectious. "It is something everyone can enjoy," said retired aircraft designer Roy Spurgeon, who had traveled from the Surrey suburbs specially to see it. "It doesn't matter whether you are a small child or my age, there is always that little thrill you get from the front seat on the top deck."

The blogger Diamond Geezer said passengers seemed unconcerned about niggles such as cramped seats or noisy air-conditioning. "All they saw was a gorgeous modern vehicle with a human face, and a Routemaster-like rear platform for hopping off between stops, and a mayoral promise made instantly real," he wrote.

Follow Alastair Jamieson on Twitter: @alastairjam

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