London buses: Last remaining former bendybuses set to disappear but could make a comeback according to TfL boss

Love them or loathe them, London’s bendybuses revolutionised the bus network as we know it today. They were initially introduced to the capital in 2002 as part of then-Mayor Ken Livingstone’s plans to boost London’s buses in the run up to the start of the Congestion Charge in February 2003. The 18 metres-long German-built Mercedes Benz Citaro G buses hold 144 people – near double the amount a double decker can – thanks to extra standing room. They were also the most accessible buses London has ever seen with a low floor, wide gangways and three double-doors for easy boarding and alighting.

Just nine years later, in 2011, former Mayor Boris Johnson banished them from the city as part of his election manifesto pledge. Their most successful afterlife has been in Brighton, where 22 buses run services on Brighton & Hove routes 25 and 25X between Portslade/Brighton and the Universities at Falmer. Currently providing an impressive 15 buses per hour along the busy Lewes Road bus corridor, the largely student passenger base can expect a bus around every four minutes, better than most routes here in the capital – with the capacity to transport 2160 people each hour.

Now, the bus operator has confirmed that the vehicles will be removed from passenger service this year, citing declining student numbers travelling to/from the campuses along the route and upcoming plans to tighten the city’s Low Emission Zone (LEZ) which means the buses would be banished once again. Although it means the last ex-TfL vehicles will disappear unless they find new homes, in an exclusive conversation with MyLondon TfL boss Andy Byford said he was “a fan of bendybuses”, not ruling out a possible return.

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The same bendybus, on the left in London in 2009, on the right in Brighton now where it is used on the 25 and as a vaccination centre

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In a response on Twitter, Brighton & Hove confirmed: “the company is currently looking at options to remove articulated buses from the fleet and the possibility of replacing them with double deck vehicles from our sister company in London.” No precise date was given, but as Go-Ahead London should have some double deckers spare when new vehicles arrive on its routes in the coming months, it is likely the cascade will take place this year.

When questioned by Twitter users, the social media team responded: “our current fleet is ageing and it is no longer possible to buy certain parts as they are no longer manufactured – gear boxes being a notable item. This is increasing costs of maintenance and impacting our ability [sic, reliability].”

“Student numbers are currently severely below pre-pandemic levels, it also provides us the right opportunity to replace the articulated buses to match the demand currently being experienced. Whilst we are hopeful student numbers will recover in the future, once a double deck fleet is in operation, we will review any longer-term capacity issues at this time, but are confident capacity can be managed.”

0 Andy Byford bendybus comments

Andy Byford brought in new bendybuses when he was in charge in both Toronto and New York. Will he make it third time lucky here in London?

Although it looks very likely to be the end of the road for these specific vehicles, TfL commissioner Andy Byford told MyLondon that whilst there are no current plans to bring the bendybus back to the capital’s roads, in accordance with comments made by Mayor Sadiq Khan last week, “nothing is off the table”.

It comes as TfL unveiled a new ‘bus action plan’ which aims to make buses as attractive, reliable and effective as possible – with several key actions which have striking similarities to a bus action plan Mr Byford enacted in his previous job as MTA Chairman, New York’s equivalent of TfL. These include prioritising bus routes in outer boroughs, introducing express bus routes and improving bus speeds by giving buses as many dedicated lanes/busways as possible.

As part of his New York plan, he took one of the slowest bus routes in the city, the M14A/M14D, which ran at a poor 2.4mph and removed all non-bus traffic in peak hours from one of the key strategic roads it used, 14th Street, and added bus lanes along the rest of the route where possible. He then converted the route to electric zero local emission bendybuses with a distinct branding and bus speeds doubled almost overnight according to daily newspaper AMNY.

0 New York bendybus

One of the electric bendybuses Mr Byford introduced to the M14 route in New York, which is similar to London routes 18, 25 and 149, runs mostly along a straight road which is a continuous high street mixed with heavy residential areas

In 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported the project was so successful that buses actually needed a new schedule as they were going so fast they kept beating their new timetables. Here in London, bus speeds have made headlines constantly since the mid-2010s, with some routes now quicker to jog, that passenger watchdog London TravelWatch is campaigning specifically for buses to go 1mph faster across the board to boost the service ( #FreeTheBus ).

Mr Byford said “no” to the suggestion it’s too much to read into similarities between his plans for New York buses and London buses, adding bendybuses are: “great people movers” as long as they don’t “up roads full of parked cars again but long, straight roads where they make sense.”

Do you think the bendybus should return to the capital’s streets? Tell us in the comments below!

If you have a transport-related story you think MyLondon should be covering, email [email protected]

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