The new Routemaster

The new London Routemaster launched

Designing a replacement for the illustrious Routemaster bus was a tough challenge.

When Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, drove the first new bus for London off the production line at the WrightBus factory in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, late last year it marked the culmination of a campaign that had begun two years earlier.

The vehicle is the first bus designed specifically for the streets of London in more than 50 years and has been built by specialist engineers. In just under two years the bus has gone from the drawing board to a fully functioning prototype.

WrightBus was awarded the contract for engineering design and to build the New Bus for London in January 2010. London-based designers Heatherwick Studio provided the aesthetic design and the result is a vehicle that not only has an iconic look but every aspect of its design has at its heart the complex needs of London's bus passengers. Critical design features include three entrances and a double staircase to deliver the speediest possible boarding for passengers; and an open platform at the rear, in common with the iconic Routemaster.

The interior of the bus has also been designed with passengers in mind. One key feature is the two staircases, at front and rear, which provide quick and easy access to and from the upper deck. Many design features provide a contemporary take on some of the best loved elements of the original Routemaster, including grooved flooring on the stairs and entrances.

Other innovative design features include a new lightweight bench seat with specially designed moquette, a dark red interior palette and a new wireless bell push that is seamlessly blended into the hand pole.

A full-scale mock-up of the bus has been used for consulting with stakeholder groups including wheelchair users. That input has been used to ensure the new bus meets every specification on accessibility. It includes features such as a wheelchair ramp on the centre door to enable the easiest possible access for wheelchair users. The wheelchair bay is longer than on nearly every other double decker. There is also priority seating with space for assistance dogs. There is a step-free low floor throughout the lower deck and the iBus system will be installed to provide on-board visual and audio announcements.

WrightBus is a family owned business that employs around 1,400 people and produces approximately 1,000 buses from its manufacturing plant in Ballymena. "Our products are still hand-built on our production line," David Barnett, development engineering manager, explains. "Our best asset drives out of the gates every night and we have to be careful to ensure that we are bringing along those specialist assembly operatives and including them in the product development process whenever we are looking at developing a new product."

The firm was started in 1946 by Robert Wright and his son William. They began life converting cars into bread vans, and by the 1950s gained a reputation for being an innovative body-builder for the likes of cattle vans and dumpers, before they started with buses. By 1970 the focus had shifted almost entirely to buses.

"We entered into the PSV market full-time in 1998 and at the same time we started using the bolted aluminium construction system that allowed us to build the space frame of our vehicles in a much more efficient and flexible manner and that was a key tool in allowing us to drive our business forward in the 1990s and 2000s," Barnett adds.

"Our challenge as an innovative company is to try and look at the way people consider public transport. We are very aware that, in general, before people travel in our products they are going to be walking past their car each morning and make a conscious decision to want to take public transport. Projects like the StreetCar were designed to challenge the way people think about public transport; so this vehicle has much more of a tram-like appearance and that is part of a wider project within the local councils.

"If a vehicle like this in a single priority runway, with integrated Wi-Fi, whizzes past you every day while you are stuck in your nice, comfortable car in traffic you will start to take notice of it. We want to change people's perspectives; we don't want them to think of the bus they went to school on, but of something that is new and a quick, easy way to get to work. We want to be able to run pre-recorded news shows within the vehicle and for people to be able to access their emails on their commute to work. Our challenge is to bring that technology into the vehicle. What we are probably most proud of with the StreetCar project is that we sold it on a sketch and we were able to deliver a product that was faithful to that original sketch."

The new bus for London came about as a manifested pledge by Boris Johnson when he ran for the Mayoral Elections in 2008. He wanted to bring back the Routemaster. "Thankfully when he was elected he decided that bringing back a 60-year-old design probably wasn't the best idea and that people had probably been looking at it through rose-tinted glasses," Barnett says. "So he went to a public consultation and asked 'what should a new bus for London look like?'. The competition was great as it harvested a lot of different ideas from different areas such as schoolchildren, universities and design companies about what ideas they would want to see in a new London bus. The joint winners were Foster & Partners and Aston Martin. We weren't allowed to enter that competition as we had our own manufacturer's competition, which started in February 2009, finished in December 2009 and WrightBus was awarded the contract."

The basics of the project were that it must have an open platform, like the Routemaster, so must be accessible. It must have very high environmental credentials; 40 per cent more fuel efficient, 40 per cent less nitrogen oxide emissions. But the clincher was an iconic design.

Selling postcards

"The brief we were given during the project was 'if you walked out of the TfL offices to the nearest postcard stand and you will find a few iconic images on a postcard; a black taxi, a red phone box and a Routemaster bus. Fast forward five years and you will see a black cab, a red phone box and you will find a postcard of your design as the iconic London transport image."

