New Bus for London Arrives (almost) on Time

Perhaps more than most, the transport industry has a knack for presenting its inventions out of context.  What I mean is, when a manufacturer decides to preview its latest product the location is meticulously calculated to complement the car, the road more often than not closed and every precaution is taken to ensure that nothing can come between the driver and the preordained 'charms' of the vehicle in question.  Perfectly understandable, if not a little transparent.

The scenario last week, however, could not have been much closer to reality as I waited outside North Wembley tube station on a typically dull, chill February afternoon for the arrival of the much-anticipated New Bus for London. The only operational New Bus for London in fact. After a week’s delay, NB4L debuts today, albeit just a single number 38 bus between Victoria Station and Hackney.  I wasn't waiting for too long before the bus's striking, asymmetric face appeared to pick me up.  Already onboard was David Hampson-Ghani - Transport for London's (TfL) Project Manager for NB4L - who was all too happy to point out that there's far more to this bus than meets the eye.

Internally, NB4L is impressive.  As Hampson-Ghani explains, “We didn’t send any exact specifications to Wrightbus, we just sent them the specification for the economy and emissions. We didn’t specify hybrid or diesel, only that we wanted an economy of around 10.3 mpg.”  What Northern Ireland based Wrightbus actually came up with was a diesel-electric hybrid that surpassed TfL’s specifications to make NB4L, in basic terms, more efficient than any other comparable bus in the world. The bus also boasts regenerative braking, but not the sort we’re used to seeing in cars.  “The first 90% of brake travel is regenerative, the last 10% is physical”, says Hampson-Ghani before elaborating, “So even where you’re using the brakes, you’re not actually using the discs”.  Power delivery seemed linear and there was a lack of the ragged jolts often experienced in current buses, so from a passenger’s perspective the system seems to be a success.

What became apparent whilst rumbling along the by now dark streets of West London was how quiet NB4L is in comparison with the current buses, particularly on the top deck where the atmosphere was, dare I say it, refined.

The philosophy when designing NB4L was very much one of weight saving.  Smaller windows on the pavement side reduce weight, as do narrower windows compared with a conventional bus on the top deck. “This is as much for weight saving and solar gain as it is for aesthetics.  A lot of buses use the same size glass panels on the upper and lower decks, which makes them look disproportionately tall”, says Hampson-Ghani.  Furthermore, each seat saves 2kg over the seats used in current buses and the entire rear end of the bus is made of the same lightweight fibre reinforced composite used in racing yachts. Unsurprisingly, this sets a precedent in public bus building. This isn’t merely a one-off either, “Part of the TfL legacy is that a lot of the technology in this bus should migrate to future bus design”, he adds.

The New Bus for London concept was the first automotive project London-based Heatherwick Studio had ever undertaken. Initially, this was a difficult marriage with Wrightbus who have been designing buses for more than sixty years but the eventual success of the partnership is evidenced by NB4L’s interior.

Hampson-Ghani stressed the point that reducing journey times is about speeding up the time buses spend at bus stops rather than the making the buses drive faster between them. “The design is very controversial because we’ve got three doors and two staircases.  This is to make sure we can get passengers on and off very quickly”.  It makes sense and it’s hard to see what would stop it working in practice.

Public transport vehicles present a number of unique problems with regard to interior design. They have to work 365 days a year and parts have be easily replaceable as well as resistant to vandalism.  Whilst this reduced the creative scope for Heatherwick, they were given more autonomy than has been the norm in the past.

We allowed Heatherwick to do things that we at TfL wouldn’t normally allow because they’re bringing a stylists perspective to it that TfL or another bus manufacturer would not have brought”.  The NB4L certainly seems all the better for it.  There’s continuity to the interior; it’s not as cramped as the current bus and the various design features are consistent with one another. Hampson-Ghani seems pleased with the outcome, “The important thing is that this bus has been designed from one concept, not a committee or from a catalogue and we think that the public will be able to recognise this”.

Perhaps the best example of this continuity is the buses window line.  Heatherwick’s idea was for the window line to show the function of the bus on the inside and join the upper deck to lower deck. It does this by following the staircases at each end of the bus and it’s probably the most obvious feature of the new bus.  Windows for the staircases – brilliant.

The interior uses three predominant colours – red, grey and gold. The red and grey are used extensively on seat backs and the walls whilst the gold is used on the rails and acts as a contrast. The aim was to create a harmonious colour pallet without anything seeming random. Not as easy as it sounds when you consider the workload for the bus.  As an illustration, the floor has to be able to accept dirt without actually looking dirty.  Easier said than done, but the final colour for the floor suits the bus and in one’s peripheral vision looks a little like wood, not a bad thing.

David Hampson-Ghani

Also worth a mention is the lighting.  Gone are the offensively bright striplights in favour of softer LED pods that, when fitted into the curvature of the upper deck’s ceiling, make for a comforting experience alien to other buses on the road.  “The designers have worked to get the right colour temperature of the lights, so it’s light enough for reading without being blinding."

NB4L has gone from concept to reality in two years, roughly half the time it has taken to develop previous London buses.  With pleasing references to the original Routemaster, most notably the open platform at the back, the New Bus for London rolls out today and, as mentioned, will be on active duty between Victoria Station and Hackney.  Just don’t forget your Oyster card.

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