Thursday, March 17, 2011

On the buses

Old and new

I am finally learning more about riding on London’s red buses. Famous and ubiquitous, they run up and down the main streets constantly, whizzing into their bus stops more often than even the tube trains in peak hour. And it is nicer to be above ground than below. The bus stops are everywhere. Getting on is easy. Getting off can be more of a challenge, unless you going somewhere you have been before, and either recognise the place or know the name of the stop you want. But of course, if you want to take a bus regularly from A to B, you will soon get the hang of this – as I have now managed with my trip home to Kings Cross-St Pancras from the Kings College on the The Strand after my late lectures. In fact, having figured out how the route information helpfully posted at each bus stop works, I now feel confident to find a bus to Kings Cross from nearly anywhere in the city centre.

I suspect there are a few readers chuckling to themselves in a superior – or perhaps derisive – sort of way, reading this. How hard is it to ride the buses!? I hear you ask yourselves. Just take it from me, who has spent the majority of her grown life driving everywhere, this bus thing is both an achievement and a revelation. It is also a great way to understand the city, sitting perched on the top deck of a red bus.

Euston Station bus stop
Not that the buses are without their dangers and adventures. In one sad incident this week, a workman from the St Pancras hotel building was driving his cherry-picker out on to Euston Road when he was, er, hit by a bus. He was, I’m told, quite seriously injured and is recovering in hospital, poor man. Last week, having caught my bus home from Aldwych at about 8.30 pm, the lady driver screeched to a halt and let out a rather un-driverly expletive – a late arrival had leapt out in front of the bus in order to stop her pulling away from the curb. He refused to move unless she let him on the bus; she refused to let him on the bus. Various passengers already on the bus joined in the fray, encouraging her to give in to him so that their bus could get going. I guess that wanted to get home. The bus driver stood on her rights and eventually the kamikaze wannabe-passenger gave it up.

This business of begging the driver to open the door after you have just missed a bus goes on in varying forms, not usually as drastic as the kamikaze approach. One young lady stood outside the firmly closed door of the bus after it had pulled out from the curb but was stationary in traffic, begging prettily for the door to be opened. As it turned out, the traffic was so slow that she was able to run on to the next bus stop and catch us there. I must say that bus travel in Central London, though convenient, is not exactly fast.

A strange steam bus
Horse-drawn omnibuses have been on the streets of London since 1829. The London General Omnibus Company began using motor omnibuses in 1902 and the last poor old horse was phased out in 1914. From 1909 to 1919 steam buses ran – can you imagine? Read about them here.  From the early days, the London buses went their own way with design, and the famous ‘Routemaster’ red buses became an iconic symbol of London. The oldest of these are now more than 50 years old, and are less practical (no low floors, for example) and are gradually being phased out. A few are around to take tourists on a nostalgic ride.

These days bus manufacturers still work to a ‘London specification’ which particularly includes dual doors (one for getting on, folks, and one for getting off). London was also one of the earliest users of low-floored buses, and double-deckers have been the mainstay of the fleet for many years. Bendy buses (articulated buses) were in use for a while, but are being withdrawn – this was an election promise of Boris Johnson, the current mayor. I’m not sure if it was the bus passengers or the motorists who had to share the road with them who were against the bendy buses.

The future?

In May 2010 a new design of bus for London was announced  and a strange futuristic thing it looks too. The new design will feature two staircases, three doors and an open platform allowing passengers to hop on and off, and are due to start running in 2012. Hmmm...

One good thing about the buses is that there are ‘night buses’ which run all night on certain routes. Since the tube closes between about midnight or 1 am and 6 in the morning, the night buses are a very good thing. They have been running on the London network since 1913. They use the same route number as their daytime counterparts, but prefixed with an ‘N’ (just in case you are ever stuck in London late one night looking for a bus – the ‘N’ routes are the ones you want.)

A London bus, the No 26 Waterloo to Hackney-Wick, was targeted in the July 2005 terrorist attacks in London, but the explosive device failed to detonate, thank goodness, and no-one was injured.

Those of you old enough – ho! – may remember a British television comedy show called ‘On The Buses’. Somewhat surprisingly, the program seems to still have an active fan base – here’s a fan website . The show ran from 1969 to 1973 – so I’m just old enough to remember it.  The inimitable Reg Varney played the central character, a bus driver named Stan Butler. His nemesis was the bus inspector, Cyril Blake, known as ‘Blakey’ (played by Stephen Lewis), who’s catch cry was “I'll get you for this Butler, you see if I don't". All of which will seem rather irrelevant is you have never seen the show, but may resonate with the fans.

"I'll get you for this, Butler!"

Meanwhile, if you are visiting London and want some practical information about using the buses, try this helpful site or the official London Buses site.

Much of this information comes from Wikipedia 
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