WrightBus worked with TfL, which was given the responsibility of delivering the project, and Heatherwick Studio, which was involved in the overall concept design. The Routemaster was well known and well loved on the streets of London, but when you start to look at its proportions and start to scale things up for the requirements now of 87 passengers, air conditioning and information decks for announcements you actually completely ruin the concept. The quirkiness of that design is lost altogether.

"The other hard thing that we had to look at is the impact our design has on London," Barnett says. "Now London has some fantastic architecture, but to a pedestrian it is dominated by a lot of vehicles. We needed to bring something more to the party; this could not be a standard product. This could not be just a facelift; we had to avoid that and really change something to make this project stand out."

Bus design has evolved over time but there is still a maximum width, a maximum height and a maximum practical length. Over time more and more technology has been put inside this box, but from the outside it was pretty much a box on wheels. "For the new London bus we wanted to round that off by starting to smooth out the side elevation and plan view," Barnett adds. "Then we wanted to try and give continuity by wrapping the windows from around the side, over the front and back to the other side. Our thinking then developed and we wanted to try to connect the upper and lower decks by bringing window throughout the staircases and give a graphic design at how these two decks are connected."

Such was the concept presented to TfL based on the rough sketches. The motive was to bring back some of the DNA of the Routemaster; there are a certain number of design clues such as the asymmetric front and the rear platform. "This will be a vehicle with three doors and the platform and each door will have an entry and exit," Barnett says. "We really want to try and reduce the change time. No more standing behind someone trying to fumble for their change in the pouring rain as there are three large entrances where you can scan your Oyster card, which is a big change for TfL."

Within the project there were a number of key challenges. Firstly, the entire range of chassis allowed for a two-door, flat four vehicle. They didn't allow for a third door at the back, so that clearly required the development of a brand new chassis. There was also the challenge to try and fit in a state-of-the-art hybrid drive that would deliver the required 40 per cent fuel economy and fit that into the flat four package. "Using Pro/ENGINEER [computer-aided design software] we were able to develop this platform and bring in the hybrid drive technology," Barnett explains. "At the back we have a generator that allows us to run that engine as and when we need it. Effectively, at the start of the day the batteries will be at a full state of charge and once the batteries reach 40 per cent we will kick the engine back on to charge them up, then off again when fully charged. It is through this engine stop-start technology that we were able to develop the 40 per cent fuel saving."

Accommodating the curves

One of the other challenges came from curving the body structure, which stole a lot of space from within the vehicle. The only solution was to lengthen the vehicle and that is exactly what they did. A typical London product would have a length of around 10.6m but the new bus comes in at 11.3m. "What we couldn't do is just extend our vehicle in the usual manner," he says. "We had to come up with something different because we just could not afford to just have the extra length in the wheel base because of weight."

The solution was an entirely new concept, abandoning the traditional aluminium body structure and us a composite rear module. The engine hangs out of the back of the chassis and only thing that holds that engine up is this composite rear module. "Straight away we ended up in a new situation for ourselves with our aesthetic designer's idea of the curving design dramatically affecting the structural design because this composite module was load-bearing. Our structural engineers, who are normally working underneath the skin of the product and can be aesthetic as they like, suddenly have the ability to drive the aesthetic. These two groups have never before really got in each other's way and now they are working hand in hand."

Keeping to scale

As far as the model was concerned, WrightBus ran with a top down design methodology. "We run off of a master scale that drives all of our dimensions. From that we have a series of functional scale models that drive down through each of our components and then into the design groups we have," Barnett continues. "Because space was so tight on this our ability to contain all of this technology within the bus was impacting with passengers flowing through the vehicle.

"This was one of the hardest challenges and we have had to work quite hard to integrate this. We got the drive line hidden below staircases and if you walk through the vehicles you don't really know where that drive line is. You don't know where the main electricity centres are that control all of the various systems within that vehicle. That has been one of the big wins for us, as well as using 3D technology to enable us to redesign components to fit in with the aesthetic design."

There is no denying that the new London bus took a lot of cues from the original Routemaster, from the colour scheme right through to the chequered pattern on the seats and the use of the old hand-pulls. "What TfL forced us to do was to take a look at each one of these finishing details and just make sure that the experience of the passenger walking on to that vehicle is one of a complete concept of a quality build," Barnett concludes. "This is especially important in the areas which they touch. We tried to make the items that the general public will be touching to feel like much more thought about products."

The new London bus may trace its DNA back to a classic design that has graced the streets of London for over 50 years, but under the skin it bears little resemblance to its predecessor. As the new buses begin to roam the streets of London the iconic design and high-tech interior will surely win the hearts of Londoners, just as its much-loved precursor did for the past half century. 

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